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Here at the Gates the King Awaits

Chapter Text

Far over the Misty Mountains, through the dark forest of Mirkwood and over the Long Lake and the town of Esgaroth lay a single, solitary peak. Its single finger reached so high that the tip was shrouded in cloud, and its shadow lay long and cold over the great city of Dale. Once upon a time, Dale was a flourishing town, full of life and love and laughter. Once upon a time, the mountain was kind.
For within the Lonely Mountain lay an empire. A Dwarven stronghold, the greatest in all of Middle-Earth. Within the mountain lay the kingdom of Erebor.
At first, the days were light and merry, the great wealth of the Mountain drawing many towards it. The great Elvenking Thranduil himself, who had seen many a beautiful thing, bowed his head to the King Under the Mountain, for he was in possession of something, a jewel, one of almost divine beauty. The Arkenstone of Thrain, the King's Jewel, the Heart of the Mountain. It has many a name, and if ever you saw it, you would know why all of Middle-Earth paid homage to the Dwarf King. It was shrouded in a gauzy aura of starlight, and within, like a beating heart, lay a dazzling array of color. The Arkenstone was the pinnacle of the Mountain, the summit of the peak. It was why Erebor was the greatest fortress. It was why the one who carried it had power that would otherwise be unattainable.
And it was why the King went mad.
Thror's love of gold had grown like vines, choking him slowly. He was driven by an intense desire, one so great that it brought about his downfall. The Mountain began to turn sinister as Thror lost his mind, refusing to part with any gold he possessed. He grew fierce and jealous, and did not even recognize his son Thrain, or his grandson Thorin. Slowly, the days turned bitter and dark, the evil of the stone corrupting all within the Mountain. Thror fell, clutched in the sickness of the gold, as did Thrain, who went mad with grief. And the young dwarf prince, Thorin, had the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he was of the line of Durin, and he endured. He ruled Erebor, and he was King Under the Mountain.
But his rule was marred with the brutality that he held it with. He ruled Erebor with an iron fist, and while he did not succumb to the sickness, he held the Arkenstone, and to him, it made him a god. He cut off trade with Dale and Esgaroth, shunning the elves and sealing himself in a fortress of stone. The King of Dale, Bard, pleaded with Thorin, to consider the lives of the people, but he scorned him, and would not listen. Esgaroth fell, and while Bard held Dale together, he could not stop the tide of evil that flowed from the Mountain. Thranduil retreated deep into Mirkwood and had not been seen for nigh on a century. The doors of Erebor were closed, and rarely ever opened. Nobody saw not hide nor hair of Thorin Oakenshield for many a year. All that was known of him was that he was cruel, and corrupted, and deadly as a honed blade. He dwelled deep in the Lonely Mountain with his sister Dis and her sons, Fili and Kili, and opened the gates for no one.
Everyone hated the King, and none more than Bard, Lord of Dale. After all, it was because of Thorin that he had a whole city to feed, and each winter dawned colder than the last. He was robbed of everything, and yet he remained stoic for his people. But he was afraid of Thorin, afraid of his razor blade smile and cold blue eyes, afraid of how close his fortress lay to his city. Afraid of what he might do, for a madman can never be predicted, and a madman with power such as this...
The Elvenking, on the other hand, closed off his borders, erected impenetrable walls between all others and himself, and cared not for the fate of other lands. He was a regal elf, with beauty so ethereal that it put starlight to shame. He ruled with his son, Legolas, by his side, and, much like Thorin, never opened the doors of his realm.
And within the Mountain, beyond the gates of stone, was the throne of the King, with the Arkenstone gleaming atop it, and when King Thorin sat upon his throne, its aura surrounded him like a halo, as if he really were a god.
But the gods have not always been kind.
And Thorin Oakenshield made sure that everybody who gazed upon his realm would never, ever forget that.

Chapter Text

Fili

Fili bowed, allowing his golden hair to shower around his face and hide his expression. He didn't dare look up, not until he heard his uncle's voice say, "Rise, Fili. What news do you bring from Dale?"
Fili glanced upwards, gazing at the dwarf on the throne. He was tall, for a dwarf, with eyes the blue of pure flame and a thousand times more dangerous. His long black hair chased with gray framed his face, which was relaxed into a mocking smile. He raised a brow at his nephew, lifting a goblet of wine to his lips and taking a long draught.
Fili swallowed, his throat dry. "My lord, King Bard would like to meet with you to discuss the matter of trade. He-"
Thorin moved suddenly then, smashing the goblet onto the floor, the resultant clang making Fili wince slightly. Ruby red wine spilled from it, looking like a smear of blood across the veined marble.
"How many times must I tell him that the gates of Erebor open for none!" His deep voice echoed sharply in the throne room, the noise bouncing around and filling Fili's ears. Thorin was breathing raggedly, his eyes alight with rage. "He should know by now the ways of the King under the Mountain," he continued, standing. The rich fur lining his cape made him look taller, more regal. Gems glittered at his throat and his belt, and his crown sparkled in the dim light.
"Do not go back to Dale. Let him realize on his own that I shall never, ever change my mind."
He swept away, kicking the goblet as he did. It skidded across the floor and came to rest at the base of the throne, and he heard the doors close as Thorin left the room. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, and ran his fingers through his hair, still tangled from the wind that blew in Dale. He could remember the events the events that had transpired there, clear as day...

Bard nodded at him stiffly, every inch a King. He looked nowhere as regal as Thorin, with windswept hair streaked with gray, tired eyes and a grim visage. And yet, his posture was erect, and in his face there was a sort of blazing pride. It made him seem more like a king, and while Thorin used the Arkenstone, and his rich furs and silks, this struck Fili more.
"Prince Fili," he said, gesturing for him to sit. Fili declined, and Bard shrugged, sitting down. He offered Fili a goblet of wine, which he also declined.
"King Bard," he said. "What is it you wish to discuss with my uncle?"
Bard raised a brow. "Now he sends his nephews as ambassadors?"
Fili flushed slightly. "The desires of the King are not to be questioned. If he wishes to send me as an ambassador, he may. What does it matter?"
Bard held up a hand in surrender. "I meant no disrespect. I was simply curious as to why the King's heir would be delivering messages for him while there are others who would be entirely too willing to do so instead."
Fili took a deep breath, closing his eyes. "Do you have any grievance as to the way things are run in Erebor? For if you do, it would not matter, as you are not welcome there. You have toed a line just by asking to meet with my uncle. Now I suggest we begin; time runs short, and my uncle's patience wears thin."
It had the desired effect- Bard's expression flattened, but he inclined his head, his body language clearly indicating that he had seen the veiled threat behind Fili's words.
"Apologies, prince Fili." He leaned back, the light picking out the strands of gray woven through his dark brown hair. "I wished to discuss with your uncle the issue of trade."
Fili schooled his features into a pleasantly bland expression. "Issue of trade? I see no issue in the matter."
Bard was beginning to look angry. "That is because there is no matter. Your uncle cut off trade with Dale many a year ago, and since then, my city has been ruined. You saw the streets. You saw the people. Our poverty." He spat the last word. "Your uncle did that. He weighed Dale in the balance and found it worthless. I wish to end that. Let me speak with him in a civil and respectful way. I mean you and your family no harm."
His open face made a wave of familiar rage break inside Fili. He pushed it aside and inclined his head to the King.
"I shall speak to Tho- my uncle," he said. "I will return bearing news of his reply. I shall return to the Mountain now, King Bard. Until next time."
Bard stood hastily, towering above Fili. "Do stay for a night, Prince Fili," he said with a kindness that made his heart clench. "We have prepared a feast in honor of your arrival in Dale."
They could not even afford to feed themselves, and they had prepared a feast for him? For him? The nephew of a tyrant who had taken everything away from them?
"I'm sorry," he said, and he meant it. "I cannot stay. Perhaps you should give the food to those who deserve it, and who need it more than I."
Deciding that he was unlikely to come up with a better exit line, he nodded at the stupefied King and strode from the pavilion, vanishing from sight.

That was what had happened in Dale. The whole exchange had taken less than an hour, and yet so much had gone on. He knew that Bard had three children to take care of, and while one was a grown woman, the other two were still young. He was still alone in the throne room, staring at the fallen goblet his uncle had carelessly thrown and kicked. The rubies inlaid in its rim glinted like the eyes of a serpent. He stepped forward and picked it up, the dregs of wine at the bottom shining the same color as the rubies. He hated the sight of it. He hated everything about this room, from the drapes hanging from the ceiling to the cavernous walls to the table next to the throne, where plans were hatched, plans that destroyed cities and towns. But most of all he he hated the throne. To him, it symbolized everything he did not want- power. Pure, unadulterated power. And the Arkenstone. He hated that stone above all else. It was, after all, what had driven his ancestors mad. It was what had turned Thorin from a caring uncle and a just dwarf into a dark and conniving person who only cared for his realm and his people. He remembered when Thrain had been King, and Thorin had always volunteered to look after Fili, having been fascinated by the color of his hair. He had loved him, and cared for him, and while he took care of Kili as well, he had been too young. There would be no memory of a caring uncle for Kili. Only a blurred image, indistinct and far away. He remembered Thorin's voice as he carried Fili in one arm and Kili in the other, saying to them, "My two princes, one light and one dark."
Kili had giggled, pulling on the braids in his uncle's hair, but Fili had been old enough to understand the weight of potentially what he may become. He was the elder prince, and would ascend the throne before his brother. Kili... He had always been fascinated by the similarity between Kili and Thorin- they had the same black-brown hair, the same angular cheekbones, the same willowy bone structure, tall despite being dwarves. But where Thorin's eyes were blue like Fili's, Kili's were the dark brown of ebony wood. The color of his father's eyes. He had always been oddly delicate, his bones almost elfin. He didn't even have a full beard, rough stubble coating his cheeks and chin instead. It made him look younger, thought Fili. He had definitely been avoiding his eye, for the past few days. He would bow his head almost guiltily every time Fili walked into the room, and would either change the subject or leave the room. He knew Kili was hiding something from him. And while he would never press him to tell, he would find out.
He left the throne room, heading through the maze of corridors. He passed Kili's room on the way, and raised a fist to knock, then hesitated. Then he raised it again. Then he sighed and dropped his hand. He realized he did not want to see his brother right then. His worry would add to Fili's own, and that was one thing he didn't want. He looked at the door one last time before walking away.

Fili sighed, sitting down on his bed and allowing the tension to seep from his limbs. He could still see the face of the Lord of Dale, his kindness, his honor, and the face of his uncle, and his ruthlessness. He put his face in his hands, wondering why he had been born to a family like this one. His mother Dis had died recently- only a few months ago. Thorin had been grieving ever since, and so had her sons. Thorin hushed it up, and nobody knew. The secret festered in the Mountain, and her tomb was far beneath the ground, and Fili, along with his brother Kili, went to it every day, saying nothing, simply sitting and allowing their grief to fill them up. Thorin showed his grief in a different way, channeling it by devising bloody schemes and tightening the already too-tight leash he kept on Erebor.
He was afraid of his uncle, not because of what he said, but because of what he might do. He had watched once, as a dwarf who had tried to help a starving family from Esgaroth had been brought to the throne, and Thorin threw back his head and laughed. Then he reached out with all the casualness of someone swatting a fly, and cut off the dwarf's head with one stroke of his ax. Fili had stood there, rigid, as the severed head rolled down the steps and bumped gently against his boots. The blood ran across the ground in a widening pool, and he had felt Kili's hand gripping his arm so hard that his fingernails dug into his skin, but he hadn't said anything; it had kept him from screaming.
Fili and Kili had always hated Thorin Oakenshield. Despite his being their uncle, his casual cruelty made them sick. It had all started when the Arkenstone had been discovered. It had reached its feelers into the hearts of the kings and corrupted them, driving them mad with desire, with need. Fili knew he was next in line for the crown, and he couldn't help but wonder if the stone would destroy him just as it did his uncle.

Light sliced through the dark, forcing Fili's eyes open. He sat up, blinking and disoriented, and realized he'd fallen asleep fully clothed, and the dagger strapped to his forearm was digging into his arm. He prised it off and swung his legs over the side of his bed, wondering with a heavy heart what Bard would think when Fili never returned with the reply of the king. He was a good man, to whom many bad things had happened. It was because of Thorin that so many suffered, and yet he sat within his halls of stone, with the Arkenstone behind him and a crown adorning his brow.
He arrived at the hall, where he saw his younger brother sitting next to his uncle, who was, as usual, at the head of the long table. Fili sat across from Kili, cautious and careful.
Kili didn't look at him, instead averting his eyes and looking down. His dark hair fell forward and hid them, and he didn't speak.
"Fili," the baritone of Thorin's voice rang out next to him, and he felt his head snap up almost against his will. "Uncle?"
"The King of Dale sent a letter." He leaned forward, the braids in his hair swinging free. "He wishes for my reply."
Fili waited with bated breath, feeling fear like a vice squeezing his insides. "And?"
"And I think it's time you paid him another visit," he said idly, twirling a dagger in his thick fingers. "Contrary to what I said last night. And this time, no niceties, I'm afraid." He slammed the knife point-first into the table, where it stuck, quivering.
"Tell him that if he wishes to anger me, he must deal with the consequences. Give him this," he said, and held out a scroll. Fili took it, dread weighing down his stomach. Thorin's cruelly handsome face split into a smile. "I think it may placate him indefinitely." He tilted his head to the side, surveying him with blue eyes that exactly matched his own. His smile faded, a smirk replacing it. "And do not read it. I wish for you to be surprised when he sees it."
"And Kili," he said, turning away from Fili. "I have something to tell you. Come."
He stood, beckoning Kili with him. He didn't look at his brother as he was swept from the room, leaving Fili alone in the hall, the scroll in his limp hand.

Fili didn't dare read the scroll, knowing that Thorin would find out somehow. Instead, he tucked it into his pocket and set out for Dale almost immediately.
He reached the city in a matter of minutes, sliding from the back of his pony and striding into the streets. Men and women glared at him, clearly recognizing him because of his height, his hair and his eyes. He reached the king's house and abandoned all pretense, knocking loudly.
A pretty young woman opened it, one familiar to Fili from numerous visits. Her chestnut hair was tied in a chignon, curling strands escaping it, and she was wearing a lovely dress that was slightly frayed by age. Her eyes widened when she saw who was at the door.
"Prince Fili!" Sigrid said, obviously flustered. She bowed hurriedly. "We didn't expect you so soon. Do come in."
He nodded at her, distracted. "I need to speak with your father. Now."
She stepped aside, and he pushed inside, looking around. He heard the sounds of feet descending the stairs, and then Bard was standing there, grim as usual. His son, Bain, and his youngest daughter Tilda were close at his heels, the little girl clinging to her father's arm, eyes wide in her pinched little face. Bain looked grave under his cap of dark curls, a look incongruous on a face so young.
"What is it?"
Fili held out the scroll, wanting to get it over with as soon as possible. "He's angry. Very angry. I don't know what's written there, but whatever it is, you won't like it."
Bard set his jaw, slitting the seal and unfurling the scroll. Sigrid went to stand next to him, reading over his shoulder. She reached the bottom first, and gasped. "He can't do that!"
She looked at Fili, half imploring, half furious. He shook his head. "What does it say?"
Bard had finished reading. He rolled the scroll up again, and took a deep breath. "He sees my pleas for justice as threats for war. He has told me, many times, that the stone gates will never open for me, but ever since he ruined us, I have tried. I now see that it was the wrong thing to do. He has interpreted my begging for advancing, and he has declared open war on Dale."
Fili stared at Bard, unable to believe his ears. "No," he said. "That can't be it."
He snatched the scroll from Bard and read through it frantically. He looked up, stricken. "I don't believe it. Just apologize. Just say you'll never ask him again. You cannot risk war."
"You are right, we can't." Bard sighed. "Tell your uncle. Tell him we'll never bother him again, or whatever it is he's worried about."
He turned away. "Now leave. I've had enough of dwarves."
Fili didn't take offence. He knew that his uncle had tainted the name of dwarves all throughout Middle-Earth, and didn't blame Bard for anything. He turned and left, and he had hardly gone a few paces when Sigrid joined him silently, walking next to him.
"It must be terrible," she murmured. "Living there, sealed in with him. Though I suppose your mother balances things a bit."
A bolt of sorrow speared through Fili, so intense that he couldn't stop it. His steps faltered, and he came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the street.
Sigrid turned, a quizzical expression on her face. "Is something wrong?"
"My mother is dead."
He did not know why he said it, and he did not know why he said it to Sigrid, of all people. She was a stranger almost, she was the daughter of the King of Dale, and she was...she was the most decent person he'd ever met. She was kind, and had never treated him any different because of his relation to the tyrannical King under the Mountain.
She hurried up to him, looking down at him with her face full of sadness. "I am sorry," she said softly. "I did not know."
"You're not supposed to," he gasped. "Nobody is. Please, Sigrid-" He grabbed her hand. "Tell no one. Not even your family. If Thorin should find out I told you..."
She gripped his hand back. "I will not tell anybody. Is it something I am not supposed to know?"
"No. Her death was a sudden thing. He silenced us, told us not to tell anyone. He is half-mad with grief. It is why, I think, he wants to wage war against Dale. Something that can make him forget."
He was shivering slightly, but not from cold.
Sigrid put her free hand on his shoulder, and his hair tangled around her fingers. "You and your brother will endure," she said. "You always have, and you always will."
She smiled. "I am sorry I brought up the matter. Now go," she said. "Return to your home. I will see you, perhaps, later. Farewell, Prince Fili."
Fili dipped his head. "Farewell, Princess Sigrid."
He swung himself onto his pony, and with one last look at Dale and Sigrid's pale, worried face, he raced away from the city and towards the Lonely Mountain.

Chapter Text

Kili

Kili swallowed, feeling the intimidating presence of his uncle next to him, the warmth radiating from the furs on his back. He felt Thorin's hand on his shoulder, and it took every ounce of his self-control not to cringe away, and he kept his body stiff. Fili had been avoiding his eye, he had noticed, but possibly because he had made it so. He did not want to look at Fili, not after what he'd done-
"The King Thranduil has seemingly decided that we are an asset. That, or he is afraid of me. I strongly suspect the latter," Thorin said. He laughed darkly. "He has sent an ambassador to come to terms with a few things, and I need you to deal with her."
Her? Kili frowned. "Why not you, uncle? If you get to know them-"
"No, I have some things to attend to. And my time cannot be wasted on elves. They are hardly worth it, and after all, you are next in line for the throne."
Kili's heart fluttered. "Fili is older, he should be the next. I am not-"
"Fili's loyalties lie elsewhere. I have noticed that he is acting odd lately." He tilted his head slowly, a sneer spreading across his face. "He is..." He turned fully, gripping Kili's arm, eyes darkening. He moved closer, almost crushing him. "He has grown away from us." Kili hated the casual us, the way he seemed to think that just because Kili had- had helped him, he would throw in his lot with him. He felt sick.
"Thorin Oakenshield?"
The voice rang out from in front of them, and both uncle and nephew turned to see an elf-maid standing in the corridor, just outside a room spilling light onto the stone floor. Tall and lush and beautiful, her long red hair gleamed like fire in the dimness, her hazel eyes clear and wide and lovely. There was something exotic about her features, her face shaped with sharp angles. She wore a simple, long green tunic, lacing across the front, and high boots. She turned her head slightly to the side, affording him a glance of her sharply pointed ears that marked her out as an elf. She wore blades at her slim hips and a bow slung across her back, complete with a quiver at her waist. She narrowed her eyes, taking in the scene before her: Kili's back pressed against the wall, and his uncle bearing down upon him, blue eyes burning. He stepped away, growling. "I did not ask you to come outside, elf," he snarled, and she raised a winged brow.
"I do not recall you telling me to stay inside," she replied, taking a step towards them. Her voice was high and clear, with a faint trill, and the faintest trace of an accent, a roll to her vowels and a softness on the rs.
He bared his teeth, then turned to Kili. "Go inside," he said. He stalked past them and disappeared around the corner, without even a glance for the woman standing there. The elf watched him go, her face blank. She turned to Kili then, and surveyed him, almost studying him. He felt a faint blush stain his cheeks, and was glad for the dimness in the stone corridor.
Abruptly, the elf turned and strode back inside the room. Steeling himself, Kili followed.
He saw her standing in front of the fire, the leaping flames outlining her form in gold. She was looking at him, her eyes blazing.
"You are the prince of Erebor, are you not?" She stepped towards him, and he nodded. "Prince Kili. At your service," he added, remembering Balin telling him that no matter who you spoke to, your service was mandatory. Even though he was a prince. It was a Dwarvish custom.
She looked surprised. "Tauriel, of the Woodland realm. I have come as ambassador from my king, to discuss many things. The ways of your uncle are not kindly looked upon in Mirkwood, and he disapproves."
Kili was surprised. "Why should he disagree? The elves have little to do with the Dwarves."
"And there you are wrong," she said, tilting her head and smiling. "There are gems in this mountain my king Thranduil desires. They are the heirlooms of our folk. We also cannot turn a blind eye to the things your uncle does," she said. "Your family has been keeping secrets from Middle-Earth, have they not?"
Kili reeled back. "I don't know what you're talking about."
She shrugged. "It matters not. I arrived this morning, unannounced."
Unannounced? Kili was shocked. How would Thorin allow such a thing?
"I imagine my uncle didn't like that all too much, did he?"
She smiled. "No, he did not. But he fears the Elvenking. He knows he risks his wrath should he not accept me. But still, I was not treated as a royal ambassador. Tell me, Prince Kili, does your uncle treat all your guests like traitors?"
Kili didn't know whether to be shocked, scandalized, angry or amused. He got stuck somewhere in the middle.
"Well," he said dryly. "It depends on who the guest is."
Tauriel raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. "You look much like your uncle," she said, turning away and examining the numerous tapestries lining the walls.
Kili frowned, vexed. "Yes, many people tell me that."
She stopped but did not turn. "You sound as if you are not proud of being the nephew of the greatest Dwarf king in Middle-Earth."
"'Greatest Dwarf King'?" He couldn't help it. "He's not great. He's a tyrant. He's brutal. Do you have any idea what Fili and I go through every day-"
He caught himself with a gasp. Fili always chastised him about letting his tongue run away with itself, but he never listened. He wished he had now.
Tauriel turned, shock painted across her lovely face. "What did you say?" she whispered.
"I-It's nothing. Don't-I didn't-"
"Fili," she said softly. "Your brother?"
Kili nodded imperceptibly, his heart pounding. "Please, just- don't tell anyone what I said, just forget it," he said desperately. "I shouldn't have said anything at all."
"What do you go through every day? Does he hurt you?"
He blinked at the forwardness of the question. "I- No. He loves us, but he shows it oddly."
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, just- please, just forget about it."
She was gazing at him with an intensity that made him blush again, and he awkwardly cleared his throat. "Forgive me, I didn't offer you a seat. Please sit."
She sat near the fire, still looking at him. He moved back a little. "Would you like something to eat? Anything to drink, perhaps? The road from the Elvenking's halls is not an easy one."
She started. "No, nothing. You speak as though you have been to the Woodland realm. Have you?"
Kili shrugged. "Once or twice, before Thorin was king. What of it?"
"What did you think of it?"
He drew his brows together. "Well-" He didn't want to offend her or anything, but he wanted to be honest as well.
"It was too airy for my taste," he said finally. "Too much open space. Dwarves like compact, closed spaces. Your realm is the exact opposite. It is beautiful," he assured her. "But it does not suit to a dwarf's fancy. As I am sure Erebor does not suit to an elf's."
She was smiling, her lips curved upwards in amusement. "You are right," she said. "Beautiful, but confined, for an elf."
She looked around and pointed at a tapestry. "That is the King's Jewel, is it not? The Arkenstone." Her voice was hushed as she said it, as if she were speaking of something ethereal and divine, a legend. Perhaps it was, to her. But to Kili it was a curse. A curse upon the line of Durin.
"Yes," he said shortly. In the tapestry, Thror stood with the jewel clasped to his chest, eyes wide and full of terrible desire. It shot light through his encircling fingers, raying off and creating a dazzling burst of multicolored sparks. The weaver had captured it perfectly, Kili thought distantly. It looked as if someone had placed the stone in the tapestry, and it lay there, in Thror's arms, corrupting his heart and many hearts to come.
"I have always wanted to see it," Tauriel said, in the same hushed voice. "It is part of the reason I volunteered to come as the ambassador. To gaze upon the heart of the mountain, to see if it is truly as beautiful as the tales say."
"Rest assured you will not be disappointed," said a rich, deep voice behind them, and Tauriel and Kili turned in unison to see Thorin at the door.
He cut an impressive figure, framed in firelight, a cape of fur broadening his already broad shoulders, and the gold-and-black crown on his brow. His eyes looked green in the yellow light of the flames, and his smile was like a slash across his face.
Tauriel stood quickly, looking haughtily at the King. He looked back at her, and despite being over a foot shorter, his regality made up for it, as did his expression of scorn. His lip curled as he looked at her, and he turned away. Blood rushed to Tauriel's face, and she looked furious, but she said nothing.
"Kili, your brother returns from Dale," he said. "We must go to him. You," he said to a guard outside. He spoke to the guard in Khuzdul, telling him to take Tauriel to a room, and the guard bowed. "Come," he said to Kili, and ignoring Tauriel, he led Kili from the room.

Kili watched as Fili opened the doors of the throne room and stalked up to them. He bowed low to Thorin, then held out the scroll. His expression was tight but unreadable.
"He accepts the terms. He will no longer pester you about trade."
Thorin took the scroll, smirking. "Yes, I imagined as much," he said. He sighed and turned around, making for the throne. Fili drew up to stand next to Kili, who shied away. He wasn't ready to tell Fili what he'd done yet.
Thorin flung the scroll away, and it hit the table next to him with a soft crinkling of paper. The ribbon that held it tied slipped away and curled along the dark wood like a banner of blood. Kili wet his lips, looking away.
Fili bowed first, stiffly. Then he turned and left the room. Kili hastened to follow.
"Thranduil sent an ambassador," Kili said as they walked along the corridor. He was taller than Fili, despite being younger than him by a few years. "She's going to stay here awhile, I imagine."
Fili frowned. "Did he know of it?"
Kili smiled a little. "No, that's just it," he said. "She arrived unannounced. But," he said as Fili raised a brow, "she said he fears the Elvenking. She said he would never risk his wrath. I don't know what she meant, though she knew what she said to be true."
"It matters not." Fili looked lost in thought. "Do you know what the scroll uncle sent Bard said in it?"
Kili shrugged. "Nothing good, I'll wager."
"He said that if Bard didn't stop bothering him about trade, and keep asking to meet with him, he would take his pleas as aggression and he would not hesitate to start a war."
Kili felt his eyes widen. "He cannot do that!"
"Exactly why Bard agreed with the terms," Fili said, shaking his head so hard that his long dirty blond hair flew around him and the braids of his mustache swung about.
"It's despicable. I just wish mother was here..." He turned away abruptly. Kili plucked up his courage and blurted, "Brother, I must tell you something. I-"
"Not now, Kili. I am weary. I'll see you at lunch," he muttered, and walked away. Kili watched him until he rounded the corner and disappeared from view, his insides writhing with guilt.

Kili fidgeted, standing in front of the great stone doors of the throne room. Thorin had called for him, and he had noticed that he didn't call his brother. What if he wanted to talk to him about...that?
He dismissed his fears and pushed the doors open, tilting his chin up. He was a prince of Durin. He would not cower, not even in front of his uncle, who sat at the throne, a leisurely King reclining at ease. Even so, there was a coiled tension about him, and Kili had seen him explode into action without even a second's notice.
"Ah, Kili. Come here," said the voice of the King, and Kili went forward, looking down. He bowed before the throne, and he felt, suddenly, a hand on his shoulder. He looked up, alarmed, to see Thorin there, looking down at him. He had not even heard him come down from the throne.
"I wish to discuss with you the matter of your brother," the King said, picking up a gilded glass of dark wine. He offered it to Kili, who accepted it silently. He watched, arrested, as Thorin picked up another glass and held it up. Kili mirrored the action before taking a sip. The musky, potent flavor coated his tongue; Dwarvish wine was a strong drink, strong enough even to make an elf drowsy.
"Fili has grown up quickly, do you not think?" Thorin said, cocking his head and glancing at his nephew. Kili shrugged, trying to calm the racing of his heart.
"Perhaps. He, after all, is to take the throne next."
"That is why I have called you to me today, Kili. Your brother would have made a good king, but now, I am not so sure."
He narrowed his eyes, eyes the exact shade of blue of his brother's. "He has been acting strange of late. Criticising me. Contradicting me. Telling me that what I said to the Lord of Dale is not the right thing to say."
Kili scrabbled around for an excuse, taking a shaky sip of wine to appear indifferent. "It is grief, uncle," he said in what he hoped what was a calm voice. "Ever since mother died-" he tried to hide the hitch in his voice, "he has been different. It will pass, I am sure of it."
Thorin shook his head. "He grows older day by day. He has begun to realize that he does not want to follow in my footsteps."
Kili's breath caught. "Oh, no, uncle, he does. It's just-"
He blinked rapidly, taking another sip of wine. He was beginning to feel light-headed. "Threatening Dale with war was a reckless decision."
Thorin smiled. "I knew he would not risk it. He cannot even afford to feed his city. War would destroy them." He fingered the stem of his wineglass, looking amused.
"Dale was once a great city," he said idly. "But its time is over." His hand tightened convulsively on the glass. "Erebor can no longer afford to allow riches to flow from it as it once did, and Dale will fall just as Esgaroth did."
Kili averted his eyes, focusing instead on the Arkenstone. It glowed innocently on the throne, its beauty belying its poisonous, poisoning nature.
"One day," Thorin's voice said softly, "that stone will be yours. And you will be King under the Mountain."

Kili slammed his hand against the wall of his room. There was a sharp noise, and there was a moment of numbness before prickly pain spread up his arm. He gasped, his eyes watering. He made a fist against the cool stone, leaning into it.
One day that stone will be yours. And you will be King under the Mountain.
So Thorin doubted Fili. Of course Thorin doubted Fili- he had been increasingly odd lately, murmuring to Kili about how he wished he could run away, how he knew, how it was embedded in his soul that he had been born to the wrong family.
"Mother was the light of my days," he had said. "Mother, and you. Now she is gone, and you are all I have left. Stay safe, Kee."
He leaned his head against the stone, his mind in a whirling mess. He was torn between his duty as a prince and his duty as a brother. He had never really had a duty as a nephew; he had always been too young, and hardly remembered a time where Thorin had been their father, and not this King he didn't even know.
He tried to sleep, but terrible dreams plagued him, and he woke up numerous times drenched in sweat and shivering. He finally gave up and left the room quietly, passing Fili's room and Thorin's chambers. There was faint light spilling from under the door, and he crept past quickly.
He shot up a flight of stairs and arrived at the rampart, the one place in Erebor that was open to the world. He could see the lights of Dale, and the shores of the Long Lake, and the crescent of the moon, smiling mockingly at him from its high perch in the velvety sky. It was surrounded by a shower of a thousand billion pricks of light, the stars. He drew upwards, filling his lungs with cold air made colder by all the stone around him. He closed his eyes, feeling the wind lifting his hair and playing with it, making it dance back and forth and tickle his throat.
"Could you not find sleep?"
The voice rang out right beside him. He jumped, looking around at who had spoken, his back pressed against the railing of the rampart. The stone bled cold through the material of his thin nightshirt and he shivered.
Tauriel stood there, the wind tousling her brilliant red tresses. She was still wearing her tunic, although with the notable absence of her weapons. Her alabaster skin was poreless and bleached of color by the starlight. She was as lovely and untouchable as moonlight.
"No," he said.
"Nor could I. Elves do not need to sleep, though my kin could not hope to find rest in these halls of stone. There is so much of it, the crushing weight of it bearing down upon me. I had to come outside."
She turned her wide hazel eyes to his dark ones, and he felt a sort of outlandish bravery take over him, one that filled him and allowed him to look directly back at her without flinching.
"Well," he said, "I've managed fine for all my life."
"And how long has it been?"
He shrugged, uncomfortable suddenly. His earlier bravado drained out of him, and he found that he could no longer meet her eyes. He focused instead on Dale, the lights of the city.
"I am young," he said. "Only seventy-seven. Fili is eighty-two. We're only boys compared to Thorin, or Balin or Dwalin."
A corner of her mouth turned upwards. "You are so young."
He shrugged again, but said nothing. He gazed instead at Dale, the faint lights, and felt a surge of pity for the souls in the city with nowhere to go because of his uncle's greed.
"Do not worry. Dale will endure. King Bard will lead them well, just as he has led them for twenty years. Dale's time will come."
He shook his head, the injustice of it all seeming to catch up with him in one moment. "He had no right. To do what he did."
Tauriel sounded quizzical when she spoke. "King Bard?"
"No. Thorin. He took everything away from them, they have lost everything."
He looked away bitterly. "It's not fair."
"It is a pity," said Tauriel. She didn't elaborate. She looked up, stepping closer to him. She smelled of crushed pine needles and fresh air, something that he had almost forgotten, living encased in stone under the ground. He found himself inhaling the scent deeply, and it intoxicated him more than the wine he'd drunk earlier that day.
She turned her face upwards, the sharp angles of her face brought into sharp relief by the pale light. She whispered something in Sindarin, the language of the elves. It sounded like water flowing over rocks, like sunlight on leaves, like wind on the trees. It sounded like wilderness and the open plains of the world.
"What are you saying?" he asked, curious.
She looked down at him, her eyes full of the night sky. "The stars," she said, "their light is sacred to our people."
He couldn't take his eyes off her face. He was drawn to her, and he barely knew her, but he was drawn to her all the same. He stepped closer, and she looked down, her lashes fluttering as she focused on him.
"Tauriel," he said, his voice soft, and she turned away suddenly. "I should sleep."
"Tauriel," he said again, turning fully towards her, but she had already turned away. "Good night, Kili," she whispered, and she disappeared down the stairs, her copper sheet of hair rippling.
He stared after her for a long time.

Chapter Text

Tauriel

Tauriel looked into the crackling flames in the hearth and watched as the sparks danced merrily in bright hues of yellow, orange and red. She was reminded suddenly and acutely of home, and the merrymaking of her people during the feasts of starlight. She missed the forest, the long trees and the winding paths that she would walk with Legolas, and every day they would find a new road to take. She ran a reminiscent finger along the length of her curved bow, a bow that the King had given her on being appointed as Captain of the Guard. It had been Legolas who convinced his father to give her the title, one for which she had worked for centuries.
She had thrown it away, when Thranduil had asked for an ambassador. She had been the only one to step up, and she knew she would always be welcomed at the Woodland realm as Captain, but for now, she was a lone elf in a sea of dwarves. She closed her eyes and tried to think of home, but a pair of dark brown eyes kept floating in her vision. She shook her head, looking away from the fire. Kili was an odd dwarf, not at all like she thought Dwarves would be, which was like his uncle. Kili was empathetic, soft, intense. He had reminded her of a wolf, with his dark hair and dark eyes and watchful glance. She had thought dwarves were brash, angry, rude, uncouth. Like Thorin. The King under the Mountain had taken her breath away the first time she had seen him; he was tall, for a dwarf, with intense blue eyes and a chiseled, handsome face. The baritone of his voice had washed over her, the kind of timbre that made you want to kneel and obey his every command without hesitation. There was something so profoundly, singularly masculine about him, from the musky, rich scent that lingered around him, to the breadth of his shoulders under the furs...
But underneath that, he was something else. She had seen him for what he was the moment she saw him, and though he had appealed to her physically, she knew that inside, she would find nothing but a barren wasteland.
But Kili... She wrenched her mind away from thoughts of him. No, she would not daydream about a dwarf. Least of all the nephew of a snake. But unbidden in her mind rose an image of his face, gazing at her with an intensity that had made her hot and cold and shivering.
She fell backwards onto the bed, a dark wooden structure with rich silk draperies and satin lining the coverlet. Everything was so lovely here, she thought, and yet she felt so trapped. Everything was designed to please her, but it was all an illusion, a manipulation. She didn't know whose side Kili was on; he could have been lying when he spoke to her about Dale. But nobody could fake that sort of expression, the bitterness, the sorrow, the pity. She was sure it was genuine, and yet her conscious whispered caution to her, telling her that he was a son of Durin, and sons of Durin could not be trusted.
She turned over, looking once more at the fire. She closed her eyes, and fell into an uneasy sleep, fitful and restless.

She slid from the back of her horse, gazing in wonder at the Lonely Mountain. She had never seen anything so vast in all her life. It put even the halls of the Woodland realm to shame. The gates of Erebor were a marble edifice, statues adorning the doors. And what doors! Six Oliphaunts could walk comfortably abreast, and they were so high that she felt insignificant and small walking through them. Nobody came to meet her as she walked inside, but she kept a wary eye open. After all, this was a dwarven stronghold, and she was an elf. She stood in the massive entrance hall, and her breath was taken away by the sheer size of what she saw around her. She waited, but no escort came to receive her. After a few minutes she grew impatient, and she wondered if they were neglecting her because she was an elf. Perhaps they simply didn't care.
After what felt like an age, a surly looking dwarf came to her and said something to her in Khuzdul. She understood nothing, but followed him to a large room, where she saw a shadow standing in front of a blazing fire, its back to her. After a moment the shadow turned and came towards her, and she laid eyes on the King under the Mountain for the first time.
Her first impression of him was akin to that of a bison, with broad shoulders and a pelt of fur lining them. He stood tall, and had long black hair that showered down his back. His eyes burned blue, and his skin was pale. The crown that adorned his brow was clearly of dwarvish make, heavy and golden. He saw her and smiled a cruel, cold smile, and spoke.
"Well, elf. Why did your King send you to me unannounced? Did he perhaps wish to incur my wrath, or simply annoy me?"
His voice was impossibly deep and rich, the voice of a King. She shivered, heat racing like fire up and down her body. He seemed to realize, to see and know how he affected her, and his lips pulled into a smirk. She hardened then, and tilted her chin up. She would not fall prey to his seduction. She was an elf of Mirkwood, unyielding, durable, strong.
"No, my Lord. There are some pressing matters he wanted to discuss with you."
Thorin Oakenshield tilted his head to the side, a braid in his hair slipping down his shoulder.
"Then why did he not come to me himself?"
"My lord Thranduil would not leave his kingdom unattended. He sent me as an ambassador, a spokesperson. I will parley on behalf of my King."
"Parley?" He raised a brow. "And what does the Elvenking of a faraway realm wish to parley with a dwarf lord?"
She wondered how he managed to make a simple statement such as that sound like a threat. Perhaps it was a talent he had honed over the years of ruling with a brutality such as had never been seen in Middle-Earth.
"Your rule," she said. "Once, our kingdoms were entwined. The Woodland realm and Erebor flourished upon each other, and the days were bright and long and merry. My lord Thranduil would see those days returned, as would I."
She was almost impressed by herself, how easily the lie flowed from her lips. She was an elf. And a respectable one at that. Had she not been under orders from her King, it would be considered an act of treason.
Thorin surveyed her, scowling darkly. "Why should I treat with an elf when I am perfectly content without your help?"
"Because Erebor is not only a stronghold, or a fortress. It is the home of many dwarves. A city. And without trade, with a competent realm, your city will fall, just as Dale is falling."
Thorin's face was entirely unreadable. She could not guess what he would do next, but she certainly did not expect him to throw back his dark head and laugh.
The sounds of his mirth filled the room, his laugh was dark and deep, and when he sobered, he looked at her with a spark in his eyes.
"You know how to speak to a dwarf King," he chuckled. "Subtle praise and blatant threats."
He picked up a goblet and raised it to her mockingly. "Very well. I accept." He drank from the goblet and set it down, still smiling.
"Wait here. I shall return shortly." With that, he swept past her and left the room, leaving her alone with the flickering firelight.

Tauriel tried not to seem as if she was looking around, determined to be unimpressed with Erebor. So far, she was doing a poor job; everything she saw made her want to stop in her tracks and look at it closer, observe it. The throne room of the King was no exception.
It was a vast, huge hall, pillars holding up a ceiling so high it was lost in shadows. There was a narrow passageway from the doors to the throne, and Tauriel didn't want to look down, because she had heard of this room, the passageway that led to the throne. And if you were to look down, you would see the whole kingdom, spinning away beneath your feet. She knew she would want to gaze at it for eternity, so she kept her chin up and didn't look down as she walked alone towards the throne. Every step she took that brought her closer to the throne allowed her a better view of the massive Jewel mounted at its head.
The Arkenstone.
It was as if an orb of the clearest glass had been meshed with the light of the stars and the moon, and within it, one had placed a galaxy, the colors of blue, gold and pink exploding inside it. It was an object of ethereal beauty, its light too bright, the colors too vivid and the stone itself entirely too beautiful. She had grown up in the halls of the Woodland realm, and her eyes were used to things of wonder and lovely light. But try as she might, she could not take her eyes off the Arkenstone of Thrain. It commanded her gaze, forcing her to look at nothing else.
Until she heard the King laugh.
He was reclining upon the throne, casual and aloof. She forced herself to look away from the gem and at him. His lips were twisted into a cruel smile. The light of the stone cast an aura of silver around his head, framing his face and bathing him in soft light. With the crown upon his head and the stone behind him, he could have shamed even Thranduil on his high throne of wood and his crown of woodland berries and frost.
She looked directly into his eyes. "Thorin Oakenshield," she said, and to her relief and satisfaction, her voice was strong and carried, echoing such that it seemed as if the pillars were whispering to each other back and forth with her voice.
He descended the stairs from the throne, stopping on the last one so that he was slightly taller than her. His expression was placid but intense.
"When you speak to me," he said, his voice low and rough, "you will address me as 'my King', or 'my lord'. Do you understand?"
She tilted her head up and allowed her lips to pull up into a faint sneer. "You are not my King. I am not of your kin. I can address you however I wish."
His hand shot out so fast she barely saw it, and suddenly he was gripping her chin with almost bruising force. She gasped and struggled, but to no avail. He brought his face close to hers, so close she could see a darker ring of blue around the pupils of his eyes, and feel his warm breath on her face. He smelled of sharp metal and smoke.
"Do I not sit upon the throne? Do I not possess the Heart of the Mountain?" His teeth were bared in a rictus grin. "You will show me the respect I command, elf. And if you do not," he paused, and tilted his head to the side, "then I will be most displeased. And you do not want to displease me." And he shoved her away.
She reeled backwards, almost falling. She was sure her cheeks would bruise; elves' skin did not puncture easily, but bruised remarkably fast. And dwarves had thick skin, and thick fingers as well.
She put a hand to her face, her heart pounding. He was calmly stepping off the dais, walking towards her. It took all her willpower not to shrink away, and when he passed her, he put his hand out, and she flinched imperceptibly. He caught it, though, and looked amused. He beckoned with the hand he had reached out.
"Come," he said, and turned, making for the doors. She was still panting slightly, and dropped her hand from her cheek as she followed, wondering what exactly she had gotten herself into.

The room Thorin led her to was, like everything in Erebor, large and cavernous. There was a long wooden table in the center of the room, many chairs lined up at it. And in every chair sat a dwarf. Thorin sat at the head of the table, and she sat at his left, feeling out of place amongst all the dwarves in the room. She looked neither left nor right, but down at the table. She felt the eyes of all the dwarves on her, and wondered if this was Thorin's plan, to make her feel so uncomfortable that she would want to leave. Maybe it just gave him satisfaction to see her squirm.
"An elf," said a deep voice from down the left of the table. "An elf in our stronghold."
"Sent from Thranduil, that too," said another voice. "His kin are not welcome here."
"What are you doing here, she-elf?" asked another. "Do you perhaps wish to impede upon the happenings of Erebor, or to disrupt our peace?"
She looked up, fastening her eyes on the dwarf who had spoken, a stocky one with a black beard obscuring half his face.
"Peace?" she demanded. "Peace? See you peace in your halls of stone? Without trade your realm will fall. Esgaroth has fallen already, and it is because of citizens like you, who think all is well and there is peace, when that could not be farther from the truth."
Voices exploded around her, shouting and clamouring at once. One dwarf even banged his fist on the table, and another pointed at her and shouted. The clamour rose to such a volume that it sounded as if the very stone around them was shaking.
"Shazara!" shouted Thorin suddenly, standing. His deep voice echoed around the chamber, and it took her a moment to realize that he had spoken in Khuzdul. Silence fell instantly almost eerily, and Thorin glared around at them all, then sat.
"If this is to succeed," he said, "then every opinion must be respected." He looked at Tauriel and nodded. She blinked, flummoxed.
"Unfortunately, the elf speaks the truth," he said gravely, and she felt a small blaze of anger, that he did not even have the decency to use her name.
"Without some sort of external means of trade, our wealth will dwindle."
Mutters sprung from the crowd, dancing around on the air. Tauriel looked determinedly at a tapestry on the wall, one of Thorin and another dwarf she presumed was his father. They looked remarkably different.
"So what should we do?" asked a burly looking dwarf with tattoos lacing his bare scalp. "We cannot just resume trade as if it had never stopped."
"We can, however, discuss this in a civilized manner through the elves' ambassador," Thorin said, nodding at the dwarf. "Now," he continued, turning with mock-politeness to Tauriel. "What do you propose we do?"
She opened her mouth to answer when a dwarf hurried into the room and murmured something to Thorin. Even with her elf ears she could make no sense of it. Thorin did, however, and muttered something back. The dwarf hurried away again, and Thorin stood.
"I must leave," he said. "We shall resume this tomorrow." Without another word, he stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him. The moment it closed, there was a massive noise as every dwarf simultaneously pushed their chairs back and began to talk to each other, the babble of voices growing steadily in volume.
Tauriel sat where she was, gazing down at her fingers. How would this work, she thought, when nobody was willing to make it so?
"Don't fret, lass," said a kind voice, and she looked to her left to see an old looking dwarf, with snow-white hair and a long, forked beard the same color. His face was polite enough, and he was smiling down below his hooked nose.
"It'll take them a while to get used to you," he continued, nodding. "It's been a long, long while since any but a dwarf set foot in these halls."
He bowed a little courtly bow, and she stood, surprised. "Balin, at your service," he said with a smile. He straightened, looking at her from under bushy eyebrows.
She put a hand on her chest, just over her heart. "Tauriel," she replied, unsure of what she should say. He looked at her, curious. "What does your name mean in the language of your people?"
She marvelled at the depth of his knowledge about her people; they were always named in Sindarin, in her realm, after the trees and leaves and wandering paths of the forest.
"I am daughter of the forest in the tongue of my kin," she said, looking down at him with renewed interest.
He looked surprised. "And what would a daughter of the forest- Mirkwood, if I'm not mistaken- be doing here, half a world away, under a mountain encased in stone?"
She gazed at him, at a loss for words. "I have come to settle a conflict between your people and mine," she said finally.
"Many would disagree with you," he said. "Many would say there is no conflict." He sighed. "I suppose I should know better than to think that. Wherever Thorin Oakenshield is involved, there is always conflict."
She felt her eyes widen. "He is your King."
"And I was his mentor," said Balin, and she let out a little "oh!" of surprise. He nodded, smiling. "Yes, he still comes to me for advice. He still has much to learn. Poor lad lost his father and grandfather in one go. He took the throne when he was only seventeen years old," he sighed. "He tried to make it seem as if he could manage, and it did seem that way. But he would come to me sometimes, desperate for advice, some means of help. He needed love, and I gave it to him, because nobody else ever had."
She tried to imagine Thorin going to anyone for advice, and failed. He seemed so reckless, with no thought behind anything he did. But perhaps she had not seen enough yet. And Balin spoke of him not as if he were a fully grown dwarf with immeasurable power, but as someone who needed help, someone vulnerable and inexperienced, a child almost.
"Anyhow, I'll see you soon, lass. I guarantee you'll be here a long time." He raised a brow at her, chuckled merrily, and sped off.
The door had already closed behind him when she smiled back.

Erebor truly was massive; one could turn a corner and find themselves in another wing of the fortress entirely. Had she not been an elf, and with an amazing sense of direction, she would have been utterly lost. Presently, she found a large, oak door, covered in dwarvish runes and markings. She looked right and left, then pushed it open.
Torches sprang to life as the doors creaked open, illuminating the huge room. She walked inside, allowing the door to fall shut. As her eyes adjusted to the bright light, she realized what room she had walked into.
A library. It was deep and large, almost like a cathedral, but without windows. The roof spiralled above her, painted in gold, and shelf upon shelf upon shelf lined the walls.
She walked along a row, trailing her fingers along the worn spines. Most of the books were bound in leather, their titles stamped in gold or silver. She slid a large tome from a shelf and opened it, and, as she had suspected, it was written in the language of the dwarves. She recognized the runes for Erebor, but the symbols next to it were alien to her.
"What does this say..." she whispered, running a finger along the runes.
"It says 'history'," said a voice behind her, and she was so startled that she almost dropped the book, whirling around so fast that her hair spun around her like a scarlet banner.
Kili stood there, holding a stack of books and shaking his dark hair out of his eyes. He offered her a small smile that she did not return.
He cleared his throat, tilting his head towards her to gesture at the book. "It's-it's a history book. I've read it many times. It tells the story of the line of Durin."
She did not know how to react; the only friend she had ever had was Legolas, and with a pang, she remembered him, and how much she missed him.
I'll write to him, she thought distantly. Then Legolas' face dissolved, and she saw Kili, his hopeful face upturned to hers. She hefted the book in her arms and looked down at him, trying to ignore the fluttering of her heart. Kili ducked his head and began to hurry away, and she dropped the book onto a plinth nearby and called, "Wait!" before she knew what she was doing.
He turned, the books shifting in his arms. "Yes?"
"I-," she hesitated, stepping closer to him. He smelled like his uncle did, like smoke and metal. But there was another scent, of parchment and ink. "Are there any books in this library in the language of my people?"
He hefted the books onto one arm and shrugged, using his free hand to brush away his shaggy forelock. "Plenty," he said. "I could show you."
It was a perfectly ordinary statement, she thought as she followed him deeper into the shelves. There was no reason for her stomach to swoop in such a fashion. She shook her head at her own foolishness. He was a dwarf, and Thorin's nephew besides. She didn't trust him- not even when he smiled at her in an entirely trustworthy way as they made their way into the library.
"Do you miss home?" he asked, and his voice was slightly breathless. It must have been all those books he was carrying.
"Of course you miss home, what sort of a question was that?" He laughed a little as he turned a corner. "Sorry. Fili always tells me I speak before I think."
She smiled a little. "No, it was a just question. I do miss home. The halls, my chambers, the rivers of the forest."
"Any friends?" Kili asked, dropping his stack of books into a table and heading to a shelf nearby. He dropped to his knees and started rummaging.
"Yes, one. His name is Legolas. The king's son. He is the one who appointed me Captain of the Guard." She sighed, memories filling her. "We always navigated the forest by the light of the stars. He is the finest elf warrior in all of the lands."
His shoulders were oddly stiff as he emerged with about ten books balanced in his arms. "Here," he muttered, and handed her a few. She jumped as their fingers made contact. They weren't rough, like she'd imagined (not that she'd imagined much) but soft, and callused. She took the books and turned them over in her hands, marvelling at the softness of the leather covers.
"You were Captain of the Guard?" Kili's voice cut through her thoughts.
She nodded, looking up. To her surprise and slight gratification, he was right next to her, the warmth of his body seeping into hers.
"Must've been an honor," he murmured, and she felt suddenly out of breath.
"Thank you for showing me the books," she said, suddenly wanting to leave. He nodded, scooping up his own stack. "It's nothing," he said, ducking his head.
She opened her mouth to say goodbye, but he had already hurried away, into the maze of shelves and out of sight.

Tauriel was not one to casually look into mirrors to admire her reflection. Usually she used looking-glasses to check for injuries after a fight. This was no exception. She turned her face to the side, examining the blue-black bruises that had flowered there the previous night. To her disgust, the marks were in the shape of fingers, and one could easily discern what had happened. She turned to the other side, where the bruises were along her jaw. She probed the sensitive spots with the tips of her fingers, wincing slightly at the soreness that radiated through her face. She looked at her reflection, worried. Her pinched, pale face gazed back at her, the marks on her chin all the more visible due to her pale complexion. She turned away, revulsion filling her. She did not know for how long the marks would stay on her skin, but they would not fade by the end of the day, that was for sure. Now she would have to walk around with these ugly disfigurations on her face, these bruises that Thorin had put there.
The longer she thought about it, the more angry she became, so she held her head high, flung her hair back over one shoulder and left the room. She would not hide the marks.
She arrived in the massive hall, where the Royal Tyrant himself and his nephews were sitting, eating silently.
She dropped into a seat without greeting them, pulling a plate towards her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Thorin glance her way, and apparently see the bruises; she saw his face split into a cold smile, but he said nothing. She fumed silently.
Kili's brother, Fili, was next to her. They looked absolutely nothing alike; he was shorter, stockier, with wild tawny hair pulled into numerous braids at the sides. He had a beard, like his uncle, and braids swung at the corners of his mouth and hung to his chin. His eyes were the exact shade of blue as Thorin's. If Kili had reminded her of a wolf, Fili could only be compared to a lion, with his grizzly, tawny mane. He didn't look at her, but down at his plate.
She felt her earlier pride and fury leave her bit by bit, and felt very conscious of the bruises. She shook her hair to the front, so that it covered the marks somewhat.
After about half an hour, Thorin stood, his nephews following. Tauriel stood as well.
"The meeting," he said. "It was cut short yesterday; I had business to attend to. Come." He beckoned the three of them after him. He allowed Fili and Kili to leave the room, and as Tauriel was leaving, he caught her arm, spinning her towards him.
He brushed her hair away from her shoulders, grasping the thick strands and moving them around so that they fell down her back, and so that the marks his fingers had made were revealed. She flinched back, disgusted, as he smiled lazily.
"Perhaps," he said in a low voice, "this will teach you to respect me, as you should."
She wrenched her arm from his grip, stepping back. Without a word, she stalked away after Fili and Kili, leaving Thorin in the doorway, his hand still hovering in the air where he had held her.

Chapter Text

Kili

The meeting was in the massive council chamber, obviously. Kili sat gingerly next to the chair that his uncle would soon occupy, his brother across from him. He hadn't looked at Tauriel the whole morning, unable to meet her eyes. Now he stole a glance at her as she was sitting down next to Balin.
And he stiffened, sitting up ramrod straight. There were terrible bruises on her cheeks and chin, almost a deep purple against her pale creamy skin. They were almost regular along her jaw, oblong and obviously in the shape of...fingers. As if somebody had gripped her so hard that they had left these marks on her. But who would...
His question was answered before he could finish the thought as Thorin slammed his way into the room. Everybody fell silent as he swept up the length of the table and settled at its head. Kili was still looking at Tauriel, thinking, Just look at me, just turn your head and look at me. Almost as if she had heard his thoughts, she turned her head to the side and looked directly at him, her eyes shimmering.
He felt his brows draw together with worry almost against his will, silently asking the question. She gave an imperceptible shake of her head and turned to look at his uncle.
Kili felt a terrible rage spark to life inside him. Thorin had hurt Tauriel, used his hands and bruised her skin. He had touched her, a lady of the elves, a royal ambassador. He was wallowing silently in his rage, then Tauriel's voice cut through the fog in his head, breaking him out of his stupor.
"I wish to see unity among our peoples once again," she was saying. Everyone was looking at her, probably out of curiosity because of the marks rather than real interest.
"What of Dale?" It was Fili, standing up. Kili caught his eye and shook his head quickly, but Fili ignored him, looking at Thorin.
"What of it?" said Thorin, leaning back and narrowing his eyes at his eldest nephew. Fili was glaring at him, hands balled into fists, every inch a furious prince.
"They are dying," he said. "They have nothing left, you- we- have taken everything away from them!"
Thorin looked calmly at Fili. "We are not here to discuss the tidings of a city that does not matter to me. We are here to discuss with the elves, not the men. Sit down before this goes out of hand."
Fili looked like he was about to explode, but he sat, loudly scraping his chair as he did. Nobody looked at him.
"Now," said Thorin, turning away. He looked at Tauriel, and there was something unidentifiable in his gaze, satisfaction mingled with anger.
"What does your King have to say about this?"
She stood, her head held high in the air. "The King Thranduil wishes for you to reopen the gates of Erebor. It is of the essence; if you do not let wealth flow to and from the halls of this mountain, then your city will fall."
A cheerful voice spoke up. "You mean only to the Woodland realm and no other?" It was Bofur, curiously regarding Tauriel.
"Should your King wish it, so it shall be."
Bofur looked dubious, leaning across the table. "So what does our King wish?" he asked, looking at Thorin.
He looked darkly around at them all. "The Elvenking cannot possibly expect me to decide this in a matter of minutes," he said, shrugging. Tauriel looked down at him, brows crinkling. "But-"
"Did you perhaps assume you would be safely home by the noon after your arrival? Know this, elf: I think before I act. You shall remain here until my mind is made."
She looked outraged, and opened her mouth, but Bofur cut across her. "Okay, that's settled then," he said brightly. "Isn't it?" he asked, looking around. Tauriel sat quietly, looking down.
"Not entirely," said Fili, glowering at his uncle, and Kili dropped his face into his hands.
"Dale-"
"I will not lift a finger to aid that forsaken city," Thorin said calmly. "If they perish, if their King is unable to carry on without Erebor supporting them, then let them feel the wrath of the King under the Mountain. Let them realize exactly how much they lack when I am not aiding them."
He looked at Fili. "Tell me, Fili, why do you care so much for King Bard?"
Fili stood up, his anger propelling him to his feet.
"I went to Dale," said Fili, wringing his hands. "Their state is helpless, hopeless. It stung me to acknowledge that it is because of our family that their poverty has increased so."
Thorin stood as well, and this was a much more effective move; he towered over Fili impressively, the crown on his head leering at him as it shimmered.
"How are you to be the King after me when your actions are guided by something as erratic as compassion?" Thorin said angrily, and Kili realized that this had escalated from a harmless disagreement into a personal family feud, one that could shake the roots of what they shared.
"You cannot afford to act upon your heart's desires, nephew, not when you take the throne." The words were spoken kindly, if not with force; Thorin did want what was best for his nephews, and did love them dearly. But, as he had told Tauriel, he showed it oddly.
Fili's face was completely devoid of expression, but his features darkened, and Kili sensed something terrible was about to happen, and he half-rose from his seat, beginning to open his mouth and tell him not to say it, but it was too late.
"Then maybe I do not want to take the throne," Fili said, and before anybody could react, he shoved his chair back and stalked from the room, the doors slamming loudly behind him.
There was a moment of absolute silence.
Kili quickly pushed his chair back and hurried out of the room, knowing it was the right thing to do to follow his brother. He stopped at a divergence in the stone corridors, wondering for a while. Then he made up his mind and plunged down the middle corridor, knowing that Fili would want to go somewhere he could breathe, a place where the air would hit his face and clear his head. And there was only one place in Erebor where one could feel the wind.
He hurried up the steps to the rampart, and surely enough, he saw a tawny head bowed over the railing, shoulders slumped. Kili approached soundlessly, standing just behind his brother.
"Fili," he said softly.
Fili's shoulders tensed, then eased when he recognized who had spoken. He said nothing.
Kili swallowed, moving forward to stand next to Fili. He put a cautious hand on his shoulder, afraid he might throw it off. Instead, he leaned into the embrace, shifting so that he was standing in the circle of Kili's arm.
"I don't know what to do," he whispered. "I don't know why I said it. Why did I say it?"
Kili moved around so that he was facing his brother. "You said it because you meant it. You don't want the throne, do you?"
Fili's blond lashes fluttered as he looked down. "No," he said. "Not the throne. I do not want the Arkenstone. What if it drives me mad, just as it has Thorin?"
Kili gazed at his brother, feeling an ache of sadness press against his throat. Usually it was him who would be listening to Fili's advice, but he knew that sometimes, the tide had to turn.
"If I know you at all," he said, "and I know you better than you know yourself- I know that that stone will have no effect on you, brother. You will make a just King and a good ruler."
Fili looked away, a braid in his hair escaping and fluttering in the breeze. "I don't know," he said. "I just feel so lost."
He knew how much it must have cost him to say those words, Fili, who was steady as a rock and was so calm and grounded. To admit that he had no control of what would happen, and he was afraid.
Kili put his other arm on Fili's shoulder. "You will never be like Thorin," he said. "Did you see- did you see what he did to Tauriel?"
"The elf?" Fili looked at him sideways, his blue eyes narrowing. Kili nodded.
"I saw." He shook his head again. "Why?"
It was Kili's turn to shrug. "But I intend to find out."
Fili looked up at him in the inch or so that separated them in height. "Kee," he said, and Kili scowled at the brotherly endearment that had stuck since they were little.
"You're hiding something," he said. "Every time I try to talk to you, you look away from me as if I have burned you. What happened?"
Kili reeled back, his heart slamming in his chest. "Don't be a fool," he said. "I'm not hiding anything."
Fili looked at him earnestly. "You can tell me anything, Kee, I'm your brother."
He swallowed hard, wiping his face blank. "I know," he said. "You think if something had happened I wouldn't tell you?"
Fili shrugged, scuffing the ground with the tip of his boot. "Maybe."
Kili sighed. "I think you should go to Thorin, tell him you didn't mean it."
Fili made a face. "No. Let him realize it on his own. I don't want to tell him anything-"
"He said he doesn't trust you," Kili blurted. "He called me and said he doubted you, and that he wanted to give me the throne next, and that you're allegiances lie elsewhere and that you contradicted him too much. He said that you've been acting oddly, and that you would have made a good King once, but now he's not sure."
He gasped for air; he had said everything in one breath, and he was panting.
Fili looked astonished. "When?"
"About two days ago." He balked, looking at Fili to gauge his reaction. He seemed stoically blank.
"I knew it," he said. "I knew he doubted me."
"I told him it's just grief, and you'd come around," Kili shrugged helplessly. "I don't know what he thinks."
Fili muttered. "I do," he said. "He thinks I'm not worthy of the blood of Durin."
"I think he isn't worthy of the blood of Durin," Kili said boldly. "He's a disgrace to our noble name."
Fili looked scandalized. "Kili!"
"Well, I do," he went on mutinously, "I think you'd make a much better King than he is."
He saw Fili's eyes shining, and before he could decide whether it was with tears, Fili had put his arms around him and pulled him into a tight embrace.
Kili made a muffled noise of protest, but complied, wrapping his arms around his brother. He rested his chin onto his brother's shoulder, closing his eyes. He was safe, this was where he belonged, with Fili, and it was this thought that was in his mind as the sun rose above them in the sky and lit up the world, dazzling him in a blaze of light.
"I didn't think you'd take my side," Fili said, his voice muffled. His shoulders were shaking minutely, and Kili held him all the more tighter because of it.
"I'm your brother, idiot," he replied. "I'll always take your side."

Kili poked his head into the council chamber, soundless as usual. As expected, it was totally empty, the chairs arranged and the fire in the hearth reduced to a bed of dying embers. He withdrew, closing the doors. So the meeting had ended. It had only been a couple of minutes since he and Fili had come down from the rampart, and Kili had volunteered to check the council chamber, seeing as he was less likely to be murdered by Thorin at first sight if he was there.
Fili had gone off somewhere, claiming he'd be back for dinner. Kili had let him go; he knew he wanted to be alone, and didn't blame him. He was walking, with no sense of purpose, around the stone fortress. He didn't know where he was going, but he kept seeing Tauriel's face in his mind's eye, and his feet carried him automatically to the east wing of Erebor, where the guest chambers were. He felt like he was in a trance, with no control over his body.
He found her room easily, and small wonder, he thought, seeing as every other door was covered in a layer of dust and cobwebs a foot thick, and hers was the only room with light shining from under the door.
He went to the door, a fist raised to knock, and realized with no small degree of alarm that he had already knocked. He was debating whether it would be odd to run away or pretend he had the wrong door when the door opened and Tauriel was standing at the threshold. The bruises on her face were still dark, and it was the anger he felt upon seeing them that gave him courage.
"My lady," he said, bowing, and when he straightened, he saw that she was smiling softly.
"Greetings," she said.
"Do you have company?"
She stared at him a moment. "No. Why?"
He fidgeted. Elves, he thought furiously. Why did they have to be so dense? Why couldn't they take a hint, for Mahal's sake?
"I was hoping to come in and talk to you."
Granted, it was blunt, but apparently elves couldn't understand subtlety, he thought resentfully.
He saw with a twinge of satisfaction that she blushed. "Oh. Of course."
She stepped aside, allowing him in. It was, he supposed, like every other room in Erebor. Stone walls, hearth, large wooden bed, tapestries. Comfortable, but plain.
But Tauriel's room smelled like her, of pine needles and cold wind. He turned to face her, and she was leaning against the fireplace, her hair catching the light and turning into a rippling sheet of crimson.
They merely looked at each other for what felt like an eternity. Finally, Tauriel spoke.
"I imagine it must have come as a bit of shock," she said, "what your brother told the King."
"Not really," Kili replied, and saw her brows go up. He didn't elaborate, looking down at his leather gauntlet instead, fingers playing with it absently.
"What did he say after I left?" he asked, hoping it wasn't something too incorrigible.
She sighed, turning fluidly and sitting on a pouf by the fire. "Nothing. He said nothing, only that the meeting was adjourned and that everyone was to leave." Her eyes sparked. "He is frightfully angry."
"Evidently." His mind raced. So Thorin was upset, because Fili had disgraced him in front of every important dwarf in Erebor. Naturally.
He looked at her, and felt his gaze drawn towards the marks, and felt another rippling surge of anger. She caught his gaze and smiled tightly and not without sarcasm, gesturing at her jaw and cheeks with a slim, disdainful hand.
"Lovely, aren't they?" she sneered, disgust clear in every syllable.
"Tauriel-"
"I do not want your pity," she said. "I do not need it."
"And that's not what I'm offering," he said. His heartbeat was speeding up, and he had no idea why. Something about Tauriel woke him up, sharpening him and refining his senses. She made his blood turn to fire, and it felt exhilarating. He straightened minutely, dropping his gauntlet onto the chair next to him. As hard as he tried, he couldn't look away from her eyes.
"Then what are you doing here?" She had her head high, as she always did. He knew it was a gesture that conveyed her aloofness and position, but he saw right through that; it was a defense, a flimsy cage she had built around herself, one that ensured that nobody could see the storm inside. But he did.
"I don't know." I was walking around, and I didn't know where to go and I found myself here, because it is your voice I want to hear, your eyes I want to see. I don't know how I feel, but I do know that when I'm around you, my head spins and my heart beats and my mind can't think. I don't know what it means, but I've never felt more alive.
She was regarding him curiously. He swallowed thickly, his heart beating double time. His skin felt super-sensitized, and it felt as if sensation was crawling up his body and leaving him shivering in its wake.
"I don't know what I'm doing here, Tauriel."
She stood. She walked towards him slowly, and went down on her knees gracefully, kneeling in front of him.
"Your uncle told me that whenever I addressed him, I needed to say 'My lord', or 'My king'." She raised her face and looked directly at him. "I said no. I told him that since I was not of his kingdom or kin, I could address him however I wished."
His eyes were drawn irresistibly to the fingerlike marks on her cheeks, and a humorless smile twisted her lips.
"He gave me these," she said, gesturing to them. "And told me that it would teach me to respect him."
He blinked slowly, his whole body aware of hers- her breath, her scent, her voice. He spoke, and his voice was softer than soft.
"And did it?"
She stood up, turning away. He saw her hand go to her face, and she turned her head sideways so that he could see her profile, shadows chasing the firelight on her features.
"No. If anything, this made me respect him even less. One who raises his hand to his ally is lesser than even the most meager of beggars."
Kili said nothing. She didn't turn around, but remained with her back to him, her head bowed. They stayed like that a long while, until Kili felt that to stay any longer would be impeding upon her time and space.
"My lady Tauriel," he murmured, and she turned just as he stood. He inclined his head to her, but she didn't move; but her expression softened, and she nodded to him.
He left quickly, hurrying along the corridor and turning the corner, where he fetched up against the wall. His whole body was vibrating like a plucked string, waves of cold and heat shivering up his skin. She affected him like nothing ever had before, and it made his heart race and his breath shorten, but he welcomed it. He sighed, letting his head fall back against the stone as his heart rate returned to normal.
"Kili," said a voice, and he jumped spectacularly and turned, his eyes wide.
Balin was standing in the corridor, looking worriedly at him. Kili swallowed and stood straight hurriedly.
"Balin."
The older dwarf hurried over to him, bobbing pleasantly along the passage. "I was looking for you, laddie."
Kili frowned as Balin drew up with him. He was almost a head taller, and had to look down as he approached.
"Why?"
"Because your brother is missing, and-"
Kili waved an indifferent hand. "He's gone out, he told me. He said he'd be back for dinner. It's a perfectly normal thing to do," he said, scowling as Balin huffed in a frustrated manner.
Balin raised a bushy brow. "Did he say where?"
"No," said Kili, bewildered. "But it's fine, Balin, he'll come back."
"The King is angry," Balin said quietly. "He won't take kindly to this."
Kili rolled his eyes, now thoroughly vexed. "It's fine, Balin, since when has going out for a few hours become a crime?"
"Oh, it's not that I'm worried about," Balin said, looking at him meaningfully. Kili gazed back, unable to grasp his meaning.
"Then what-"
"It's what he said to the King," he murmured. "Everybody heard, and now everyone knows that the heir to the throne doesn't want the throne."
Kili searched Balin's face, worried. "But he didn't mean it, I-"
"Oh, I think he did, laddie," Balin said, shaking his head so that his beard waved about. "The King certainly thinks so."
Kili stepped back, running his fingers through his hair frustratedly. "I can't exactly call him back, can I?"
Balin looked as confused as Kili felt. "Why not?"
"Because," said another voice behind them, "he doesn't know where he is."
And for the second time, Kili turned around to see his uncle standing behind them, his face unreadable.
"Isn't that right, Kili?" Thorin said, walking slowly towards them. Kili found it safest to nod as Thorin drew up to them. "He didn't tell me where he was going-"
"Of course he didn't," Thorin interrupted, crossing his arms across his chest. "Exactly how much is your brother keeping from you, Kili?"
Kili quickly cut his eyes towards Balin, who glanced at Thorin. He waved a hand, and Balin bowed shortly and walked away, leaving Kili and his uncle alone in the corridor.
"I'm not sure I follow you, uncle."
"So you knew, then," he said, looping his hands behind his back and walking around Kili, who stared into middle space, unmoving.
"Knew that your brother did not want the throne," continued Thorin, who was behind him now. Kili shrugged. "He never told me anything of the sort," he said. "I didn't know."
Thorin walked around to face him, and Kili looked down at his shoes. "He said he would be back by dinner," he said. His voice was barely above a whisper.
"Did he now?" Thorin smiled a little. "I see. Maybe he and I should have a little chat later."
Alarm bells began to ring in his head. "I'm not so sure that-"
"I wish to speak with him, and speak with him I will," Thorin said, interrupting him yet again. He out a hand on Kili's shoulder, and Kili just managed not to flinch away.
Thorin nodded at him and walked away, vanishing from sight a few moments later. Kili watched him go in silence.

He found himself in the library again, a place he often went to when he wanted peace and quiet. He sat at a table at the far end and tried to lose himself in the reading, but his mind was too occupied. He leaned back, exhaling. There was too much to think about: Thorin, Fili, Tauriel...
He stood and walked into the shelves, remembering the other day when he had seen Tauriel here, and she had told him about her home and her star-haired princeling Legolas. He had seen the elf-prince once or twice before Thorin had ascended the throne, and he remembered how lovely he was, but how cold he seemed, like a statue. He looked much like his father, with eerily bright gray-blue eyes and pale hair that cascaded down his back. How elves fought with hair of such ridiculous length, he didn't know.
He picked up a large volume, the one that Tauriel had seen the other day. He put it back carefully, suddenly angry with himself. Why did everything remind him of Tauriel?
He didn't want to go back to his room, he definitely didn't want to spend time with Thorin, Fili had vanished somewhere and had a tough time ahead of him because Thorin would probably accuse him of not wanting the throne, and he didn't want to see Tauriel, because she would addle his thoughts and make him think up was down and left was right.
He put his head down onto the open book, inhaling the scent of parchment. It was calming, and his breath had evened out within minutes. He closed his eyes and floated in semi-consciousness, half his mind aware of the world and half of it asleep.
"Kili?"
For the second time that day, he jumped, sitting up and rubbing his eyes as he spun around to see who had spoken. He blinked sleepily. "Fili?"
"What are you doing here?" asked Fili, sitting next to him. He yawned pointedly and shrugged, stretching. "Just came to read."
"Didn't know you could read while you're sleeping," Fili said, raising a brow. Kili swatted his arm.
"At least I was here. Where were you?"
Fili shook his head, unforthcoming as ever. He slid to his feet began to leave the library. Kili hastily stuffed the books back into their shelves and hurried after him. "Fili!" he whisper-shouted. "Wait!"
Fili didn't stop until he reached the doors, and Kili came skidding to a halt next to him.
"Where did you go?"
"Leave it alone, Kili, I'm here now."
"No- wait- Thorin is angry," he called desperately as Fili made to leave the room. He stopped dead, and Kili went on. "He said he's going to call you and talk to you, and it can't be good."
"It's fine, I'll make something up."
Kili was astonished. "It can't be that bad. Where did you-"
"I said leave it alone, Kili."
He stalked away, not looking back as he turned the corner. Distantly, Kili heard a door slam. If Fili had to lie to placate Thorin, he must have gone somewhere illegal. Where could he have possibly gone? The forest? Did he leave the valley? He couldn't have gone to Dale, could he?
Kili used to be able to guess anything Fili did. They used to tell each other everything, and keep nothing to themselves.
I guess that means we've grown up, he thought a little sadly. We went from telling each other everything to telling each other nothing.
He went back inside the library and didn't come out until dinner began.

All was silent as they ate, and Kili assumed Thorin and Fili had had their little chat, because Fili seemed more relaxed, and so did Thorin. Tauriel was there as well, eating in a composed manner and not looking at anybody. Kili felt as if he was at a funeral, what with the somber air and nobody speaking to one another. He wasn't very hungry, and pushed his food around rather than eating it. Tauriel finished first, and made to stand up when:
"I did not give you permission to be dismissed, elf," Thorin said idly, raising a brow at Tauriel, who glared at him with such fury that Kili was surprised Thorin didn't react at all.
"I do not need your permission to enter or leave a room," she said haughtily. "I have at least that much free will here, I assume."
"You assume incorrectly," Thorin said, and laughed. "It is by my leave that you are here, and I may choose to command you however I wish."
Fili had stopped eating and had his fingers templed under his chin, his eyes closed. He seemed to be refraining from saying something with difficulty. Kili was staring down at his plate, unable to look up at either of their expressions.
Tauriel looked outraged. "Command me?" she demanded. "You have no command over one who is not of your kingdom."
Thorin picked up a glass and swirled it around so that a drop of wine escaped and fell onto the table like a drop of blood.
"You are under my roof, are you not? This is my kingdom, and you are staying here. If you wish to remain the Royal ambassador, I suggest you watch your mouth and hold your tongue, elf. What I say in this Mountain goes without complaint, and you would do well to remember that."
Tauriel was gripping the back of her chair with such force that her knuckles were white. She was breathing deeply, as if to contain her anger. Finally, her features grew smooth and blank.
"Very well," she said. "May I leave, your majesty?"
Thorin regarded her with a dark expression, one of almost predatory hunger. After a while, he sighed, and smiled coldly. "No, you may not. Stay here until my nephews and I are finished."
Tauriel stared at him for a full ten seconds. She swallowed visibly, then stalked around and sat again, folding her hands on the table. Her face seemed carved out of marble.
Fili and Kili were both looking down at their plates, saying nothing. The rest of the meal was eaten in silence, and Fili got up and left the room without a word. About ten minutes later, Kili stood as well, making to leave. Thorin nodded, and he made for the door. As he left, he heard Tauriel's voice. "Permission to leave, your majesty?"
"I distinctly recall saying that you could leave only when my nephews and I were finished. As you can see, I am still here. Stay where you are, elf."
Kili winced, hurrying away from the room and towards his own, unable to hear any more. Thorin seemed hell-bent on making Tauriel's stay at Erebor as uncomfortable as possible. He couldn't blame her for feeling like she didn't belong; of course she didn't belong, she was a single elf in a dwarf stronghold.
He headed to his room, and to his surprise, he saw Fili waiting outside, arms crossed. Kili approached warily, unsure of what he wanted.
"Well? If you're going to lecture me, do it now."
Fili frowned. "What would I lecture you for?"
Kili shrugged, looking away. "Something, I don't know. Anything. What are you doing here?"
Fili's lips twisted faintly. He looked remarkably like Thorin in that moment. "Tired of my company so fast, brother?"
"Not exactly."
Fili appeared to be warring with himself; he seemed to be struggling to say something. Kili raised a questioning brow, and he slumped in defeat.
"I went to Dale," Fili said, sighing. "That's why I couldn't tell Thorin, it's because I went to Dale."
Kili felt his brows shoot up. "Dale? Why that of all places?"
He shook his head. "I don't know, I just wanted to talk to-" he hesitated. "Bard."
"Oh," said Kili, surveying his face. There was the faintest hint of a lie there. "Why?"
"I wanted to see how things were faring there. Winter is almost upon them, and they will have little to no resistance."
"You shouldn't," said Kili. "You shouldn't be going to Dale. If you're caught-"
"Don't worry," said Fili, "I won't be."
He looked absolutely sure, but Kili was still worried. "Well, in that case," he said, and nodded. He wasn't completely convinced, however, and he would investigate. Dale was becoming an increasingly large problem; why did Fili care so much for it?
"Did you talk to Thorin?"
Fili nodded. "I told him I'd gone to the forest. He said to be careful because there's a rumor going around that there's a rebel group hiding there."
"That's perfect," Kili muttered. "Just what we need."
"I told him that I'd think about taking the throne. I said it was what I always wanted, but now it seemed like it would be too much to handle. He believed me."
Of course he believed you,thought Kili bitterly. You were always the honest one, the trustworthy one, the firstborn. You were always chastising me not to lie, and now look at you.
Kili sighed, tired suddenly. "I should get to bed."
Fili nodded, squeezing his shoulder. "Good night, Kee."
Kili smiled. "Good night, Fili."

He shut the door behind him, sighing and running his hands through his hair. It stuck all around his head like a dark cloud. He stripped off his shirt, flinging it onto a chair and sitting bare chested on the bed. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, the air cool against his skin.
There was a sudden knock on the door, making him jump. It was probably Fili, he thought as he stomped across the room and opened the door. He was going to say, "What do you want now, Fili?", but the words died on his lips when he saw who was at the door.
"Tauriel," he said, surprised. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
There was high color on her cheekbones, and she looked away from him, her throat moving as she swallowed.
"You left this in my room," she said, practically thrusting something into his hand. He looked down, surprised, and saw his leather gauntlet.
"Oh," he said. "Thank you."
She smiled tightly, saying nothing. He cleared his throat, looking down.
"Uh, sorry about..." He gave a non-comittal jerk of the head. She raised a brow.
"I imagine I don't look my best at the moment. It was hot," he finished rather lamely.
She smiled, and his heart did a little backflip in his chest. "It's all right," she said.
He looked up at her, worried; she looked preoccupied.
"I'm sorry about Thorin," he said. "I think he wants to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible. It'll pass, I'm sure."
She sighed. "Somehow, I don't think so. I only just came back from dinner." She leaned against the doorframe, her hair falling over her slim shoulder. "He thrives on chaos, your uncle," she said, hazel eyes sparkling.
Kili blinked up at her, unsure of what to say in reply. She wet her lips and looked away from him, seeming lost in thought.
"It's late," she said, looking back at him, and he suddenly didn't want her to go. But he could hardly do anything about it; he nodded.
"Of course. You should sleep. Good night." He turned away, and barely heard her as she said, "Good night, Kili," softly before she turned and walked away.
He closed the door as she vanished, fingers fisting in his already wild hair.
"Wake up, Kili," he told himself roughly as he lay on his bed trying to sleep. "She'll never want you."
He turned over and looked at the silk drapes on his bed and tried to convince himself to give her up, but every time he came close he saw her eyes and her skin and heard her voice, and knew that knowing it was forbidden didn't kill love. It strengthened it.
He lay awake for a long time, and it was close to dawn before he finally drifted off into dreams.

Chapter Text

Sigrid

The day dawned bright and cold, and Sigrid felt the air on her face as she stood outside on the balcony overlooking the whole city of Dale. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes as she felt the wind toss her hair about her face. She opened her eyes and gazed at the Mountain towering above her, the city lying in its shadow.
She turned her back on the Mountain and pressed her back against the railing, deep in thought. The air was growing steadily colder day by day, and while they would last the winter, she knew not what would come after. She had heard her father talking to somebody once, and he was saying that when the time came, they would have to abandon Dale and leave, find a home somewhere else.
And what would happen then, to all those people whose lives depended on the city? The people whose livelihoods were tied to the fate of Dale?
The same thing that happened to the men who traded with Erebor, said a voice in her mind. They will disappear, like stars vanishing into pinpricks of black light.
She knew that the city had been ravaged ever since the gates of Erebor clanged shut and never opened since. She knew that trade had been the only thing keeping them alive, and without wealth flowing from the Mountain, the city's internal structure had collapsed. She knew that everything that her father did, he did for Dale. And she knew that the only reason that there were more lines on his face and more gray in his hair and less laughter at the dinner table was because of one thing, and one thing only.
Thorin Oakenshield.
She had come to hate him and everything he symbolized: greed, vanity, selfishness, power. She knew he had just lost his sister, Dis, but that was no reason to wage war on a city that he himself had ruined, a city that he knew full well would disintegrate if they went to war.
"Sigrid?" said a small voice, and she looked down to see her little sister Tilda, a blanket wrapped around her small form and her hair, the same color as Sigrid's, tangled and hanging around her shoulders.
Sigrid knelt down, tucking a flyaway strand of hair behind her sister's ear. "What is it, Tilda? It's still early, you should be in bed."
"I'm not sleepy," murmured Tilda. "I was cold."
She wrapped her arms around her little sister, enveloping her in her arms. She rubbed her back and kissed the top of her head, letting her go.
"Shall I draw up a bath? A nice, hot bath with lots of bubbles?"
Tilda giggled. "It's fine, Sigrid, I'll do it myself."
Sigrid smiled a little sadly, wondering when Tilda had grown so much. The little girl who was so small that she could be lifted in her arms, who laughed and ran after her, arms held out. Sigrid, Sigrid, carry me. It seemed like a lifetime away, before everything had fallen apart.
She watched her little sister race away, and turned back to watch as the sun rose over the Lonely Mountain and crept towards Dale. The marble statues adorning the doors of Erebor glowed, and the stone rampart was flooded with light. It seemed almost warm and safe, someplace you could live and stay and be happy. A home.
She turned away bitterly and walked inside the house. The hallways were empty and cold; once upon a time they had servants, but they had gone quietly, with all the others who moved away when Dale began its steep descent into downfall. Now it was just her, Tilda, Bain and her father, their mother mother having lost her life while giving birth to Tilda.
She leaned against the wall, grief choking her suddenly. It had been a cold day, winter approaching, much like this one, when it had happened. Her mother's cries of pain, Bain's worried little face and her father pacing endlessly along the corridor. It was nearly midnight when the healers called Sigrid inside, unable to do anything to stop the bleeding. She had been so young, only eleven years old, as she was handed a bundle of blankets that was cooing softly, and as the nurses told her there was nothing more that could be done. Nothing at all...

The clock struck midnight as Sigrid hurried into the room. It was dimly lit, a lamp glowing cheerfully on the bedside table. She heard another horrible cry of pain from the bed, where her mother lay. She couldn't see her; the nurses were blocking her view. All she could see were her hands, clawing at the sheets that were spotted with crimson drops of blood.
"Is she going to be all right?" Sigrid asked in a small voice, and a young nurse with pale hair hurried forward, kneeling in front of the little girl.
"I don't know," she said softly. "But we are going to try. And we need your help."
"M-my help? What can-"
"Wring these out," the woman interrupted tightly, handing her a bundle of strips of cloth. "Dip them in that pot," she pointed to a steaming pot on the desk, "and give them to me. Can you do that, Sigrid?"
She nodded.
"Good girl. Go now," she said, standing and giving her a little push. The next hour or so was a blur of dipping the cloth and handing it to the nurse, hearing her mother's sobs and holding back her own tears as she worked. When she felt like she could no longer lift her arms to wring out the cloths, there was a scream so terrible that it released the tears in Sigrid's throat and she began to cry quietly. There was a sudden silence as one of the nurses said, "It's done."
Just as she said it, Sigrid heard a sound that made her whole body buckle in relief. A child's cry, the sound of a baby crying.
The pale haired nurse smiled at her, handing her a tightly wrapped bundle of cloth. She took it and looked inside, seeing a small face swathed in blankets, her features screwed up as she cried. Sigrid smiled at the nurse, who patted her cheek. "You did so well, Sigrid."
There was a low moan from the bed, and the nurse hurried away again. Sigrid approached cautiously, holding her little sister tightly in her arms.
"Oh, no...," a nurse whispered. "We're losing her."
There was a low murmur as one of the nurses began to pray, her hands clasped in front of her. Sigrid was crying again, tears slipping down her cheeks.
"Ma?" she asked softly, and saw her mother for the first time that night. Her face was streaked with tears and sweat, her eyes wide and haunted. She looked at Sigrid, and there was no recognition there, none at all. Then her eyes fell shut.
"Ma," she said again, but it was a sob. A nurse pushed her out of the way and put two fingers on the side of her mother's neck. She waited. And waited. And waited.
She leaned back, still turned away from them. She shook her head without saying anything, but her shoulders were shaking.
There was a sudden banging from the door, and Sigrid opened it, her whole body numb with shock and disbelief, because it couldn't have happened, her mother couldn't be dead, she just couldn't. Then her father was there, pushing past her, drawing up to the bed. Bain hovered nearby, looking confused but sad.
She heard a dull thud as her father went to his knees, his head bowed over her mother's body. His hands were clenched on the bloody sheets, and she saw glimmering tears falling into his lap. His whole body began to shake, a grief that tore the roots of everything that mattered. Bain tugged at her sleeve and she turned to see tears on his face as well. She put her hand on his tear-stained cheek and looked back at her father, and heard him saying her mother's name, over and over again, running his hands over her hair and whispering to her, telling her to wake up and look at him just one more time.
She felt that it would be an intrusion to go to him, but she knew it had to be done.
"Da," she said, and he looked up at her, and she felt a fresh wave of tears as she saw the grief that was beyond words painted across his face. She choked back a sob as he turned away from her, and she thrust the bundle into his arms.
His face was wiped blank as he took it in shaking hands, and he held his littlest daughter close as he rocked back and forth, and Sigrid stood next to him, saying nothing but feeling the same horrible sorrow.
As the first rays of dawn bled through the sky, the nurses began to sing, a keening, mourning song that spoke of irrevocable loss and unquenchable sorrow. The melody made the hairs on the back of her neck rise, and their song filled the air, and she stood next to her father as dawn broke at last over the city and brought forth another day.

"Sigrid," her father said, nodding at her across the table. She offered him a tight smile as he raised a brow. "How was your night?"
She shrugged, saying nothing. Her mind was elsewhere, and she didn't want to engage in idle banter. Oddly enough, she was thinking about Fili. They had spoken a few days ago, and her heart had opened to him, though her mind knew better; he was Thorin's nephew, and anyone who was close to Thorin was an enemy to her. But against her will she had felt bad for him; how could she not have, when he had looked at her so? He had always been courteous to her, and showed her nothing but kindness, and while she may have seemed to respond in kind, in her mind she held him at arm's length, afraid that she would allow him to get too close, and then he would have complete control over her.
She had always been wary of love, of giving her heart to someone not of her blood. After her mother died, she saw how the light had gone out of her father for months and months, how he had closed off the world. She had become a part of him, and that part of him had died with her. He loved and cared for his children, but there was always a tinge of sadness in his smiles and a shade of regret in every laugh. And Sigrid was afraid.
She gazed down at her plate, not hungry. She hadn't been feeling hungry at all of late, and as a result hadn't been eating much. She put it down to stress, but every time she pushed away a near-empty plate she saw her father's brows furrow in concern, and he would ask her what was wrong, and she would force a smile and say, "Nothing, Da, just not hungry," every time.
She glanced up through her lashes, and sure enough, her father was frowning at her. She stood hastily. "May I be excused?" she asked, and her father sat back and nodded, but he shot her a quizzical look as she left the room, one which she ignored.
She hurried outside into a pavilion in the courtyard, a lovely stone edifice where she often went to clear her head. There was a bench running all around the inside, and it was comfortable to sit on. Nobody ever went out to the courtyard, bleak and cold as it was, but Sigrid liked it there. There was some modicum of privacy, and the cold sharpened her senses.
She leaned her head against a pillar, just breathing in the morning. The moon still hung reluctantly in the sky, pale and translucent against the watery blue. She gazed up at it, feeling a sudden wave of loneliness, so acute it was almost dizzying. Tilda and Bain were so young, and while Bain was closer to her in age, the things they spoke about were casual and carefree. Her father had a dying city to run, and as a result there was nobody for her. It was times like this when she missed her mother the most; all she wanted was someone to be there, someone to brush her hair and pick out her dresses for her and just talk to her, be with her, love her. And while her father did love her, what she needed was a mother. And Tilda, who was so young, didn't know what it meant to have a mother, and Sigrid had taken that place for her.
"Sigrid?" asked a small voice behind her, and she whirled to see Bain, looking at her worriedly. His dark curls were dancing in the breeze.
"Bain," she said, quickly leaving the pavilion and going to him. "What happened?"
"Da wanted to speak with you," he said as they set off along the corridor. "I don't know why," he added when she looked at him, puzzled.
They didn't speak as they walked, Sigrid feeling a heaviness in her heart. Bain was as tall as her now, despite being several years younger. He had the gangly look of a boy who had grown a lot in a short span of time. Soon he would be taller, she thought wryly. She would never hear the end of that.
Bain nodded at her and left once they reached her father's room, and she put her hand in his shoulder, briefly. He smiled and left, and she walked into the office, hesitant.
"Da?"
He stood, coming around the table and striding towards her. "Sigrid. I wanted to speak to you."
She stepped away, not entirely sure why. "Oh?"
"Yes," he said, looking at her worriedly. "I have not been able to see you as of late."
She ducked her head, nodding. "Yes, you have been busy. But it matters not, I know that as a king you have many duties, and have but little time to spare."
He was frowning, his head slightly tilted. It was a pose she had observed often in Bain; it made him look younger.
"A father must always spare time for his children."
She looked down, unable to meet his eye. "I am not a child; not anymore."
She felt his hand under her chin, tilting her face up. He smiled, and suddenly the gray in his hair and the lines on his face seemed to vanish altogether. "You will always be my child, Sigrid."
Her lips tilted against her will, and she returned his smile. His faded, and he looked concerned once again, his other hand tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Is there anything you want to tell me, Sigrid? Anything at all?"
Her breath caught, and she had to make an effort to keep the smile on her face. She thought of Tilda, her mother, Bain, Thorin and even Fili, and how afraid she was. She thought of the shadow of the Mountain and how she didn't want to leave Dale.
"No, Da," she said. "Nothing."

She was at the pavilion again, her eyes closed. The breeze was cold, and she was shivering, but she didn't go inside the house; she didn't want to speak to her family right then. Evening had fallen, and all was silent in Dale as she sat alone in the stone structure. Sigrid was not one to indulge in something as petty as self-pity, but at the moment she was feeling something akin to that. Of course, nobody would look at her, King's daughter though she was; she was usually whispered about in the city. The months went by, they said, and she still was unmarried, still had not found a nice husband to settle with and leave Dale. How no man would ever look at her because she was well past the required age to find a suitor. She pretended not to hear the rumors, but they were ugly and terrible and slightly true.
She looked out towards the Mountain, and to her surprise, saw a figure on horseback riding out of Erebor and towards Dale.
She stood, sure that nobody else was watching, and quickly hurried onto the streets. She burst into a sprint, not caring about her dress as it tangled around her legs. She drew up to the gates just as the rider dismounted and walked toward her.
She silently cursed fate and its terrible sense of humor as she recognized the mane of blond hair and the blue eyes that she had thinking about increasingly of late, then chiding herself for doing so. She set her jaw, resolute not to be polite this time. He was a son of Durin, and her sworn enemy. She would treat him how she should.
"What do you want?" she asked Fili haughtily as he stopped in front of her. He looked surprised, and a little offended. She ignored the flash of regret that she felt and scowled.
"I mean no disrespect," he said, holding up his hands. "I came here to talk to you."
She furrowed her brows, frowning. "Whyever would you want to talk to me? Surely it is my father to whom you intend to speak?"
Hook his head, a braid in his hair escaping and glinting in the dying light. She resisted the urge to reach out and tuck it in place.
"No, I wanted to speak with you."
She tried to hide the blush that stained her cheeks. "Why?"
It was his turn to blush. It was very noticeable against his pale skin. He fidgeted, shrugging. "I don't know. I feel calm in your presence, and it is peace I wish to feel now."
She turned away, her voice cold. "I will not be an object you wish to use to calm yourself. If you wish to feel peace, seek it in a place you are welcome."
"No- please, it's not like that," he said hastily, stepping towards her. "I understand that I am not welcome in Dale for the sins of my uncle, but I do not wish to use you. I simply felt like seeing you. Thorin and I-" He slammed his mouth shut and turned away, looking at the sunset.
"What happened?" she asked, her voice soft. She recognized the expression on his face, the tightening of his muscles and the shuttering of his eyes. She saw it every time she looked into a mirror.
He only shook his head, still looking at the sunset. He swallowed visibly, then tore his eyes away from the sky and looked at her.
"I told him," he began, his voice scratchy. He cleared his throat. "I told him I didn't want the throne."
She imagined she looked as confused as she felt. "Don't you?"
He didn't look at her, his lip curling. "Being King," he said, "it isn't a simple thing. Even Thorin- he almost gave up, when he was younger, Kili and I were only boys. He would break down with the pressure of it, everything he had to do. Looking at him, watching him struggle, it was something that always haunted me."
Sigrid was stunned; she didn't know that Thorin had bore that weight, the weight she often watched her father carry, and wished she could help him, but knew that she couldn't. Hearing Fili speak of him that way painted him in a light entirely different than the colors she used.
"But I always wanted it. I knew he would be by my side and that he would guide me. Despite all he has done, he is still my uncle. He is like my father," he said, bowing his tawny head. "But as the years went by I began to see change in him. The Arkenstone." His voice jumped a little as he said it, as if he was speaking of something he hated. "It turned him inside out, corrupted him, drove him mad. And that is what I do not want."
He looked up at her. "Today, there was a meeting. I asked him to reconsider trade with Dale. I implored him to see reason, asked him to help rekindle the ashes of the city."
She stared at him, her earlier coldness ebbing away. "But why?" she asked. "We are nothing to you, nothing but a conquest, another victory. Why would you care for us?"
They were words spoken honestly, and she meant it genuinely, but Fili flinched back as if the words had stung him.
"Do not speak of it as if- as if we do not care for other realms," he said, his breathing ragged. "I have come here many times. Your people have fled, your trade had died, Dale will soon be gone, wiped off from the face of Middle-Earth, as if it never existed at all. And for what reason? The vanity and haughtiness and arrogance of a Mountain King who thought he was a god, and all others should treat him as such." He shook his head. "I could never live with it. Never be able to bear the fact that it is my uncle's fault that a once-prospering city is in ruins."
He sighed, the braids at the corners of his lips swaying.
And Sigrid was gazing at him as if she had never seen anything quite like him before, which she was fairly sure she hadn't. Her heart softened but her mind remained stoic and stubborn, refusing to throw caution to the winds.
"But why me?" she asked, tilting her head. "What have I done to earn your favor?"
His throat moved as he swallowed, and she watched him, arrested. This close to him, she could feel the heat of his body. It was strange; Dwarves had a much higher body temperature than men, and he seemed to radiate warmth. She almost expected him to steam in the cold weather. The thought made her bite her lip to keep from giggling.
"Favor?" he echoed softly. "I would hardly call it favor." He turned fully towards her, and any thoughts of mirth drained from her mind.
"You are kind," he said. "One of the kindest people I know; You never treated me as Thorin's nephew, you always saw me as only me. Perhaps that is how I wish to be seen, and too few do see it. In the Mountain I am always looking at cruelty in the eyes. But when see you I am reminded that there is kindness, and that no matter how close I am to believing it is not there, I see it in you."
He blushed again, as if he couldn't believe he had just said what he said. He looked away, and the arches of his cheekbones were so red that she was sure he really would steam. This time she couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. She bit the inside of her lip, but she couldn't stop her laughter.
Fili looked, if possible, even more embarrassed than before. "What is it?" he asked defensively, and she shook her head, still grinning. The look on his face made the giggles come more easily, and soon she was leaning against the cold stone of the arch, laughing so hard she could scarcely breathe. He scowled, folding his arms across his broad chest. She wiped her eyes, coming back to herself.
"My apologies," she said breathlessly as she sobered.
He sighed. "You were laughing at me, weren't you?"
She shook her head, looking at the ground. "Really, I wasn't," she said earnestly. "Simply the inconsequential fancies of a young woman." The smile slipped off her face.
"You want him to restart trade with Dale," she said, leaning against the stone again. She observed him from under her lashes. "I take it he did not respond in kind."
Fili's laugh was entirely devoid of humor. "Do you think he even considered?" He sighed. "Kili thinks I should give up," he said. "He thinks it's fruitless to reason with Thorin. But I believe-" he hesitated, his voice catching. He swallowed and looked away.
"What do you believe?" she asked him, her voice soft.
At that he turned his head and looked directly at her. His eyes, while the same shade as his uncle's, were yet entirely different. Clearer, brighter, kinder.
"I believe that one day he will change. That one day he will wake up and realize that this path of wanton destruction and cruelty is not what he wants to be remembered by. That one day he will be the uncle I once had, and the father that I never will."
He lapsed into silence, apparently spent. Sigrid warred with herself for a short while, not knowing what to do. Her heart was hammering, and a dull wave of sensation was traveling along her skin, lulling her senses. She swallowed thickly, hoping it didn't show.
"It is a wild hope, I grant," he said, and his voice was heavy with weariness. "But it is a hope nonetheless."
They both looked at the sun as it sank behind the Mountain and evening sprang into the sky in hues of purple, orange and red. She felt a strange sort of kinship arise between them suddenly, not something definite and assured, but just a rare moment of shared peace, both their eyes locked on the sky.
"Sometimes," said Sigrid, "hope is all we have."

She watched him disappear, becoming a shadow among shadows as he returned to Erebor. Without the warmth of his nearness the cold had returned, seeping through her dress and chilling her skin. She wrapped her arms around herself and sighed deeply, her mind on the Mountain. Her skin had stopped crawling, which was good; the sensation had slowed her thinking. She was still standing at the entrance to Dale as night fell, bathing the city in moonlight. Her eyes were on the massive shadow that was the Lonely Mountain and she was shivering, wind tousling her hair and raising goosebumps on her skin. She had sunk so deep into the murk of her thoughts that it was only when the braziers of the Mountain blazed to life that she realized how late it was.
She hurried back into the streets, encountering next to no one. She burst through the doors and caught her breath, closing it behind her and warily looking around to see if her father or any if her siblings were lurking about asking where she had gone. She found that she didn't want them to know that she had spoken to Fili, she realized as she climbed the stairs to her room. Her father would either fret or admonish her for fraternizing with him, Tilda would frown and ask her ridiculous questions, and Bain would interrogate her about what they had spoken of until she would grow so exasperated that she would storm out of the room. She was well versed with her family's reactions, and knew exactly how to avoid it.
Sure enough, she saw Bain sitting near her room, a book in his lap. She watched him from the shadows of the stairs, noticing with a twinge of regret and sorrow how young he seemed, with skinny wrists and lots of dark tangled hair. He was all elbows and knees, his long body folded on a chair as he read, his hand pillowing his cheek.
She took a deep breath, steeling herself to lie. She pushed away from the stairs and walked into the landing, pretending to smile.
"Hello, Bain," she said, bustling towards her room in what she hoped was her usual older-sisterly manner. "What brings you here? It's quite late."
He looked up, frowning. He didn't stand, but remained sitting; he closed the book, a slender finger slipping between the pages to mark his progress.
"I was looking for you," he said. "You weren't in the house."
She sidestepped the question she knew was coming. "Why were you looking for me?"
A corner of his mouth twitched, a gesture she had noticed he adopted whenever he was stressed or angry. "I wanted to speak with you. But you weren't here. Where did you go?"
She chose her words with immense care, not putting it past Bain to go sniffing after her trail to see if her story added up.
"I was walking around," she said vaguely. "I went behind the market into the old city. It's quiet there."
She was referring to the part of Dale that had once been inhabited by traders and artisans and merchants, all of whom were now off somewhere else, some more competent realm, Gondor perhaps. Somewhere they could rebuild their lives. It was now sparse and bare, only empty buildings and the shell of a once-lively town all that was left of it. Sigrid hardly ever went there, because it was so isolated from the rest of the city, and the buildings there always seemed to leer at her as she walked by. But Bain needn't know that, she thought.
He studied her, and she smiled slightly back, artless.
"Da was worried," he said, stretching his long legs. He splayed his arms, popping his knuckles with audible cracks that echoed in the hallway. She winced at every crack.
"Bain," she muttered when he began with his toes as well. She heard his soft laugh, then a creak as the chair was pushed back and he stood.
"He thinks you've become increasingly unmoored these days," he yawned. "I told him he's just being paranoid." He scratched the back of his neck, his dusky curls vivid against his pale skin. He set the book down, rolling his shoulders.
She stopped dead, her hand on the doorknob. "What did he say?" she asked in a carefully controlled voice.
She could almost see his shrug. "Nothing too serious, just that you haven't been eating, and he's sure you haven't been sleeping either." He paused. "You have been sleeping, right?"
She thought of how she would wake up every other hour, drenched in sweat and unable to fall back asleep. She was glad she was turned away from him.
"Of course," she said. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know, ask Da," he said. "Anyway, he thinks you're stressed. I don't blame him, either." He pointed a finger at her when she turned indignantly, hands on her hips. "Every other day you leave the house and don't come back for hours, I know you haven't been eating, you practically live in the pavilion outside where nobody ever goes, and your eyes glaze over whenever someone talks to you."
She snapped her mouth shut.
"I know all this must be difficult," he said, moving towards her. "What with the threats King Thorin is dangling above us, and that winter is almost upon us, and that Tilda is still young enough to need you all the time. Almost all the time," he added as an afterthought. "But I can help you. All you have to do is ask me. I'd be glad to."
Her heart ached, and there was nothing forced about the smile she gave him. She put her hand on his cheek. He leaned into it for half a second, then ducked away and swatted her hand.
"Thank you, Bain," she said.
He smiled, already turning away. He scooped up his book and jogged down the stairs, turning his head to look at her as he left.
"Good night, Sigrid," he called.

She sat bolt upright, her nightgown stuck to her back with sweat. Her hair was plastered to her forehead, and her chest was rising and falling rapidly. She could feel her pulse in her throat, wild. She couldn't remember the dream, but she knew it was the same one every night, and this was exactly how she woke up every time. She swallowed and glanced at the clock. It was two in the morning, and when she looked at her window, the curtain fluttering in the breeze, the sky was black as pitch, a smattering of stars the only illumination besides the moon, which gleamed like a silver coin in the sky.
She sat still as her heart rate returned to normal, and put her face in her hands, massaging her temples with the tips of her fingers. Her mouth was dry; she was incredibly thirsty.
Sigrid swung her legs out of the bed and stood, making her way across the room and to the door. Opening it, she moved down the corridor and down the stairs, using her hands to guide her.
She poured herself a glass of cold water, and was going to raise it to her lips when she heard a noise. She set the glass down, listening carefully. She heard voices filtering in from her left, coming from her father's office.
She knew it wasn't her place, and that she should finish her glass of water, go upstairs and try to fall asleep again. But curiosity had always been something she couldn't contain, and especially nowadays, when anything could happen and anything could go wrong in the blink of an eye.
She silently left the kitchen and tiptoed towards the office. There was a light shining from under the door, and she wondered not so idly who in the world would visit the King of Dale at the crack of dawn. She edged towards the door, listening.
"...along, Bard," a tired voice said. "You must reason with him."
A small laugh, humorless and short-lived. "Reason is one thing he does not understand. You think I have not tried to make him see sense? And every time I am turned away, scorned, forgotten."
There was a shuffle, and Sigrid pressed herself against the wall, blending with the shadows. She heard a sigh. "Try again."
"And if I cannot?"
"Then you must leave Dale. Go elsewhere, seek your fortunes in a kinder place."
"And what then? I will have lost my birthright. I will be no more than a commoner, a fugitive, seeking refuge. And I cannot take my childrens' childhood away from them- Tilda is yet so young, and Bain has just reached manhood..." He broke off.
Sigrid hardly dared to breathe as she heard the creak of wood that signalled that the visitor was walking around. "Your eldest daughter," he said, and Sigrid caught her breath. "You could..."
"No," said her father with absolute firmness. "I will not marry Sigrid off to some prince while she does not want it. She has told me herself. And I will not use her to achieve my ends."
"And I never meant to imply otherwise," said the tired voice. "But you must do something; I have just returned from Mirkwood, and they have sent an ambassador to resume trade. Apparently they may succeed."
She leaned back, surprised. The elves sent an ambassador? And he was reasoning with them? Thorin was reasoning with them?
"Of course they may succeed," her father said grimly. "The elves are a much more competent realm than we are. They can support themselves without Erebor's help."
"Ah, but there is a rumor flying about," said the visitor. "More than one, actually. The first is that the ambassador is not really an ambassador. They say she is a spy sent to the Mountain, to settle a tab or a debt Thorin owes Thranduil."
The way he said their names, a casual thing, as if he knew both of them, as if he were their equal. Or more than their equal. It made her even more determined to find out who he was.
"The next is that there is a rebel group in the forest right now as we speak, bent on ruining Erebor. They say they are growing rapidly in number every day."
Another humorless laugh from her father. "Well, I wish them all the luck in the world, seeing as they have no chance whatsoever to even get close to the Mountain. They will be eliminated by the next full moon, I am certain." He sighed.
"Do not underestimate the power of hatred, Bard," said the voice. "You of all people should understand."
"I am not being cynical, nor am I being indifferent. I simply know the nature of my enemy. I know his power. He will destroy them in a matter of moments. Why should I have hope only to be disillusioned later on?"
"You always were a grim man," said the stranger in an amused voice. "But this is over the limit, I won't stand for it. I will go to Thorin myself."
"I cannot ask that of you. You-"
"You did not ask anything of me, I volunteered. I will try to reason with him."
"Then the best of luck to you," her father said gruffly. "Perhaps he will be polite to you, but it will end there, I'm sure."
"Perhaps," said the man. He didn't elaborate.
There was silence, and it stretched for so long that Sigrid was about to leave until:
"Will you stay here for the night? There are rooms here unoccupied."
"No, I don't think I will intrude upon your hospitality any longer. I shall ride to the Mountain now. I am sure Thorin will accommodate me."
"Very well. Farewell and good luck; I daresay you'll need it."
"I shall. My thanks for your gratefulness. I will ride to Dale on my way back from the Mountain, and will consult with you then. Look after your children and yourself as well, these are dark days."
"Dark days indeed."
She had time only to throw herself at the stairs and hurtle up them before the door opened. She saw nothing of the visitor, only a gray traveling cloak. She recognized her father's gait as they walked towards the door and out of sight.
Sigrid slowly went back to her room, closing the door ever so quietly behind her. She lay on her bed and tried to sleep, but the conversation she had just heard was ringing in her mind, allowing her to think of nothing else.
But above all rose four questions.
Who was the stranger, and how important was he, to speak of the King under the Mountain and the Elvenking of Mirkwood as if they were his equals and not lords?
And who was this ambassador, an elf-maid, who was rumored to be a spy and not what everyone thought her to be?
And was there really a rebel group in the forest, waiting and watching and biding their time to bring down Erebor?
And most important of all, would Dale endure, or would the King under the Mountain make sure that they would not live to see the following winter?
Somehow, she thought to herself wryly as she drifted into an uneasy sleep, I don't think so.

Sigrid side-eyed her father, wondering how she had failed to notice till now what a good liar he was. His face betrayed nothing of the visitor last night, nor did he look as if he hadn't slept. He only smiled tiredly as he did every morning, and asked after them, how they had slept, what they wanted for lunch, ever the caring father.
But she knew better.
She cornered him after breakfast, and as he was clearing the plates she swiftly joined him to help. She didn't speak, only helped him methodically clear the table. And when it was done, she leaned against the kitchen door, not specifically blocking his exit, but ensuring that he couldn't avoid her.
"What's wrong, Sigrid?" he asked. "Do you need anything?"
She shrugged, looking down. "Nothing, I had come downstairs late last night for a glass of water, and I heard voices. Did you have a visitor?"
Her father regarded her almost shrewdly, as if he knew she had heard. "Yes, an old acquaintance. He chanced by Dale and stopped for a visit."
She watched his expression carefully. A slight shadow in his eye and nothing else to betray the lie. Not really a lie, she thought. More of an omission.
"Oh," she said. "An odd time to visit, isn't it?"
He leaned against the counter, running his fingers through his hair. "Yes, but he is an odd person. You won't find another like him in all of Middle-Earth." He smiled slightly. "Anyhow, I best be off now; I'll see you at lunch."
She stepped aside, nodding to him as he left. She stared after him awhile, pondering over what she had just been told. Who was that man? Another King? He hadn't been a dwarf, that was for sure; nor was he an elf. So he had to be a man.
She was going to go to the pavilion when she remembered what Bain had told her last night, and sighed frustratedly, turning on her heel and stomping to her room.
She tried to read, but her mind kept straying off in all sorts of directions. She gave up an hour later because she hadn't gotten past the page she had started on, and slammed the book shut.
She was wandering aimlessly around the house when she nearly bumped into Tilda as she was going up the stairs.
"Sigrid!" she exclaimed. "I was looking for you."
Sigrid smiled and pulled on her hair, something Tilda had stopped appreciating when she turned six, four years ago.
Sure enough, she ducked away, scowling. Sigrid held up her hands in surrender, laughing as she kicked her ankle. "What is it, Tilda?"
She stuck her tongue out, but said, "Where were you last night?"
Sigrid silently cursed overprotective family members as she said, "I'd gone for a walk."
"Why?"
She sighed. "Tilda- I wanted some fresh air."
"Couldn't you have gone to the balcony then?"
She counted to ten in her mind. "Its not big enough."
"What about the terrace?"
"Tilda."
She giggled. "Sorry."
Sigrid pulled on her hair again, and she made an angry noise, swatting her hand.
Sigrid stuck her tongue out. "Serves you right for asking me those things."
Tilda giggled again. "So you just wanted fresh air," she said. "Why can't you get it here instead?"
Sigrid's smile faltered. She suddenly wanted to tell Tilda everything, from Thorin to Fili to the stranger last night to how she was so afraid, but she caught herself and smiled.
"Let's play something," she said. "Hide, I'll try to find you."
As her little sister ran away, smothering her laughter and hiding, Sigrid closed her eyes and began to count.

Chapter Text

Thorin

The fire was dying.
Nearly spent, it was only a bed of glowing embers, faint illumination creeping to the desk where he sat. He had been working hours and hours, in the same chair, unmoving. It was tedious work; he could not afford to forgo reading any of these papers, the piles seemingly growing the more he worked. Distantly he heard the clock strike eleven; it was late, but sleep had become a luxury he could not afford as of late. He didn't glance up as the chimes filled the air, the sweet sound bouncing back and forth.
The fire slowly died, the coals losing their glow. It was now too dark for him to resume. He sighed and stood, his limbs stiff from having been immobile for the better part of the last seven hours. He knelt in front of the hearth, coaxing the flame back to life. Once there was a merry fire crackling away, he sat at the desk again.
It had hardly been a minute when there came a resolute knock on the door. He gritted his teeth, ignoring it; he knew who it was, and knowing them, they would not give up, nor were they afraid of his temper.
The knock came again, and he spat a vicious curse in Khuzdul before stomping across the room and flinging the door open. He sighed when he saw who it was, not surprised to find that it was who he had suspected.
"Balin," he muttered.
"Thorin, I need to speak with you." Balin was not one for elaborate introductions, nor was he one who invested in idle banter. It was one of the many things that made him one of Thorin's favorite people, though he would rather chop his own hand off than admit it.
"Then say it, and be off with you," he said gruffly. "I have a lot of work to do."
Balin's brows shot up. "I would know. Anyhow, the rumors have gotten stronger."
Thorin snorted, rolling his shoulders. "Which rumor? I've lost track of all the filth people come up with, and I could hardly be bothered with it."
Balin sighed. "You will with this one. They're saying the rebel group just got stronger, and that they'll lead a siege less than a week from now."
Thorin bit the inside of his lip, a bad habit he'd picked up from Kili. Already the skin was sore and raw. He tasted blood.
"Sometimes," he said, "a rumor is just a rumor."
Balin shook his head. "This time, I don't think so. I've never put faith in rumors, but I have a feeling about this one."
Thorin leaned against the doorframe, scowling. "What do you want me to do, go seek them out? You know I cannot."
"Be on your guard. Watch your back. I know you can't go to them, but you can't let them come to you, either. Be prepared."
He filled his lungs, then loosed the breath. "I always am," he said, and when Balin rolled his eyes he felt his lips twitch into a smile. He waved his hand.
"Now that you've said your part, be off," he said. "I'm busy."
"You always are," said Balin, and Thorin chuckled and put his hand on his shoulder briefly before turning and going back into his chambers.
He felt he had hardly been sitting an hour when the clock struck one o'clock. And yet the pile of papers didn't seem at all diminished. He sat back, sighing. Oddly enough, he was remembering the days decades and decades ago, when he had first taken the throne, young and inexperienced and afraid. It had been Balin who had guided his hands and his mind until he was strong enough to bear the burden on his own, Balin who had dusted him off when he fell, who berated him when he was too arrogant, who sat next to him and held him when the weight of it was too much, and the pressure broke him apart. And it had been Balin who put the pieces together.
He leaned back, the memories filling him, and closed his eyes.

He felt like the child he was whenever he sat on the throne. He rarely did, but when he did sit upon it, his legs barely reached the ground, and his hands didn't quite meet the ends of the rest. He shivered from the cold of it, the stone seeping through his back. He hated the throne. His father had sat upon it, and his grandfather before him, and he had watched both of them die. The memories still kept him up at night, and sometimes he woke up screaming, or with salt fringing his lashes. He hated remembering how his grandfather had looked before he died, sunken cheeks and bony wrists and hollow eyes that, even on his deathbed, craved the gold that had driven him mad. He was buried the next day, deep under the Mountain, where no man ever dwelt.
His father died shortly after that. Of grief, they said. Thorin believed it; every day was a battle for him, as he desperately tried not to lose his sanity.
"Father," Thrain croaked when he saw Thorin. Thorin swallowed and shook his head, shying away from the madness in his father's eyes.
"No, it's me," he said, in a voice barely above a whisper. "Its Thorin."
"It's all right, father," said Thrain, ignoring his son. "I'm here."
Every day it was the same. Every day he was called by his grandfather's name, and every day he lost a little of his own father, until all at once there was nothing left.
He was buried next to his father, and then the dwarves chanted, the same chant they had taken up a few months ago, when Thror died.
"The King is dead," they shouted. "Long live the King!"
The crown was settled onto his brow, the heavy gold of it weighing him down. He was to sit on a throne and rule a stronghold. He was to hold the Arkenstone. He was to be the King under the Mountain.
There was too much to do; too many threads left untied by his predecessors, too many holes to fill. And Thorin was completely alone, lost in the wide wide world with nobody to guide him through it.
Until Balin.
He walked into Thorin's heart one day, with a smile too kind in a world so harsh. He taught Thorin, and guided him and helped him, but most of all he loved him. He would stay with him and talk to him, coaxing him out of his cocoon of grief and helplessness. There were days when the pressure of it was too hard, when he would lose his self-control completely. And Balin, instead of holding him back, would watch him quietly until the fire burned itself out.
Thorin smashed his fist into the wall, over and over, his knuckles splitting and blood dripping onto the carpet. He spun and kicked the table, the leg giving way beneath his foot, and the papers on it scattered, spinning through the air before landing on the floor. His teeth were bared, and he imagined he looked ravaged and mad, but he couldn't have cared less. He knew his five-year-old nephew Fili was staring at him with wide blue eyes that exactly matched his own, but he didn't care about that, either. He allowed his pent-up rage and frustration whiten his vision until he sank to the floor, his chest hitching up and down. He cradled his hand, the pain only now registering in his mind. His skin was shredded, starbursts of blood spiraling on his knuckles. He felt Balin's hand on his shoulder, squeezing it softly, and then he knelt next to him. His hand was so gentle, he thought, as he took his injured and mangled fist in his hand and held it.
It was as if a dam had been opened, releasing everything, all the grief, all the sorrow and anger. He leaned his head onto Balin's shoulder as the tears began, trailing burning paths down his face. He gritted his teeth, his breath coming in sobs. It was too much, too much to handle. His other hand fisted in Balin's jacket, and his shoulders shook raggedly.
"I can't," he gasped, "I can't- I-"
"Don't you dare say it, Thorin. Don't you dare."
He held Thorin as the sounds of his misery filled the room, and until his throat ached and his eyes were puffy and red, until there were no more tears left. He came back to himself slowly, his breath evening, his shoulders relaxing, his eyes closing.
"I'm-"
"You have no reason to be sorry, laddie. You are the King."
He sighed long and loud. "I'm the King," he replied, and his voice was ragged and scratchy. Saying it aloud made it real, made it something he couldn't deny. He cleared his throat, and pulled back from Balin, looking at him directly in the eyes. "I am King under the Mountain."
It struck him then, the sheer weight of what he carried, the blue blood that flowed in his veins, the golden crown on his head, the stone atop the throne. And he felt that only then he truly came into his birthright, that one moment when it suddenly all made sense, and he understood, as his blood dripped onto the floor instead of tears.

There was an almighty clang as a tolling bell began to ring, deep and loud through the stone fortress. Not the bell that signalled war, not the bell that rang when the lost returned, but the bell that signalled a visitor. Thorin stood tiredly, making his way across the room. He opened the door and walked towards the rampart, wondering whoever would come asking at this ungodly time of night. He took his time, making his way slowly towards the rampart as the bell rang and rang. He didn't even have the energy to be angry as he climbed the steps and peered down the railing, squinting in the dark.
There was a lone figure on horseback, a carven staff in his hand and a gray cloak around him. As Thorin looked closer he recognized the long beard, bushy eyebrows and pointed hat.
"Hail Thorin!" shouted Gandalf the Gray, his voice echoing around. "Is is most unlike you to leave your guests lingering at your doorstep!"
Thorin sighed, signalling the guards to open the doors. "And it is most like you," he called back, "to call for me at this hour. What brings you hither?"
Gandalf dismounted with surprising agility, leading his horse into the Mountain as the gates opened. Thorin left the rampart and made his way down, meeting the wizard just as he walked inside.
"I came from Dale," Gandalf said, giving him a look from under his bushy eyebrows. "I just met with King Bard of Girion."
Thorin grunted. "I assume you had a nice little chat about me."
Gandalf extracted a pipe from somewhere in the folds of his cloak and proceeded to fill it with tobacco, taking his time to answer. Thorin waited; sometimes with Gandalf all that was needed was patience.
"You assume correctly," he said at last, lighting the pipe. He puffed on it good-naturedly. A haze of smoke accosted Thorin and he refrained from coughing with difficulty.
"Let us not speak here; close your gates and we can continue elsewhere."
Thorin waved to the guard and the doors began to close. Metal ground against stone as the massive gates met with a clang, sealing the Mountain once more.

Thorin sat with his fingers steepled under his chin, legs crossed. Gandalf was pacing across from him, still smoking his pipe. He blew occasional smoke-rings that disappeared behind chairs and clocks, then came round and settled over his head. There were a number of them floating above him like a halo.
They had been arguing for quite a while now, and while Gandalf was wringing his hands anxiously and seemed outwardly agitated, Thorin hadn't lost his temper even once throughout the whole affair, a stellar achievement for him.
"You must reconsider trade with Dale," Gandalf said, a smoke ring circling his head. "They are dying out there."
Thorin set his jaw stubbornly. "And tell me, why should I?" He examined his fingernails. "If they cannot go on without my aid, let them find a kinder Mountain King to live next to."
Gandalf made an impatient noise, resuming his pacing. "Winter is upon them."
"I cannot control the weather."
"And that is not what I meant! Bebother and confusticate the stubbornness of dwarves," he went on, puffing his pipe exasperatedly. "They will perish."
Thorin sat back. "And yet my mind is not swayed."
"Last we met, the Thorin Oakenshield I knew would not hesitate to help those in need. He was not one to abandon his allies."
"Last we met," Thorin said, "I was half my age. Times change, Gandalf, and with them so have I. And the people of Dale are not my allies. They took my riches, borrowed my wealth, and refused to pay it back, whether it be in work or riches in turn. And so I withdrew. And the moment I did, they fell."
Gandalf sighed. "I still do not understand," he said, "why you did it."
"Why I ruined Dale?" His lips twisted. He wasn't sure if it was a smile or a sneer. "Because I could. Because they took from me, and refused to give back. Because I am King under the Mountain." He tilted his chin up imperiously. "If Bard cannot learn from the mistakes of others, the blame should be laid on him and not me. Did he glean nothing from the desolation of Esgaroth? Is his pride such that he does not have the sense to abandon his city and seek a fortune elsewhere? It is my birthright that I rule this Mountain, and by my birthright that I rule this valley. It is this crown and the Arkenstone that decide who makes the decisions."
Gandalf had stopped pacing. His face was hidden in shadow, but Thorin could see the hesitation written across it, the fear. Fear that was not directed at him but at the implication of his words.
"When did your crown and your name become so important to you?" he asked softly.
"When I realized their weight," said Thorin. "Perhaps it is time Bard did as well, just as the Master of the Men of the Lake did." He stood at last.
"Dale's time is up," he said. "You wish to know why I took everything away from them?" He made his way to the other side of the desk, very deliberately turning his back on the wizard.
"Because everything was taken from me. I know what they all say about me; the heartless King, the ruthless King, the cruel King who destroyed towns and razed cities and thrives on destruction. But perhaps," he said, swallowing, "I seem heartless because my heart died with my father, and his before him. I realized what being a King means. It means you are the master of not only a kingdom, but a master of your own self. I came into my birthright as King under the Mountain at a time when I did not know what it meant. But as time went by the secrets of old were whispered to me. My eyes opened. I saw things..." His breath hissed from between his teeth. "Things nobody would ever imagine. Things that taught me that being King means much more than sitting upon a throne."
Gandalf was silent. There was no sound except for Thorin's ragged breathing, harsh and loud in the silence. At long last Gandalf spoke again.
"Who opened your eyes, Thorin?" His voice was so quiet it was almost a whisper. "Or, more aptly, what opened your eyes?"
Thorin felt his lips curling into a frown. "I'm afraid I don't grasp your meaning."
"Oh, you know of what I speak," said the wizard sharply. "Listen to me, Thorin." He strode around the desk, facing Thorin, who glanced away.
"That stone will bring about your downfall. It has made you believe that you are unparalleled, unequaled. It has brought about a change in you, and not for the better."
Thorin set his jaw again. "It is my inheritance."
"But not an instrument for you to use to induce fear in your enemies."
"Induce fear?" He mulled the phrase in his mind, slewing his eyes towards Gandalf. "Fear needn't be induced. At least not by me."
In his mind unbidden rose an image of a beautiful, sharply planed face framed by languorous red locks, and clear hazel eyes wide with shock and fear. The bruises his fingers left on her skin, the satisfaction he had felt upon seeing them, that he could mark her like that, someway physical and visible, a way she would never forget.
"The Arkenstone," he said, tearing his mind away from thoughts of her, "is not an instrument."
"It is a jewel."
"The King's jewel."
Gandalf sighed. "I will not fight with you, Thorin."
"Nor will I with you. But you must understand that there is always thought, even behind a decision that may look as if there wasn't."
"Do you mean to tell me there is more behind the destruction of an innocent city?"
"I thought you said you would not fight with me," Thorin murmured. "But you will not fight for me, either. Will you, Gandalf?"
"In this I think not." The wizard sighed again, leaning back. "In this I think you are beyond reason."
Thorin did not take offense; Gandalf was one with whom patience and a certain amount of calmness was absolutely necessary.
"As are you," Thorin replied easily, and raised a brow. Dawn was breaking, and his eyelids had finally begun to droop. "I assume you are staying here for the night."
"Once again you assume correctly. I shall be gone by tomorrow morning, I have business in Gondor."
Thorin hummed. "Will you not stay for a few more days?"
"I have no wish to inconvenience you."
"It will not be any trouble." Thorin folded his arms, leaning on the desk.
"It matters not," Gandalf said, waving a hand. "Erebor is one place I find I cannot stay in for more than one night."
Thorin laughed a little. "I know," he said. "You would have had a hard journey, I'm sure; I shall see you tomorrow."
"Yes, yes, I shall," said the wizard, and he bustled off, gray cloak billowing. Just before he left he turned, a brow raised. "There are rumors flying about, and I trust you've heard of them. I expect you to act accordingly, Thorin Oakenshield, and allow your better judgement to have a say, else it will not end as quickly and quietly as you may assume." He nodded to Thorin, not without condescension. Then he closed the door with a snap.
Thorin let out a long sigh. He felt that the day had gone on forever. He looked towards the window and saw a faint illumination that spoke of the promise of dawn. It had been like this increasingly, work keeping him up every night. He could not remember the last time he had slept while it was still dark.
He lay on his bed and closed his eyes.

After a long goodbye to Gandalf, which included assuring him that the gates of Erebor would always be open to him, hearing promises of being back soon and a critical bushy-eyebrowed stare that Thorin interpreted as It doesn't matter if I am halfway across Middle-Earth, I will find some way to keep an eye on you. Then he was gone, his horse kicking up dust as he raced away from the Mountain.
Thorin didn't wait, turning his back the instant Gandalf left the valley, and headed for the dining hall, where he knew he would find Fili, Kili, and-
She was there, her head held high as it usually was, almost rebellious, as if she was challenging anyone who so much as glanced her way. The bruises had faded to a faint pallor, and were hardly noticeable, but they were still there. He made sure she saw his smirk as he sat, and her features filled with fury for a split second, then relaxed. She looked coolly away from him, though he saw that every other second her eyes darted to him. He ignored the swell of satisfaction it brought and looked towards his nephews.
Fili was sitting stonily as usual, his lips compressed into a thin line. Kili was next to him, cutting his gaze down the table every few seconds, then quickly looking away.
Breakfast passed in tight silence, one which Thorin felt he had engineered, though he could not have said how. As he was leaving, a dark figure caught up with him in the hallway.
"Thorin," said Dwalin as greeting. He was amongst the very few in Erebor- in all of Middle-Earth, really- who called him easily by his name and not with any honorific. Thorin had never expected him to, not when the two of them went so far back together.
"I need to speak with you," said Dwalin, glancing furtively down the corridor. "Preferably-"
"Somewhere private," concluded Thorin, already steering him down the hall and towards his chambers. "Something pressing, I presume?"
"Every matter is a pressing one nowadays," Dwalin muttered, shaking his head. Thorin opened his door and ushered the other dwarf inside before shutting it, then moving around to sit at his desk, sighing. "Well?" he asked, observing Dwalin with a narrow-eyed gaze.
The dwarf leaning against the desk was just a hairsbreadth shorter than him, but about twice as broad, a physique that often inspired a certain amount of intimidation and many side-eyed glances. To top it all he was laced with tattoos, Dwarvish scriptures and symbols inked into the skin of his arms, legs, chest and even on his scalp, giving him the appearance of one who shouldn't be crossed. Which he shouldn't.
"I'm sure you've heard," Dwalin said without preamble, "but I'll say it again, just to get it out of the way. It's about the-"
"Don't tell me," Thorin said through gritted teeth, "it's that rebel group, if I hear one more thing about it I'll-"
"Sorry to disappoint, but you'll have to hear it a lot more times," Dwalin said ungraciously. "It's no longer a rumor, Thorin."
Thorin sat back, scowling. "No longer a rumor? What is it then, a fairy tale? I wouldn't be surprised if it were, Mahal knows how people come up with these stories."
"It's not a rumor," Dwalin said as if he hadn't spoken. "It's a fact. They were spotted at the edge of the forest just a few minutes ago."
"Are you sure they didn't just see an emissary from some other kingdom?" Thorin asked, picking up a small dagger from the desk and spinning it in his palm. "It's happened before."
"An unannounced emissary?" Dwalin sounded skeptical.
Thorin raised a brow at him. "That has also happened before," he said, his mind flashing back to a week or so ago. "You forget, Thranduil sent us an ambassador without telling us."
"Yes, well, this isn't an ambassador. I saw them with my own eyes, Thorin. They didn't know we saw them, but they retreated fast."
Thorin spun the dagger again. "Men?"
A terse nod.
"How many?"
"By the looks of it? Around six hundred."
Thorin sighed, allowing the dagger to fall from his fingers. "Are you absolutely sure?"
"Positive."
They gazed at each other for a long moment.
"Then we must eliminate them before their ranks swell further, I'm afraid," said Thorin at last. "But we must send scouts first, lest we waste our time and energy looking for them."
"Now you're talking," Dwalin said with a wolfish grin. "I say we send Fili and Kili. They're of age," he snapped when Thorin glowered at him. "Well past it. And this will be good exercise, a good mission."
Thorin scowled. "They may get hurt."
"They aren't children anymore, Thorin," said Dwalin, rolling his eyes. "And there may be a fight, I'm not deluding you. But it isn't like you can protect the from the world. They need to get out there and taste it. Remember how much your father reprimanded us for leaving and roaming the forest, and how your grandfather disagreed with him?"
Thorin sounded wistful when he spoke. "I do."
"Rather than fretting about getting hurt, he encouraged it, saying that-"
"The only way to face the world is to risk it."
"Exactly!" said Dwalin, sounding pleased. "Don't be a killjoy, Thorin."
Thorin made a face. "I am anything but," he said with as much dignity as he could muster without laughing at Dwalin's returning face.
"Very well, I will tell Fili and Kili," he sighed. "When do we send them?"
Dwalin shrugged, moving towards the door. "Tomorrow, I say. They will return by the day after, and then we can plan an attack."
Thorin muttered agreement, standing and making his way across the room towards the door. Leaving the room, the two set off along the corridor.
"Gandalf warned me of this," said Thorin. "He said to be on my guard."
Dwalin gave a non-committal grunt. "Wasn't wrong," he said. "Usually isn't."
Thorin felt inclined to agree. "He was remarkably rude about it."
"Not surprising," said Dwalin, scowling. "Did he leave?"
"Yes, just this morning," Thorin replied as the two of them approached the throne room. "He said he had something to attend to in Gondor."
Dwalin grunted. "Either way, we're on our own for this."
They had reached the throne room, and Thorin leaned against the wall, frowning at Dwalin. "Is that all?" he asked, tilting his head.
"Fortunately, yes, for now," said Dwalin. "Should I tell Fili and Kili, or..."
"No, no, I'll do it," said Thorin, waving his hand. "I'm sure they'll agree, they've been..." He trailed off. "Restless, for the past few weeks," he said at last, though 'restless' wasn't quite the word he had been looking for.
Dwalin clapped him on the shoulder in farewell. "Won't keep you," he said, nodding sagely towards the throne. Thorin nodded distractedly as Dwalin strode off, disappearing around the corner.

Thorin was leaning against the wall, surveying his nephews. Kili's eyes were roving back and forth between Thorin and Fili, almost as if he was expecting something to happen. Fili's brows were furrowed and his lips were tilted downwards. Thorin couldn't tell if he was angry, upset or just contemplative.
"We need to scout the area for potential threats, amongst other things," said Thorin, shrugging. "Dwalin suggested the two of you."
Kili glanced at Fili, a quick look that Thorin couldn't discern. Fili looked back, just as quickly, his brows drawn together. They appeared to be conversing through glances alone; at long last Kili looked away, frowning at Thorin.
"Are you sure it's credible?" he asked, leaning back in his chair. "Last I heard of it, it was a story told around a campfire."
"That's what I thought as well," Thorin said, shrugging. "Dwalin said he saw them."
They shared another look. This time Fili glanced away. "Then we'll go," he said. "We'll do it."
"Is anything about them known?" Kili asked. "Vague position, motive, number?"
"Vague position is north, near an abandoned watchtower. You can see it from Ravenhill. Motive unknown, and number around six hundred and counting."
Kili sat back, biting the inside of his lip. "And you want us to...?"
"Just scout the area," said Thorin, sitting back. "Do not engage. Under no circumstances will you show yourselves. Report back the next day."
Fili was still frowning, but Kili's lips had tilted into a faint smile, clearly unable to resist the challenge. He had always been the eager one, the younger, more reckless brother. Fili would hang back until absolutely sure, and then grudgingly accompany him, but Kili was always willing to jump the highest, run the fastest, fall the farthest.
"It's going to be so much fun," he said to Fili, nudging him conspiratorially. When Fili didn't reply, he leaned back, tilting the legs of his chair so far back that they left the ground.
"Come on, Fili, we haven't been out for ages!" He laughed, an infectious sound; Fili allowed himself a small smile in return and looked to Thorin.
"When do we leave?"
Kili allowed his chair to fall back onto the ground with an audible clatter. "I knew you'd come around," he said, shaking his dark hair away from his face. He grinned widely.
"You leave tomorrow," said Thorin. "Try to be back by the next day."
Fili tilted his head to the side, his hair glinting in the firelight. "With sufficient information."
Thorin spread his hands. "Naturally."
Kili loosed a breath. "And if they find us?"
Fili looked at his brother sharply. "They won't. We can't afford it."
"You can't," agreed Thorin. "Remember, they are six hundred in number, you are but two. Granted, you are warriors, but still a fraction of their ranks, which swell every day. You can't be seen."
Kili swallowed visibly. "Then we won't be."
Fili's fingers played absently with the metal clasps at the ends of his braids, and he was gazing into the fire. He seemed preoccupied, distracted. Just when Thorin was going to ask after him he stood abruptly.
"What time tomorrow?" he asked, his voice clipped. Thorin observed him with hooded eyes. It was a critical glance, one meant to sweep up and down and assess. A glance he usually saved for interrogations. And that could mean only one thing; Fili was hiding something. And by the looks of it, it was something big, something he would keep from Thorin if necessary.
"Dawn," he replied, blinking and breaking the stare. "Not an hour before, not an hour after."
"Fine," said Kili, clearly having noticed the change in the atmosphere. He stood slowly, his eyes once again darting back and forth between them. "With weapons and all necessary provisions, of course," he went on, now standing next to his brother.
Thorin nodded, and Kili put a hand on his brother's shoulder. It was less of a tender gesture and more of an external force, thought Thorin as he steered Fili from the room. Already they had begun to speak, in low tones that were cut off abruptly as the door closed behind them.
Thorin sat, deep in thought. He wondered if this mission would go as planned. He had a feeling that something would go terribly wrong, a deep, uneasy feeling that he couldn't shake off.
It'll be fine, he thought, almost as if to convince himself it would be. They're good fighters, they're stealthy, it will work. But he found himself wondering if he had made the right choice, and if there was a lie in the reassuring words that hadn't entirely reassured him at all. He looked towards the door, wondering if he had just made a terrible mistake.

Despite being King, Thorin never found much cause for sitting on the throne. Only when he held court there, and when he had to meet royal guests, or when he needed to put a law forward. Otherwise, he would forgo the thing entirely. Make every seat you take look like a throne, his father had once said. We do not need this throne to prove that when you cut us, we bleed sapphires.
He wasn't sitting on the throne presently, but next to it, the light of the Arkenstone casting a blueish glow onto the table. The illumination was enough, the iridescent light bright and clear. He was sitting with a mound of papers in front of him, but had but little interest in the task. Oddly enough, his mind was on the elf.
Tauriel. Her name was like wilderness and freedom and endless blue skies that stretched far beyond the horizon. He knew that by royal decree, and by basic courtesy he should call her by it, but whenever he saw the way she tilted her chin up and set her jaw, he knew that to fuel her pride would be to bend his own. And that was one thing he could not do.
Her scent was still everywhere, all over his hands, so unlike a dwarf's; hers was clear and somehow reminded him of pine needles and cold air. It still lingered in the throne room, like a faint tang upon the air. He had been thinking of her more often than not, and it irritated him; she was an elf, and was hardly worth his attention. Of course it didn't matter that she was tall, and lush and beautiful, with hair like fire and eyes like topaz and skin like ivory satin...
He clamped down on thoughts of her and turned to the mound of papers on the desk again. It would do no good to entertain such thoughts. He would do his work quietly as usual, skip dinner as usual, forgo another night's worth of sleep as usual, and go to bed at around three in the morning. As usual.
He sighed, sitting back. He had no mind whatsoever to do this work, and whenever he felt complacent, no work would ever get done. He stood and left the throne room, the corridors mercifully empty. He was wandering aimlessly, his mind on the scouting mission his nephews were to undertake the next day, weighing the risks, the danger, the threats. Mahal knew he worried; of course he did, Fili and Kili were his only remaining kin, his responsibility, his sons almost.
He was still walking, without purpose or direction. His feet carried him deeper and deeper into the Mountain until suddenly he stopped, and he didn't know where he was until he was already there.
The room was the largest in Erebor, with a sloping roof covered in dwarvish runes of mourning, of loss and sorrow and grief, and a long row of pews along the western wall. The room was empty, late as it was. And in the middle lay the tomb.
It was plain but powerful, like Dis had been herself. Made of simple stone, it was smooth and soft, with scriptures trailing across one end to another and linking in an intimate pattern. The runes that symbolized his sister's name were etched onto the stone, by his own hand. It had shaken and trembled as he carved it, but the etch was flawless.
He walked past the pews and to the tomb, stopping directly in front of it. He stood quietly for at least half an hour, then he leaned his head against the cool stone and began to speak.
He told her everything, from Gandalf's warning to Fili and Kili to the rebel group, and of the elf ambassador and how much work he had, how he wished she was there to stay up with him and make the hours less harsh, wished she would give him advice when he needed it, wished she would just be there with him and ease the burden and pressure. Wished she was alive and breathing and warm, not cold and forever asleep deep within the Mountain, somewhere he couldn't follow.
He lapsed into silence, spent. His head was still leaning against the stone, and his muscles were stiffening from being in the same position for so long.
Her death had been so sudden, so quiet, so unexpected. If they had had at least a few days' warning, she could have been saved, but fate, it seemed, had other plans for Dis; she had known, minutes before it happened, where she was going. Why she couldn't come back.
"Thorin, be strong," she had whispered. "Promise me you will not let my end spark your own. Fili and Kili need you. Erebor needs you."
He had held her hand as she died, and even now, months after it had happened he felt the grief like a raw thing, choking his insides. It hurt to think that once, he had had a father, a mother, a sister and a brother. Now all that was left of Durin's sons was him, Fili and Kili. Filled with bitterness, he turned away from the tomb abruptly and walked out of the room and into the corridor beyond.
He didn't look back.

Dawn broke over the Mountain, and Thorin looked up tiredly. Yet another night without sleep. He sat back, closing his eyes. Fili and Kili were to leave in a few hours' time, he remembered. Standing, he made his way out of the room, making his way to the library where he knew Kili would be; he wouldn't have slept much the previous night. He knew his nephews, and knew that Fili would have gone to bed early, while Kili would have lain awake until he got up. And he loved the library, the quiet shelves, the rows and rows of books, the smell of paper and leather.
He walked into the maze of shelves, the smell of ink and parchment enveloping him as he delved deeper into the rows of books. He walked to the farthest end of the room, where the torchlight sputtered and the wooden shelves turned to stone and the polished floor turned rough. It was the oldest part of the library, untouched from the days of his predecessors. He knew Kili liked it here, being surrounded by his history and the oldest books of all.
Surely enough, he saw a dark head bent over a leather-bound tome deep inside the library. He was clearly awake, his cheek pillowed on his hand and his eyes gleaming in the semidarkness. Thorin watched him awhile from the shadows. He had always been delicate for a dwarf, with arching cheekbones and softness still lingering on his face, in the hollows of his cheeks and the fullness of his lip. He was still practically a child, by dwarvish standards, having come of age only a few years ago.
Almost as if sensing his presence Kili turned fluidly, uncoiling to his feet. He blinked for a moment, his eyes adjusting to the dimness, then closed his book hastily.
"Is it time to leave?" he asked, moving towards Thorin, who stepped aside to let him through and nodded. "An hour or so before you go," he said. "I thought I would find you here."
Kili smiled softly. "Couldn't-"
"Sleep," finished Thorin, nodding. Kili shrugged guiltily as they walked to the door. "I usually can't sleep before missions," he said. "Too much to think about."
Thorin frowned at him, noticing belatedly how tired he seemed. "You should have slept, gotten some rest," he said. "You can't afford to be anything but your best when you-"
"I know, I can manage," Kili interrupted. "I'll do it."
He seemed sure, but Thorin was plagued by that same doubt he had felt earlier. He couldn't get rid of the bad feeling, like a shadow constantly lingering at the corner of his vision.
Fili was waiting in the dining hall, his hands clasped in front of him. He seemed outwardly calm, but he seemed tighter than usual. Kili flung Thorin a quick smile before hurrying over to his brother. They began murmuring to each other immediately. Kili grinned and muttered something to Fili, who softened long enough to smile back. He seemed more at ease after that. It was a strange gift Kili had, to ease tension and soothe people and make them laugh.
An hour later, it was time for the two of them to leave. They had forgone carrying heavy packs for stealth, and their armor was light and leather rather than heavy and steel. Kili's bow was slung across his back, the string stretching across his chest. His quiver protruded from the curve of his shoulder, and knives were strapped to his inner forearms. Fili was, as usual, a walking dwarf arsenal, dozens of knives tucked away into the folds of his cloak and his usual double swords strapped across his back. He could see the gleaming handles of daggers peeking from his boots, his sleeves, his collar. If you were to shake him, Thorin thought amusedly, he would rattle with all the knives on him. Mahal knew how he carried it all, knew the specific location of each and every dagger.
"We're ready," Fili said, sliding one last knife into place at his waist. Kili was grinning, rolling his shoulders and cracking his knuckles. He brushed his hair away from his face, still smiling. Thorin nodded to them, and they began to walk towards the gate.
"Remember," said Thorin, "do not engage. Don't be seen. Be as quiet as you can, and report back by tomorrow night at the latest. Do you understand?"
"Yes," said Fili, "but what if they move and it takes us a while?"
"Then try to send word through the ravens," Thorin said. "It may be a giveaway, but if it's urgent do not hesitate to send me a message, I will come."
"Agreed," chimed Kili. "Ravens it is."
They had arrived at the gate, and Thorin turned to his nephews. "Be careful," he said. "Be safe, and don't be seen under any circumstances."
Fili set his jaw and nodded. Kili did the same, and the resemblance between the two brothers was startling in that moment. Thorin swallowed. "Come back quickly and stay safe," he said. He couldn't very well say anything else, and he put a brief hand on his nephews' shoulders.
"We will, uncle," Fili said, inclining his head. Kili followed suit, adding a smile into the package as he did. Thorin nodded, but even as he did he felt that shadow at the corner of his eye again, the impeding sense that something was going to go horribly wrong.
"We'll see you tomorrow, uncle," said Kili, and his dark eyes drifted away from Thorin's and beyond his shoulder, fixing on something there. His lips quirked up slightly at the corner and he blinked once, fleetingly, his dark lashes fluttering. Then he turned away. Fili nodded at Thorin, offered him a tight smile, and followed his younger brother. The two of them hiked into the valley and veered left into the forest, looking back just before they vanished into the trees, their hands raised high in valediction.

The gates clanged shut and Thorin turned, moving away from the doors and towards the throne room. He wondered if Kili had seen anyone behind him, and if so, who-
His question was answered before he had even finished thinking it as he saw a slim, tall figure standing near the library door, leaning against it. The elf tilted her head to watch him as he walked towards her, and she held his gaze without blinking.
"You did not want them to go," she said, her soft musical voice echoing in the stone corridor. He stopped in front of her, his lips pulling into a frown.
"What was that, elf?"
She smiled a little, standing straight and glancing down at him. Her intoxicating scent washed over him, making it hard to think.
"I said that you did not want them to go. You know of whom I speak," she added when he opened his mouth to retaliate. He scowled at her.
"Why?" she said softly, moving forward another step. One more step and she would be close enough to touch. "You sensed something, didn't you?"
He swallowed, but said nothing. Her smile widened, and it tilted into a smirk a moment later. "It is a pity," she went on, "they are already gone. Else you could have held them back. Isn't that what you wanted to do?"
He sighed, too drained to think of anything cutting to say. "I'm afraid I don't see your point," he said through gritted teeth. "What of it?"
She shrugged, a fluid motion. "Perhaps that you are not as opaque as you think yourself to be, your Majesty," she said, the heavy emphasis on the last four syllables dripping mockery. "You seemed quite obviously agitated."
Thorin took a deep breath, wanting nothing more than to leave, but at the same time not wanting to leave; leaving would mean ridding the air of that heady scent, and ridding his skin of the warmth of her nearness. His head spun; he felt drunk on her presence.
Almost as if she had heard his thoughts she flushed, and appeared to war with herself briefly; she looked as though she didn't know whether to step closer or step away.
She stepped closer.
He blinked slowly. A fresh wave of pine needles and cold air wafted towards him, and he swallowed, trying not to let it show, how much she affected him. Her eyes were darting all over his face, and he saw her swallow.
"Perhaps," she whispered, "you were right. I too felt it, that sense. Something will happen."
He narrowed his eyes, surveying her. "What did you see?"
She pressed her lips together. "Nothing for certain," she said, her voice slightly hoarse. "Just what I fear may come."
She stepped back, to his relief mingled with regret. She looked away, her long, slim fingers reaching up and tucking a strand of hair like a pliant copper wire behind her delicately pointed ears. Her fingers ghosted over the faded bruises, and he saw her throat move as she swallowed again, her lips slightly parted. She turned away suddenly, and her voice was stiff, but there was a slight waver that belied her harsh tone.
"It matters not," she said, not looking at him. Again, that rebellious tilt to her chin. Thorin smiled a little to himself; it was so easy to get under an elf's skin.
"Would that I could say the same," he said, not keeping out the amusement in his voice. He nodded to her and began to walk away, taking his time; he knew she would react. Surely enough, her voice rang out behind him a few paces later.
"I'm afraid I didn't quite catch your meaning," she said, sounding slightly on edge. He turned to see her, her eyes narrowed like chips of topaz and her shoulders tense.
He smiled. "I meant nothing, simply that my duties cannot allow me to grow complacent."
Her lip curled. "Duties as what? As a king, or an uncle?"
He paused, contemplating. "Both," he said at last. "I would not expect you to understand."
Her lip curled further, and a muscle jumped in her right cheek. At long last she turned abruptly. "Then I will not keep you from them," she said coldly. Without another word she stalked towards the library and disappeared inside, the door falling shut behind her with a noise that resounded through the passage, the sound bouncing back and forth until it faded away into the air like ice melting into water.

Chapter Text

Fili

The wind was brisk, pushing him backwards as he and Kili scaled the rocky foothills of the Lonely Mountain. The sky was the clear blue of bottle glass, not a cloud in sight. His hair was covered with a hood, courtesy of Kili; as he had said, his hair was "so blond that it'll look like a flare and they'll see us coming a mile away".
Fili had rolled his eyes in response, but tugged the hood up at the first available opportunity. He had valiantly ignored his brother's smirk as he did.
The wind ruffled the hood, uncovering his hair again. He drew it up, glancing upwards as he did, at the massive dilapidated watchtower looming above them. It was situated on a jutting outcropping of rock, like a cliff, maybe three or four miles above them. He shaded his eyes with his hands, squinting as the sun nearly blinded him.
They had been hiking for hours now, and the gates of Erebor had long since disappeared into the landscape behind them. He could see Ravenhill, the alcoves and viewpoints and towers that it consisted of, and remembered what Thorin had said, about being able to see the encampment from there.
"Fili," said Kili's voice, from somewhere above him. He started, turning away from the turrets of Ravenhill and to his brother. He was standing on a boulder, arms crossed, the quiver on his back gleaming in the sun.
"You do realize we're supposed to be moving, and not staring at...what were you staring at?" He squinted in the general direction Fili had just turned from. "Ravenhill. Right. We're not supposed to be staring at Ravenhill. Or you could just have been staring at Dale." He gestured vaguely at the lone tall tower topped with a dwarvish wind lance, the only thing they could see of Dale; the rest of it was hidden by the trees.
"You've been too concerned about it," Kili went on, bracing his foot on the rock and leaning forward so that his hair fell forward and caught the light, turning it golden brown.
"Why?" he went on. It's not as if anything more can be done for them."
Fili swallowed, thinking irresistibly of Sigrid. Their conversation had kept him up for numerous nights in a row; he had mulled over every sentence either of them had said until the phrases were slightly worn in his mind from having been repeated so many times. He wanted to see her again. At first he had dismissed it as something trivial, just a silly temporary infatuation that would wear off within a few days. But it had grown to be something else entirely; he did want to see her again, more and more every day. Her voice was so calming, and her smile was kind, but he had noticed the hesitation in her eyes, the way she had pulled back every time she came close. And some small part of him wanted to rid her eyes of that barrier, wanted her to come close and come closer rather than turn away. The other part of him was admonishing the former, telling it to get its head out of the clouds.
He shook off the thoughts and shrugged. "I remember Dale before," he said, referring to the time when Thorin had been just their uncle and not the king, and when Dale had been bursting with trade, flourishing with life. When the city was alive, and full of people.
"Knowing that he destroyed it...doesn't it make you feel responsible? They still live in our shadow. Every day they look upon the Mountain and curse our name, because we laid low their lives. They are reminded of what we took from them all the time."
Kili looked contemplative, tilting his head at him. "But in the end," he said, "they never really were competent, were they? The moment Thorin turned his back they fell. Doesn't that say enough?"
Fili moved forward, walking to the rock Kili was leaning on. "Does that give him a reason to take away so many livelihoods? So many people, displaced. So many traders, bereft of their jobs. They all left. Dale's population is half of what it once was."
Kili narrowed his eyes at him. "That isn't the only reason."
"For what?"
"You going to Dale every other day." Kili straightened to his full height. "There's something else drawing you to that city like a moth to a flame. One visit every month would suffice if you were only interested in how they fared." He smiled slightly. "What is it?"
Fili couldn't help his returning smile, devoid of mirth as it was; he had known Kili would guess there was another reason he kept looking towards the city. Just as Fili had guessed who Kili's eyes clung to every day, following her about the room with his gaze as if he couldn't look away. Small smiles he tossed her, ones which she returned, the way his face seemed to light up whenever she did. It was obvious Kili was smitten with Tauriel, and Fili would have been teasing him about it had he not noticed something else.
There was another glance that often strayed to the elf that now graced their halls, one that, rather than being soft and playful and quick, was dark and hungry and lingering. Fili knew that Thorin disliked elves, especially those of the Woodland realm. And Thorin could be entirely unreadable when he wanted to be, but Fili had always had a gift of looking through everyone around him like glass, while being impossible to read himself. Whenever Tauriel walked into the room Fili's eyes went first to his brother, where he saw an immediate softness, then the ghost of a smile and a slight blush. And when his gaze flicked to his uncle, he saw quite the opposite; a sort of carnality, evident in the darkening of his eyes and the way his gaze went immediately to the fading bruises on her face. The satisfaction he saw in Thorin's eyes, mingled with the hunger in his gaze had made Fili hesitate. And what made him even more wary was the way she looked at him. Every other moment her eyes would go to Thorin, and she would swallow and look away with a high flush on her cheeks. Fili had had half a mind to warn her not to succumb to his seduction, but had thought better of it.
He looked at Kili presently, weighing his options. He could lie; it was easy, and he'd told the same one time after time. He knew telling Kili about Sigrid would yield catastrophic results, so he had to go for the former.
"I needed to speak with Bard," he said, waving a hand exasperatedly. "I've told you this thrice already."
Kili shrugged, jumping off the boulder and landing lightly on his feet inches from Fili. He shook his hair out of his eyes, his bracer shifting on his arm. "Why Bard?"
The well-rehearsed answer sprang to the forefront of his mind. "I asked him about his preparations for the oncoming winter. He said that they have just enough provisions to last till the next, but he refused to accept any help."
Kili looked dubious, but seemed on the verge of being convinced. "Too proud to accept help?" he asked with a small smile, and Fili knew he had succeeded.
"Clearly." He smiled artlessly. "He didn't even let me complete wording my proposal."
Kili chuckled. "I think we've stalled here long enough. Come on, we should get moving, we'll never reach the place otherwise."
Fili fell into step beside his brother as they resumed the dreary trudge uphill. Their breathing, steady and synchronized, was the only sound besides the chirping of the birds, and the occasional rattle of one of the blades strapped onto Fili as he walked.
He wondered when he'd gotten so good at the art of lying. Usually he chided Kili whenever he was untruthful, but now Kili had turned cautious and Fili had thrown it to the winds. He glanced at his younger brother from the corner of his eye, discreet. But Kili, who had the sharp gaze of an archer, turned his head at the slight movement, catching his eye.
He smiled a quick little smile, just a slight lilt to his lips and nothing more, and turned back to the road ahead before Fili could return it.

Lunch was a meager affair of bread and cheese. The sun was at its zenith, directly overhead, the light and heat spearing down. It had become uncomfortably hot, what with all the layers of clothing they had on, and that damned hood. He scowled at Kili, whose head was bare, the brown strands lifting off his shoulders due to the slight breeze that blew through the clearing they sat in.
Fili dusted off his hands of the bread crumbs, sighing and leaning back against the trunk of the tree they were sitting under. Kili was sprawled next to him, his legs drawn up and his hands braced hehimd him. It must have been high noon, and they needed to move quickly, if they had to be back at Erebor by dawn the following day.
"It's pretty hot, isn't it?" said Kili candidly, leaning back. Fili made a face at the laughter in his eyes.
"It'd be less hot if it weren't for this accursed hood," he replied, tugging at said hood. "It's all your fault; you forced me to wear it."
Kili's smile tilted into a smirk. "It isn't my fault your hair is that abnormal color. Adad had black hair, Amad had black hair, Thorin has black hair. How you wound up with these," he said, flicking one of Fili's golden braids, "is a mystery."
Fili ducked away, swatting his brother's hand away. "You're one to talk. I'm not the one who everyone mistakes for an elf because of-"
"Don't bring my beard into this," Kili said, clearly attempting to sound dignified and haughty, and doing a very poor job. Fili didn't bother hiding his retorting snort. "What beard?" he asked, gesturing at the stubble on his face. "You call that a beard?"
Kili made an indignant noise.
Fili smiled, knowing full well that he had won. "Oh, well," he said, unable to help himself, "at least that'll make competition a little less stiff when you're courting Tauriel. I don't think elves like facial hair all too much."
Kili turned so quickly that the piece of bread he'd been holding went flying into the trees. He opened his mouth, but Fili cut across him.
"Don't bother denying it," he said. "You're quite obvious."
Kili's eyes were wide, and the arches of his cheeks were pink. "Fili- I'm not- I have no idea what you're talking about," he said, his body language belying his words.
"No? Let me refresh your memory," said Fili pleasantly, feeling the sort of satisfaction observed only when he was making his little brother squirm.
"You're always staring at her, I know you went to her room, and I also know that she went to yours, I always catch you smiling at her or making eyes at her or trying to catch her eye, or all three at once. I know you were the first one to meet her after Thorin, and you've always looked at elves longer than you're expected to. She's certainly grabbed your interest, hasn't she?"
Kili sighed, leaning his head against the tree. "I look at elves longer than I'm expected to?"
"I've noticed," Fili said jovially. "Remember that one time in the Woodland realm-"
"No, I don't remember it, and would you look at the time, Fili, it's so late, we should get moving, else we'll never find the camp and we'll go home empty handed and Thorin will skin us alive, and I'll never live long enough to grow a real beard."
He stood hastily, pulling Fili with an unnecessary amount of force to his feet. He gave him a little push, and Fili chuckled.
"You, prince Kili," he said, "are a sore loser."
Kili muttered something unsavory under his breath about older brothers, and Fili laughed once, softly, before turning back to the path that would take them up to the Magpie's nest that lay in wait.

It had only been a few hours since lunch, and the watchtower didn't seem to be getting any closer. They could see it, high above and dilapidated, but had heard and seen nothing since leaving. There was a sort of watching and waiting feeling to the task, one which made Fili feel as if he were being watched.
All at once, total silence fell. There was no sound, no birds, no crickets, no frogs making any sound. It was as if Fili had suddenly fallen deaf; the only sound that proved otherwise was the rustling of the leaves as the wind blew through the trees.
A sharp trill cut through the silence, one too shrill to be a bird, and too low to be any woodland creature. It echoed once or twice around the trees, then faded.
Kili already had his bow drawn and an arrow notched and fitted into the string before the sound had even stopped echoing, and in a heartbeat Fili flicked his wrist, feeling a hidden knife in his sleeve slide into his palm, the hilt cold against his skin.
The two of them backed into the cover of the trees, eyes alert. Kili breathed, so softly Fili strained to hear it, "A signal."
They waited.
There was absolute silence, one so profound that Fili's ears were ringing with the soundlessness of it. It was eerie; the forest was never this quiet, filled with chirping birds and the din of the animals as it was. Something was definitely wrong.
Kili was lowering his bow and shaking his head when another sound rang out from the other side, the high note flitting through the air before dissolving just as its partner had.
Fili's head turned involuntarily towards the sound, his eyes roving the space for any movement. He pressed his back against the tree, suddenly enormously grateful for the hood.
"What are you saying?" whispered Kili, peering through the underbrush. "What message are you passing?"
There was silence for another few moments, then slowly, the din of the forest returned, the birds' chirps and the buzzing of the crickets resuming their sounds. Fili strained his ears but heard no more signals, nor was there any other sound out of the ordinary.
Kili was frowning, his bow still nocked. It was as if the animals had sensed something, sensed the signal, and fallen silent. Fili slowly sheathed his blade, suddenly very aware of the locations of his other daggers; his collar, his sleeves, his boots, his waist.
He and Kili exchanged a look full of confusion. Kili tilted his head in the general direction of the watchtower, giving him a meaningful look.
We have to get to that tower before nightfall, it said.
Fili returned the look, raising his brows. I think we should take our chances and keep to the path, it's faster.
Kili's eyes widened. No, that's too risky. We should keep to the trees, low and out of sight. Remember what Thorin said?
Fili rolled his eyes. Fine, but we need to get a vantage point. We need a complete visual sweep of the area. And for that, we need to climb it.
Kili huffed out a little disbelieving sound. We'll be seen, sure as daylight.
Not if we're fast. And smart. And very, very careful.
Kili shook his head, but he was grinning. You've gone mad, but I suppose it had to happen someday. Fine, we'll do it your way. See how far we get.
He exhibited a particularly wolfish grin and moved sideways, blending to the trees, melting into the shadows almost instantly. Within a moment he was gone, the blackness swallowing him up.
After a moment's hesitation, Fili plunged into the shadows after his brother.

The massive tower loomed above them, framed in yellow light from the setting sun, outlining its edges in gold. It had take them longer than it should have, seeing as Kili had insisted on diverting and taking routes that rendered them invisible, but also late. It was almost dark, the sky radiant in vibrant hues of the sunset: faint rose, deep azure, vivid amber, soft lilac.
There were a set of steps curling in a tight spiral up the side of the tower, leading to the upper levels, where Fili could see alcoves and recesses set into the structure, clearly meant for watching and reporting; Ravenhill's own recesses were directly opposite.
Fili approached, moving in the shadows, drawing up to the steps. He turned, squinting in the dark, but all he could see were a thick copse of trees, from which he had just emerged. He knew Kili was there, watching. Seeing no immediate threat, Fili raised a hand and beckoned, moving onto the first step as Kili moved soundlessly from the underbrush and crept towards him, nothing more than a shadow among shadows.
"I can't see anything, or anyone," Kili breathed once he drew up to him. "I'm sure the tower is abandoned; it's much too exposed."
"Look," Fili muttered, pointing towards the distant hills. "Ravenhill- you can see this place from there. They'd never risk it."
Kili set his jaw and nodded, reaching back and pulling an arrow from his quiver. Fitting it to his bowstring he crept in front of Fili, then turned back.
"I'll go first," he whispered. "I can shoot if I see movement rather than engaging, and it'll be swift and soundless."
Fili nodded, waving him forward, and followed Kili into the shadows of the stairwell. The wood was rotting in places, and there was an occasional creak as one of them stepped on a bit. They ascended until the stairs leveled out, and came out onto the first platform.
The windows were shattered, persistent trees creeping inside from the gaping holes in the walls. Broken glass and similar debris littered the floor, and there were splatters of black paint on the walls. Looking closer, Fili realized that they were markings in Khuzdul.
He slowly made his way to the wall, brushing his fingers over the harsh letters. He mouthed the words they spelled, his eyes roving over the marks.
"Kili," he said softly, and there was a small creak as Kili hurried over, stopping next to him.
"What is it?" he asked, clearly under the impression that Fili had found something important.
Fili said nothing, merely pointed to the markings. Kili's gaze wandered over the letters, and he read aloud, his voice soft.
"Tower nine, sector seven, overlook Ravenhill," he said. "There are numbers," he went on, nudging the wall with his boot. Fili looked down and was greeted by the sight of a tangled jumble of numbers, just below the text.
"It's the registration number," Kili said absently, moving away. He headed to the broken windows, planting his feet and gripping the window frame with his hands, then leaning out of the window, so far that he was bent almost double. He looked right, then left, then pulled back.
Fili knelt, trailing his fingers across the ink that made up the numbers. He made a soft sound of surprise as his fingers came away wet. He rubbed the tips of his fingers together, the ink on them smearing. Odd. The marks couldn't have been fresh. Then why...
"I can't see anything from here," Kili said, but Fili only half-heard him. He was still staring at the numbers, feeling something deteriorating, though he couldn't have said what.
Dread filled him suddenly, so acutely that he stood and stepped back, his eyes darting all over the numbers inked onto the walls.
"Kili," he said, his voice catching. "Kili, we have to get out. We have to leave. Now!"
Kili turned. The sun disappeared behind the mountains with a flash of light, the brutal gold dazzling in its intensity. Kili opened his mouth to ask why, the breeze flowing from the open windows and teasing his hair, lifting it up off his shoulders.
And that was when they shot him.

The arrow flew in from outside, nothing more than a black blur tipped with red, and buried itself in Kili's right shoulder. Fili felt his eyes widen and the beginnings of panic clutch him as he stumbled forward, just in time to catch Kili before he fell.
Kili's teeth were gritted, and his fingers fumbled for the shaft protruding from his arm. Before Fili's lips even shaped his warning cry, he pulled, yanking the arrow out of his shoulder in a spray of blood. He saw Kili's skin tear as he pulled it out, saw the welter of blood that spilled from the gaping wound.
"Kili- why did you- you know that pulling an arrow out does more damage than it does going in!" he said angrily as Kili slumped against his shoulder, groaning into his teeth.
"It was burning," he gasped. "Not like a regular arrow-"
"We have to get out right now. Whoever shot that arrow won't be far behind. Come on," he said, pulling Kili up and slinging one arm around his shoulder. Kili pulled away, swallowing.
"Did they shoot my leg? No," he said, his teeth gritted. "I can walk."
Fili winced when he saw the dark stain spreading from his brother's shoulder, but knew that the first priority was to get out of the tower. He heard the sounds of feet running, meaning that backup was not far behind. They burst out of the tower, Kili's breaths labored and heavy. He pressed his fingers to the wound, hissing in pain as he did. Another arrow with a red shaft came flying behind them and stuck, quivering, in the tree where they had been standing seconds before. They stumbled through the undergrowth, Kili's blood smearing on the leaves as they passed. The reality hadn't quite sunk in yet, the fact that they'd been caught, that Kili was hurt, and had said the arrow had burned-
Kili fell to his knees, gasping. Fili turned belatedly, kneeling in front of his brother, panic suffusing his body, and pried Kili's fingers from his shoulder, baring the wound.
The damage had been done; the tear in his skin was deep, and blood was leaking from it at a steady pace, tinged with black. Fili quickly tore a strip of his own tunic and wrapped it firmly around his shoulder, ignoring Kili's responding groan of pain.
"You- you saw something," said Kili, his face shining with a sheen of sweat. "Just before I got shot. What did you see?"
"It's a code," said Fili, tearing another strip of his tunic. "An old one, I recognized it. The paint was new, so I knew something wasn't right."
He tied the second strip around the first, which was already half soaked through with blood. Kili swallowed, his pupils blown wide. "What did it say?"
"It said to surround the tower, and bring it down. They clearly knew that it was too exposed, too visible. They were going to burn it."
Kili's chest was rising and falling heavily and rapidly. "The arrow," he whispered. "It wasn't a regular arrow." He glanced down at his fingers, which were smeared with blood, and something else, something black and viscous. "There was something on it," he said.
"We have to get back," Fili said, gripping Kili's arm.
Kili's eyes were wide and helpless. "We'll never make it. We'll be overrun. We're only two, they're six hundred, and Erebor is almost ten miles away."
Fili swallowed. "We'll have to run as far as we can."
"And then?" he whispered.
"Go down fighting," Fili replied, and pulled Kili to his feet. He turned his head slowly, hearing the sound of a hundred feet running at once.
Their eyes locked for a split second.

Fili had never run so fast, or so far, in all his life. Kili was favoring his right arm, cradling it with his left, but he kept the pace as they ran. He heard the sounds of their pursuers as they drew closer, and he felt something akin to regret; they had found the camp, only to be killed before they could go back. It was clear from the direction the arrow had come from that the camp lay to the east, maybe a mile or so from the tower. He knew for a fact that there was a broad clearing there, one ringed by tall pines and drooping willows; he had been there numerous times. It was the perfect place for a large group of people to set up camp.
"Fili," gasped Kili as they ran. "Do you remember- what Thorin said?"
Fili was panting, but managed to burst out, "About what?"
"The ravens," he wheezed. "We can send out a distress signal through the ravens-"
A dagger embedded itself in the trunk of a tree directly in front of Fili, effectively cutting off Kili's words. Fili didn't slow his pace as he yanked the dagger from the trunk as he passed, then without breaking his stride, flung it behind him. It hurtled end over end, and he heard it whistle through the air, then the sound of an impact as it found a target.
"How will we find a raven in all this- chaos?" gasped Fili, and Kili answered him by pulling back his bowstring and letting an arrow fly.
It flicked through the air and soared above them, breaking through and clearing the canopy, shooting through the air. Just as it lost its momentum it began to burn with a bright, dazzling flame, then crumbled away into ashes.
"Magnesium," Kili said breathlessly. "The fall triggers a flame, and it burns." He allowed himself a small, tired grin. "It's a flare that conveys a distress call. Erebor is too far away to see it, but the ravens are trained to recognize the signs. I just hope they come through," he panted.
Fili marveled at the simple ingenuity of it. Now there was, however faint, hope. He was about to open his mouth to say so when, in front of him, Kili came to an abrupt halt.
Fili skidded to a stop beside him, realizing why he had stopped. There was a short cliff in front of them, maybe ten or eleven feet above the ground. And directly through the forest ahead of the cliff lay the gates of Erebor.
"We're so close," hissed Kili. "If we jump, we can get there in maybe an hour. Three fourths of one if we're fast enough. I say we run it, now."
Fili turned, shaking his head. "It's too late," he said. "Look."
Just as he said it, fifty or sixty people poured out of the forest, armed to the teeth. There were just as many women as there were men, their slender forms bedecked in armor.
He saw Kili swallow, fleetingly glancing at the gates of Erebor one last time before turning fully. Fili tensed, his eyes flicking over the rebels, wondering whether he should use the dagger in his left sleeve or the sword across his back.
He chose the sword, drawing it slowly. The dwarvish blade gleamed in the moonlight. Beside him, Kili notched another arrow, his jaw set.
Then Kili let his arrow go, and it struck the man in the front, shearing through his chest and out the other side, burying itself in a tree trunk. The man fell, blood running in rivulets across the grass, black in the light of the moon.
And all hell broke loose.

It was battle as Fili had never known it to be before; of course, he had never fought sixty people with only one by his side. They were a whirlwind, a maelstrom, a deadly combination, with Fili's endless reservoir of blades, and Kili's arrows. They hacked and slashed and stabbed their way through the ranks of rebels, never stopping.
But Kili was wounded. He saw the brief flashes of pain on his face every time he drew his bowstring back, every time he reached behind him for his quiver. Already, the second strip of cloth around his shoulder was soaked through, and when he pulled a dagger from his belt and dispatched a rebel nearby Fili saw a trickle of blood seep from under the cloth, splattering on the forest floor. His teeth were gritted, sweat gleaming on his face, and his arm shook when he pulled the next arrow back.
The shadows on the ground in front of Fili shifted and he spun, lashing out at the woman behind him. Her long blond tresses were bloody in places, and her teeth were bared. She was holding two slim hunting knives, both arcing through the air towards him. He drew his other sword, swifter than a striking snake, and brought them together in an X in front of him. Her blades clashed against his with a massive clang, and then both of them were pushing, fighting for the upper hand.
"You may think you've won now, Crown Prince," the woman spat over their crossed blades. "But when you're standing over your brother's dead body you will know our power."
Fili snarled at the threat against Kili's life, and growled, "What was on that arrow you shot? What did you put on it?"
She smiled fiercely. "Belladonna," she whispered.
He felt his own eyes widen, then narrow in concentration as he pushed, so hard that the woman stumbled back. Without pausing even for a breath he slashed, his sword sweeping across her throat. She fell backwards and hit the ground with a final crash, dead.
There was a sudden, swelling silence. He turned fluidly, lines of blood running down his blade, the drops falling from it like tears. He felt a deep cut on his throat, stretching to his collarbone, and feel the blood dripping from it, but barely felt the pain.
Kili was standing at the other side of the clearing, clutching at his arm, his arrows gone, his bow broken, a sword in his left hand. He was panting, and there was a long, shallow cut across his cheek.
All the rebels were dead. At least, the sixty that had come after them were. But more would come, he was sure of it. Fili wiped his blades on the grass, then sheathed them, about to call to Kili and tell him that it was time to go.
Just as he was about to say it, Kili stumbled, looking at his fingers. They were covered in a welter of blood, more black than red in the moonlight. He looked up at Fili, and his eyes were unfocused, his pupils almost swallowing his iris.
"Fili," he whispered. His voice was strangled and scratchy, and he stumbled another step. Then his eyes rolled back, and he fell backwards.
Fili moved faster than he ever had in his life, leaping over the bodies of the fallen, clearing the area between them in only two strides, but he still wasn't fast enough to catch him before he hit the ground.

They were running again, crashing through the forest and towards Erebor. Kili had regained consciousness, but just barely; he was half-awake, his breath ragged. There was blood all over his sleeve, soaking through his bracer and his gauntlet, spreading down his arm.
A loud hunting horn sounded behind them, the deep note echoing through the forest. Fili moved faster, pulling his brother along with him. They had braved the ten foot leap off the cliff, and Fili's heels were still smarting from the impact. Once again came the sounds of running feet behind them, but this time there were more in number.
"Come, on, we're so close," said Fili, supporting Kili's form.
"I don't think I can make it," gasped Kili. "My arm-"
"No, wait- stop," Fili said, and dragged Kili behind a clump of bushes. He tore another few strips of his tunic and removed the first ones, bracing himself for the worst.
The skin around the wound was a dark blue, the bruise from the impact flowering around the tear in his skin. It was no more than a ragged, torn flap of skin, blood freely flowing from it at a steady pace. The veins around it were tinged black, the poison in his blood moving sluggishly through his body. Soon it would go to his heart. They had to get to Erebor before it did; there were herbs there that would heal this wound. All they had to do was make it to the gates...
Trying not to seem as if it was too bad, Fili flung the old cloths away, tying the fresh ones to his shoulder. Kili was looking at him, eyes shimmering.
"It was poisoned, wasn't it," he said softly. It wasn't a question.
Fili nodded slowly.
His lips quirked up at the corner. "I'm not going to make it, am I?"
Fili raised his brows, pulling him to his feet. "Not on my watch, you're not. Now come on, they're getting closer."
He pulled Kili from the bushes, and they continued running, leaping over rocks and felled trees. All the while, the sounds of the remaining rebels drew closer and closer; the clamor of yelling voices, the metallic flicks of blades being drawn, the twang of bowstrings.
Erebor was so close, just a few more miles away. But the wound was slowing Kili down, and though he tried to run faster, he was stumbling. Through the tear in his armor Fili could see the veins in his arm standing out, a blackish-green tinge in his blood.
"Just a few miles," Fili panted. "Come on, Kee-"
Kili shook his head, coming to an abrupt halt. "I can't," he said, his voice oddly slurred. "I can't run any longer." He looked down at his arm, his lips parted, gasping for breath.
Fili shook his head, beckoning. "No, we have to push on, they'll kill us otherwise."
"I'm already half dead," snapped Kili. "The poison will go to my heart soon, I'll die before we can reach the gates."
"I will not let you die," Fili said firmly. "I'll carry you if I have to, now come on-"
Kili drew his sword, a short, heavy blade he himself had forged a few years ago. "We can hold them off for as long as we can," he said. "If we try to flee, we'll be overrun. This is the only way."
Fili heard the hunting horn again, knew they were close, knew in his heart that they would not make it, that Kili was right. He swallowed, drawing two long daggers from his boots.
"Then we'll make our last stand here," he said.
Kili's nod was grave. They turned to face the oncoming army in unison, and what an irony, that they were so close to home, yet so hopelessly far. The man leading the army looked to be about fifty or so, with dark hair streaked with gray and a massive broadsword in his hand. He smiled at them, clearly aware of who had the upper hand.
The army advanced, and they'd be upon them in moments. Fili wondered if the ravens had taken the message to Erebor, and if Thorin would come in time to collect their bodies.
An arrow in the throat of the leader was his answer.
A legion of dwarves marched up the hill towards them, the flags of Erebor fluttering in the breeze. Kili whispered, "The ravens, they took the message, they warned them." A disbelieving little smile graced his lips. "We're saved," he said.
He moved forward- and fell to his knees. Fili pulled him out of the way, shouting his name, but there was no reply; Kili's eyes were closed, his face had a grayish tint, and a fresh bout of blood stained the cloth strips on his arm, moving sluggishly down his arm and pooling in his palm.
"Kili is wounded!" he shouted to Dwalin, who was at the head of the army. "He got shot- belladonna- we have to get out of here!"
Dwalin nodded, hefting his ax onto one shoulder. "Cut through the forest," he said, pointing to the trees. "It'll take you half an hour and no more. As fast as you can!"
Fili knew with a sort of premonitory finality that this time, Kili would not wake up. He set his jaw, steeling himself, and tore off Kili's quiver from his back, flinging it away. Then he moved onto one knee, slid one arm under his knees and the other on his back, and lifted Kili, standing as he did. Kili's head lolled, his hair falling forward and hiding his face. Fili started to run into the forest, so full of adrenaline that he barely felt Kili's weight. He felt warm blood through Kili's arm and onto his, staining his sleeve where Kili's arm was pressed against his.
He stumbled out of the woods and towards the gates, the rush of energy wearing off; his arms felt leaden, and his vision was blurring. His throat was burning with pain from the cut there, and he felt warm lines of blood running down his armor.
There was nobody at the gates, and as Fili stumbled towards them, he heard Kili groan softly, but he didn't open his eyes. Fili reached the massive doors, which were ajar; a cold breeze was wafting from it, stinging his eyes, making the cut on his neck sting. He felt the world fracturing around him, breaking apart in shards, just as he put on an impossible burst of speed and stumbled through the gates. Holding Kili's limp form close, he moved down the corridor, blood smearing behind him. He burst through the doors of the throne room, falling to his knees.
He heard a shout, and then Thorin's face was swimming in front of him, full of fear and shock, his lips shaping words he couldn't hear. Fili felt the edges of unconsciousness drawing closer, and only had time to whisper, "Belladonna," before the darkness came and swept him away.

The world slid in and out of focus, brief flashes illuminating the otherwise consuming darkness. He felt warm sheets covering him, and a soft surface under him, and was aware of a throbbing pain in his head, and a persistent sting at his throat, but nothing else. He sank into a haze of bleary unconsciousness, wondering what had become of the rebels. They wouldn't have stood a chance against the dwarves, and Thorin would be incensed, especially after they had shot-
Kili. His body reacted before his mind did and he sat bolt upright, searing pain tearing through his head. He gasped, his mouth dry. He looked around wildly, and it was only after a few moments that he realized he was in his room. Which meant Kili was in the infirmary. He made to slide his legs out of the bed, but he felt as if cotton balls had replaced his muscles; he could scarcely move. He was looking around and trying to devise some way to get out of this damned room and find out if Kili was all right when the door opened and Thorin stepped in.
He raised his brows when he saw Fili, half in and half out of the bed, his expression as wild as his disheveled appearance. He walked into the room, stopping in front of Fili, a wry smile on his face. Fili relaxed immediately, but not fully; if Thorin looked so calm, it had to mean Kili was all right. But that didn't stop him from wanting to destroy everything in his path to see him.
"Is Kili-"
"He's resting. The poison is no longer in his blood; you arrived here moments before it could reach his heart." He put a hand on Fili's shoulder. "You did well, Fili."
Fili shifted, sitting against the bed frame, drawing his knees up. "The mission failed," he said. "They caught us, and Kili was shot-"
"But we found them. And it was pure chance and nothing more that they had chosen to destroy the tower the very same day you went there."
"But Kili-"
"Kili is fine. He's not awake, but he will be soon." Thorin's eyes softened. "I heard you took out eighty of them near the cliff."
Fili's head spun. There had been eighty of them? It had felt like much less. "We did, but I thought there were sixty."
Thorin shook his head, moving to sit beside him on the bed. "You underestimate yourself," he said fondly, brushing a strand of hair away from Fili's face. "You carried Kili three miles without faltering a single step."
Fili felt a faint blush on his cheeks, and shrugged to hide it. "I had to get him here before it became too serious."
Thorin patted his shoulder, standing. "You should get some rest. There's water on the table if you need it, and food as well. I'll come back in a few hours."
Fili felt exhaustion beginning to catch up to him, but fought to keep his eyes open. "What about Kili?"
Thorin made his way to the door. "I'll tell you when he wakes. Now go to sleep, Fili," he said, a little insistently. Fili nodded blearily, and he was fast asleep before Thorin could even close the door on his way out.

Fili burst into the infirmary, ignoring the fretting doctors behind him. They had insisted on examining every inch of him when he woke, and he had squirmed the whole while, desperate to see Kili. They had let him go rather reluctantly, and he had made directly for the infirmary. He had met Thorin on the way, who told him that Kili had woken only once over the past few days, and that he didn't know whether he was awake then. Fili didn't care if he was awake or asleep, he needed to see him.
He strode inside, his eyes sweeping up the rows of beds. He made his way to the only occupied one, drawing up to his brother.
Kili was awake; he realized it immediately, in the way his eyes were gleaming, the way his breathing was deeper, how his hand shifted on the sheets. There was a bandage across his shoulder and a goblet on the bedside table, empty but still smoking faintly with whatever had been inside. He grinned tiredly when he saw Fili.
"You took your time," he said, his voice slightly hoarse.
Fili made a face, drawing up a chair. "I had to carry you three miles, what do you think? And you're not too light, either."
Kili laughed softly. "I heard about that. Must've been so embarrassing for me, being lugged around like a sack of potatoes."
Fili sighed. "Well, at least you're all right now."
Kili held his hand, his fingers loosely circling his wrist. "Fili- thank you. I wouldn't have made it if it weren't for you." His eyes were shining like mirrors.
Fili smiled, albeit tiredly. "Anything for my little brother."
Kili laid his head against the pillow, closed his eyes and sighed. "I love you. I don't say it often enough, but I do. And I'm going to sleep now, so you're spared from answering."
Fili felt warmth blossom in his chest, and sat back. "Well, I love you too. And I'm going to sit right here and guard you from fussing nurses until you wake up."
Kili's lips tilted, his eyes still closed. "You're the fussing nurse they should be guarding me from, what are you talking about?"
Fili laughed. "Go to sleep, Kee."
Kili managed one last tired smile before his features relaxed and his breathing grew steady and regular. His fingers were still curled around Fili's wrist, and Fili untangled them gently, then sat back, sending a silent prayer of gratitude to Mahal that his little brother was alive and safe.
Fili sat back and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

Tauriel

The massive gates were open, letting in a long-awaited breeze. Tauriel was standing on a balcony overlooking the entrance hall, the smooth stone under her fingers cold. Rather than closing her eyes against the biting sting of the wind, she opened them, allowing the sights and sounds fill her whole body. She was grateful for the cold; her skin was prickly and uncomfortably hot, as it usually was whenever she saw the king.
She didn't know what had come over her; she had been alive for so long, and had served her king for almost all that time. And in all those centuries, in those hundreds of hundreds of years she had never even looked at a male, had never allowed herself to look and appreciate, and most of all, she had never allowed herself to want.
But whenever she looked at Thorin she couldn't look away. It was, somehow, an even more seductive power than that of the Arkenstone; each time her gaze would flit, sometimes lingering on the sweep of his jaw, the hollows of his throat, the sensuality of his lips. Chiding herself mentally she would look away quickly, only to glance back at him again, her gaze betraying her. There had been plenty of males in the Woodland realm, plenty whose beauty far outstripped her own, but it had never made a lasting impression on her. But somehow, the dwarf King had slipped past her defenses easily, too easily. He made her want. She didn't know what she wanted, and it terrified her, but the pull she felt was unmistakable.
And then, of course, there was Kili.
She sighed frustratedly, turning away from the balcony. She was such a jumbled mess of emotions; what she felt for Kili was entirely different from what she felt for Thorin. But she didn't feel anything for Thorin. Or Kili, for that matter...did she? She bit her lip, not knowing in which direction to go. She thought of the way her heart would skip a few beats whenever she spoke to Kili, the way she would feel the blush creeping up her cheeks and a sort of giddy weightlessness take over her. But when she spoke to the king she felt an irresistible force pushing her, whispering to her and telling her to move closer, breathe in his rich musk, feel his hands on her again, relishing in the pain they left behind.
She inhaled sharply, pushing away the thoughts that didn't belong to her. Her hands clenched on the rails of the balcony, the faint pain clearing the fog in her head. She had more important things to think about; her motive, for one thing. She bit her lip again, her fingernail tapping idly on the stone, the slight clacking echoing around the entrance hall.
In Erebor she had two faces. One was the royal ambassador, the envoy from Mirkwood, there for an entirely peaceful reason. And the other was the exact opposite. Another reason had brought her here, a reason nobody could ever find out. She remembered her king's words, echoing down her memory with brutal clarity.
"We cannot cast aside what is rightfully ours. The time has come for the thieves to be thieved, and often it is pettiness that drives out pettiness. Should trade resume, I care not. Should they reopen their gates, let them do so, for we are safe within our walls, and I cannot be swayed to respond in kind. Ride to Erebor, and bring us our forgotten stars. I will not announce your arrival; the dwarf fears my wrath should he not accept you. Our heirlooms in their hands are tarnished. Claim what is our right and only then will you return to me."
Tauriel had heard tell about the white gems of Lasgalen, though she had never seen them; they lay half a world away, over a lake and under a mountain. She had looked at her king's expression carefully whenever he spoke of them. There was a sort of reverence in his face when he did, as if he were speaking of something divine and beyond comprehension. Only later did Legolas take her aside and tell her quietly that those gems had belonged to his mother.
She had understood immediately. The queen of the Woodland realm had died centuries ago, when the elves had waged war upon the orcs of Angmar. When she breathed, they said, the trees grew, and when she smiled the stars would dim, for her beauty was beyond their light. And when she ceased breathing, the trees withered, and the stars grew colder and more remote, for they would never be graced by her smiles ever again. Legolas never spoke of her, and nor did the king, and Tauriel, while curious, knew it wasn't her place to pry.
It had been weeks since she had arrived at Erebor, and while the trade agreements were coming along slowly but surely, the other well was still dry; the real reason she had ridden to the halls of the dwarves under the Mountain was not for trade.
She felt a humorless smile twist her lips. It had been remarkably easy to convince the King under the Mountain that she was naught but a harmless envoy, easier than she had anticipated. But she knew the nature of dwarves, and how exactly to tilt the mirror so that the light shone the way they wanted it to, a mere illusion.
She left the balcony, walking deeper into the hidden corridors of Erebor. She was walking without direction, without purpose, trailing her fingers across the smooth, worn stone as she did. She followed the curves and twists and turns of the passages until she came to a massive door decorated all over with dwarvish runes in gold and precious gems. There was a carving atop it, a carving of a tall throne with a sun gleaming at its head. No, not a sun, she realized as she looked closer. The Arkenstone. Her gaze sharpened; she knew this door.
It was something she had noticed in all the days she had spent in the stone halls. All the corridors, every single twisted passage in the Mountain led to this one room. No matter how the corridor snaked deeper into the Mountain, if one followed the path they would always find this room.
She stepped away, doubling back and leaving the throne room of the king behind. Knowing that Thorin would be inside the room didn't help. Also knowing that she wanted to push open the door rather than walk away from it made it worse.
She gritted her teeth, willing herself to harden. She was an elf, a warrior, a Captain of the Woodland guard. Her mind would not stray to the dwarf King. She wouldn't think about his sapphire eyes, or the rich baritone of his voice, or how broad his shoulders were, or how pliant and unyielding his mouth was...
She dug her nails into her palms, stalking away from the throne room, furious with herself. She would find a way to put an end to the unwelcome thoughts if it was the last thing she did.

She found herself at the rampart, watching the sun rise slowly. The first rays of dawn bled through the sky, and she was gazing at the distant peaks of the Misty Mountains over the great shadow of the forest. The clear light of the weakening sun turned the surface of the Long Lake to glass, not even a breath of wind upon the air. It was a perfect morning, and it has been dawns like these which saw the earliest hunt, when she and the Woodland guard would leave the halls of their realm and blend into the forest. The Greenway still saw many orcs, and while it may have lain beyond their borders Tauriel would often lie in the shadows and wait for the foul creatures to speak their words of challenge to her blades.
She inhaled, breathing in the sweet air. She was still gazing at the mountains when she saw a faint flash of light far to her left. Her eyes, trained to catch even imperceptible movement, were drawn immediately to it. She narrowed her eyes, her fingers encircling the railing as she leaned forward to get a better view. A small white flash briefly illuminated the lightening sky, then winked out.
She felt her senses sharpen almost tenfold, her eyes roving the space in front of her for any more movement, her ears picking out even the lightest sounds, her skin prickling with anticipation. Her eyes snapped towards the forest again as she saw a dark shape separate itself from the shadows of the trees and fly towards the Mountain. She moved back, her fingers leaving the railing and encircling the cold hilt of her knife, drawing it from its sheath. The shape morphed into the form of a bird as it drew closer and her eyes sharpened.
It was a raven, and a large one, like those peculiar to the Lonely Mountain and the low, surrounding hills. Glossy black feathers, sharp, inquisitive yet shrewd eyes, and talons the size of her daggers. It perched on the rail directly in front of her and cocked its head, a soft caw coming from its beak. Her fingers freed the knife, releasing it back into the sheath, and she moved forward, stepping closer to the raven. Her mind began to draw the invisible lines, connecting, analyzing, interpreting. Her eyes widened.
"A call for help," she whispered. "They are calling for help. The flare- you recognized it." She realized it must have seemed strange, addressing a raven, but its glittering obsidian eyes belied its nature; this was no ordinary bird.
Possessed by a sudden, unbidden intuition, she reached out a hand, her fingers brushing over its gleaming plumage, the feathers impossibly soft on her skin. They looked like brushstrokes of black fire against the paleness of her hand. It cawed again, its call rough and harsh, and blinked at her, once. She caught her breath.
I must tell the king.
Her fingers were still buried in the downy feathers, and she withdrew her hand, the sudden absence of warmth chilling her skin.
"Stay here," she told the raven. It simply blinked at her again, but somehow she knew it had understood. Then she turned, almost blindly, her mind whirling, ticking over the possibilities; the flare could just have been a position marker. But that would mean giving away their position. Which meant it didn't matter...because they were being hunted. Her breath caught in her throat.
Tauriel began to run.

Abandoning all pretense of politeness, Tauriel burst into the throne room, stalking up the long, narrow passageway and towards the gleaming iridescence of the Arkenstone. Her strides were long, and she covered the distance within seconds, ignoring the shouts of the guards as she strode past them.
Thorin, who was speaking with an elderly dwarf she recognized- Balin, she remembered- turned slowly and surveyed her with his brows raised. He wasn't sitting on the throne, but was leaning against it, and he made even the casual pose seemed aloof somehow. She stopped before them, and she imagined how she must have looked; wild-eyed, her hair falling across her shoulders, a flush on her cheeks from the exertion of her sprint from the rampart.
Without even a bow, or an introduction, or any sort of formality she said, "Your nephews are in danger. They sent out a distress signal and a raven carried it here. I saw it."
Balin looked fearfully at the king, who merely tilted his head, the metal clasps on the end of his braids catching the light and gleaming.
"You saw the raven?"
"Yes," she said tersely. "It is still on the rampart, I-"
He stalked past her, cutting off her words. She hastened to follow, and behind her, Balin scrambled to do the same. Thorin flung open the doors, not bothering to hold them back as he strode through. She caught the heavy edges before they could close on top of her and Balin, and allowed them to fall shut behind them.
Thorin had vanished ahead of them, and by the time Tauriel leaped up the stairs and onto the stone rampart, she saw the raven flying away, and Thorin turning from the balcony, his expression unyielding. He set his jaw, and she was struck by the sudden and uncanny resemblance between Thorin and his youngest nephew. He nodded to Balin, who was huffing and puffing behind her.
"At the clearing a mile from the cliff," he said tightly. "Tell Dwalin to go." After a moment's consideration he added, "With at least a hundred."
Balin nodded gravely and disappeared down the steps, presumably to tell Dwalin- whoever that was. She glanced discreetly at the king as he looked down the railing, his sharp-edged profile outlined in moonlight. He turned to her suddenly, and it was too late to glance away. She held his gaze, even as she felt heat rush to her cheeks.
He inclined his head ever so slightly, and she understood; a silent, small gratitude for coming and telling him his nephews needed aid. She returned the gesture, not breaking the stare.
He walked past her, and she turned away as he passed, the heat of his body thawing her skin where the cold breeze had chilled it. As he walked by she could have sworn she felt his fingers brush hers, ever so slightly. She tensed, but he didn't turn, and as he disappeared down the steps and out of sight, she wondered if she had imagined it.
She heard the groan and clank of metal grinding on stone, and leaned over the balcony as the gates opened and the army of dwarves began the march to save their princes.

The skin of her lower lip was already sore and bruised from the number of times she had bitten it, but she persisted anyway; she couldn't help it. It was a bad habit that had been ingrained in her norms for centuries. She was worrying at the sore skin presently, not caring about the faint stab of pain she felt as her teeth grazed the rawness.
She was worried, though she didn't want to admit it. She hoped the army hadn't been too late; all she could see was Kili, his shy grin, how easily he blushed, how much he always smiled at her. She would return them without thinking; of course she did. Her lips would tilt up almost against her will, and her heart would skip a few beats, then resume beating normally. Their brief encounters always left her confused but giddy, and while she tended to linger on confused, she had felt her fair share of the latter.
She was peering into the weak daylight, and her fingers felt frozen to the railing where they had been gripping the stone for what felt like hours, though it had only been about half of one. It was cold, she supposed, but could hardly feel it. She was debating whether to go back inside or stay outside a while longer when she saw a figure stumble out of the woods and begin to run towards the Mountain. She moved closer, her hand once again drifting to her blade. She dropped it in surprise upon recognizing the tangled blond mane of the elder prince. He was bleeding from a terrible gash across his collarbone, and was holding something, his arms curving protectively around the form. A little gasp escaped her throat when she realized that he was carrying his brother. She instinctively opened her mouth to call for help, but thought better of it as Fili rushed into the gates, his brother's head lolling against his chest. She hurried down the steps and into the entrance hall, but to her surprise they were gone, Fili presumably looking for his uncle.
She heard the distant sounds of an army approaching, and turned her head to watch the hundred-odd dwarves marching back to the Mountain. Not wanting to be seen in the foyer, she quickly moved towards the pillars that shrouded the ground in shadows, and blended with the darkness.
The army reached the gates, their armor clanging and their swords clashing, the sound multiplied hundredfold by the vast stone hall. She watched as the dwarf at the head of the small battalion shouted for silence, hefting a massive battle-ax in his arms. He was maybe Thorin's height, heavily built, dwarvish symbols and runes twining across his knuckles, arms and traced onto his bare scalp in faded ink. Leather knuckledusters were wrapped around his fingers, and in addition to the huge weapon he carried, he was loaded with an impressive array of daggers and knives. There was even a massive sword across his back, etched all over with runes.
"That's not the last we'll be seeing of them," he was saying. "They've been depleted, but not enough for them to be rendered incompetent."
"Then we'll get out there right now and finish them off!" yelled another voice, and the others shouted their agreement, pounding their fists on their shields and banging their spears on he ground.
"Go right on ahead," the leader yelled. "They'll be waiting for you. And they'll be ready, mark my words. They'll meet us with another army at their backs!"
The clamor quieted slowly.
"Then what do we do? Wait?" asked another dwarf. "That's the coward's way out."
"No, it's not the coward's way out, it's the clever way in. We know where they've set up camp, we know their number, their weapons, Fili said they shot Kili with an arrow dipped in belladonna-"
At this Tauriel gasped slightly, and clapped her hands over her mouth immediately. Belladonna...deadly nightshade. It could kill even in mediocre amounts. If Kili had been shot with it...could he be saved? She looked towards the corridors, yearning to see whether he was all right.
She heard the leader continue addressing the army and quickly turned back to the conversation.
"...means we can inflict maximum damage on their already depleted ranks," he said. "But I have a feeling the honors will be reserved by the king."
There was a low murmur of agreement.
"He'll rip them limb from limb for harming Kili," he said knowingly. "I'm sure they won't be expecting to see him in person."
There was silence for a few moments. Then the leader said, "All right then, get your arses back where they belong, I need to report to Thorin, tell him what we saw and what to do next. We saw some skilled fighters today, and hopefully I'll be seeing more later."
There was a collective noise as all the dwarves began to walk down the corridor, the leader stomping off towards the throne room, his heavy armor clanking every other step.
Tauriel remained in the shadows, mulling over what she had heard. The rebels, she knew, wouldn't stand a chance against Thorin's wrath, and they would meet their rather untimely end soon. And she remembered how tight Thorin had seemed the day his nephews left, the constant flicking of his eyes towards the hills, how he had been about to say something to them before they left. She had felt it too, the need to hold them back, the feeling that something would go wrong.
She had been standing just above them, on the balcony she usually occupied, overlooking the massive foyer. Kili had seen her, and there had been a small grin on his face, and he had sent her the shadow of a wink. Before she could even realize what had happened he had turned, and had left her to blush and blink confusedly on her own.
Kili... She looked up at the corridor, swallowing. Making up her mind, she walked away from the empty entrance hall and down the passage, heading into the maze of corridors beyond.

The infirmary was a large room, resembling all the others in terms of size and general layout. But what set this room apart entirely from the others was the inside; it was broad but cavernous, with a high arching ceiling held up by long slim pillars. Rows and rows of beds were arranged against the far wall, all made neatly, their brass stands gleaming. But what made the infirmary a completely different room was the fact that it had windows.
Granted, they were high up, too high up for any breeze to blow, and too small to let in anything but daylight, which slanted through the shaft and pooled on the ground. But they were windows nonetheless. She edged inside, hoping she wouldn't be seen; it would seem strange that she was there to see Kili. Briefly she considered turning back, but her concern far outstripped her wariness. She leaned into the room, and to her relief there was nobody there. Herbs and poultices had been laid out on a long table just inside, and the air in the room was tinged with their sharp smell. There was only one occupied bed, about five or six rows down, the figure atop it still and unmoving. She approached the bed, gazing down at Kili's sleeping form. There was a thick bandage across his shoulder, a faint red stain marking the injury, and there was a goblet full of steaming chartreuse liquid on the table next to him. He looked calm and peaceful, his chest rising and falling evenly in sleep.
She smiled a little, to herself. There was something wild and free about Kili, recklessness mingled with a sort of innocence. The dichotomous combination had drawn her to him like a moth to a flame, and though she tried to deny it, she couldn't help but enjoy what little conversation they had; the way he thought was so different from everyone else, and his eyes saw things the way nobody else's did. Her eyes fell on the bandage, the waxy salve spread on it adding a faint sheen to the sterile white. She knelt before the bed, and caution whispered to her, telling her to move away, leave his side. But the other half of her mind seemed to be moving as if in a trance, and it was almost as if she was watching someone else rather than herself. Kili mumbled softly in his sleep, turning his head slightly. His dark hair fell forward and across his closed eyelids, and the blanket covering him slipped off his shoulder.
She reached out a hand, gently moving the sheets so that they once again covered him, and smoothed them down, her lip snagging on her teeth. Then she moved her hand up, brushing the soft dark strands away from his eyes, the gesture impossibly tender. His hair was even softer than the raven's feathers had been, and she marveled at the rough silk of it.
She gently withdrew her hand, and glanced at him one more time before straightening and turning away to leave the room. However, before she could take even one step she felt a light pressure on her wrist and looked down in surprise.
Kili's dark eyes were open, glassy in the soft light. She tore her eyes away from his and glanced down at her wrist, where Kili's fingers were wrapped lightly. Her breath caught, her heartbeat speeding alarmingly.
"Tauriel," he said, his voice heavy with sleep and slurred with the medicine he had taken. She swallowed, turning fully and kneeling in front of the bed again. He sat up a little, still holding her wrist, and she offered him a smile.
"You should be resting," she said quietly, and his head fell back, his eyes still open.
"Is this a dream?" he whispered. "I was thinking about you, and now you're here." He looked at her, his lips slightly parted. She quickly glanced back at his eyes.
"I see you everywhere," he murmured, and her breath shortened. Her eyes kept darting to his mouth, the sweep of his upper lip, the fullness of his lower lip.
"I saw you in the rapids of the river, and the white sails of the wind." His eyes locked with hers. "But most of all I saw you in the stars," he said, and his voice was barely above a whisper. "Their light shines in your eyes."
His fingers tightened on her wrist, and she gazed back at him, robbed of speech. His eyes were glowing with a smoldering intensity, and she had never seen this expression on his face; she had seen Kili smile, and frown, and seen him laugh and sneer, but she had never seen him with such fire in his eyes.
"Tauriel," he said, and she swallowed, her eyes finding his again. Her heart stuttered unevenly in her chest when she saw that he had leaned forward, halving the distance between them.
"Kili..." she whispered, and she gently freed her wrist from his grip. He looked down, his dark lashes sweeping downwards, and she laced her fingers with his, his skin warm, almost hot. She felt detached from herself, not in control of her senses.
He glanced up, and her eyes moved down yet again, then up, and her breath was uneven and erratic as his other hand came up and hovered at her jaw, his thumb tracing over the arch of her cheekbone. She leaned involuntary into his touch, and something behind his eyes seemed to give way. He moved closer still, slowly, giving her ample time to move away.
When she didn't, he glanced at her, and she could feel the question in her own eyes, and he answered it by leaning forward and gently brushing his lips across hers.
His lips were soft, and his breath was warm as he slid his hand into her hair, winding the tresses around his fingers. She felt the sensation as if every strand of hair was a live wire directly connected to her nerve endings, sparking her whole body. It was a soft, light, sweet kiss, just a brush of lips on lips, and when it was over she drew back, feeling her heart expanding with a strange emotion she couldn't immediately identify.
They were gazing at each other, and Kili's hand was still in her hair, and their fingers were still tangled together. His head fell back against the pillow and his hand dropped from her hair, and the sudden withdrawal of the feeling was acute.
"Rest now," she whispered, and he was still holding her hand when he fell asleep, his eyes closing and a soft smile gracing his lips as he dissolved into dreams.

Tauriel drew the door of the infirmary closed behind her without even a sound, her mind whirling in chaos. She let go of the door and leaned against the wall, one hand going to her forehead and the other brushing across her lips. She could still feel his soft breath on them, and the feel of his mouth, the curve of his lip under hers.
It hadn't even been a real kiss, she admonished herself as she tried to grapple with her thoughts. He had been under a haze of the medicine, and, moreover, it had been so chaste, and quick, and...and soft and sweet, and wonderful. She exhaled hard, pressing her fingers to her lips as she felt a smile tug at them, the foolish grin of a young girl after her first kiss. She felt like she was floating, an odd buoyancy to her steps as she left the door of the infirmary behind.
She was still smiling to herself as she walked to the lonely corridor where she stayed; there were no guests in Erebor besides her, and every room except her own was unoccupied. She bolted the door behind her and sank down onto a chair near the fire, gazing into it but not really seeing it at all. Kili had come to her room once, she remembered, and had left his leather gauntlet on this chair. Her fingers danced across the rich upholstery, the velvet soft against the pads of her fingertips. She still couldn't quite wrap her mind around the fact that Kili had kissed her.
Sanity was reprimanding her, telling her he was a dwarf, her sworn enemy, and Thorin's nephew, and that she was there not to make peace with him, but rather the exact opposite. But her other half was breathless and confused and was reminding her how right it had felt.
She twined her fingers together, biting her lip and looking away from the flames. Her heart refused to slow its beating, and every time she came close to succeeding, she would feel his hands in her hair, and his breath on her lips, and then she was a blushing mess again.
She stood abruptly, walking around the room, pacing rhythmically, her steps evenly spaced despite the myriad of objects scattered around. She was still pacing when there came a knock on the door, heavy and short. She walked to it and opened it, revealing Balin.
He bowed and smiled warmly, to which she inclined her head in return. "I come bearing word from the king," he said, and she balked, wondering why Thorin would send for her.
"He requests your audience immediately," Balin went on, and she narrowed her eyes.
"Why?" she asked, and the older dwarf simply raised a bushy brow at her.
"Even if he had told me it would not be my place to disclose it."
She sighed, stepping out of the room and closing it behind her, following Balin down the corridor.
"Requests my audience?" she asked, her tone light but skeptical. "Or demands it?"
She heard a chuckle. "What the King says goes in this mountain without resistance. His word is law; every request of his is a demand."
She said nothing, but mulled over the words in her mind, reminded irresistibly of his words to her all those days ago. "You will show me the respect I command, elf. And if you do not, then I will be most displeased. And you do not want to displease me."
A small shiver ran up her spine, but she said nothing of it as Balin led her deeper and deeper under the Mountain. They approached the throne room, and instead of going inside, he passed it, moving away and down another flight of stairs.
"The throne room," she said, "isn't it-"
"The King isn't in the throne room," he interrupted, now panting slightly from all the walking.
"Then where is he?"
Balin didn't reply, simply veering left and plunging down yet another set of stairs. The shadows were lengthening, growing thicker, darker, denser. She could feel the weight of all the stone around her, pressing down on her as they descended hall beneath hall. As they turned a corner they emerged into a cavernous space, when she could see dozens of staircases crisscrossing and spiraling away, above and below. And deep down in the cavern, at the last flight of steps she saw a faint, golden glow.
Balin made directly for it, and Tauriel followed, eyes narrowed, trying to place the source of the glow. It wasn't fire, of that she was certain. It was a soft yet strong light, colors shifting and sparking on the stone walls. It was just around the corner of the steps, and as she and Balin approached, she heard voices engaged in conversation, but they were too low and distant for her to make out the words. Balin rounded the corner, and Tauriel followed, and by now she had a vague idea about what lay beyond. The steps leveled out, now a smooth corridor. There was an open arch ahead, through which she could see the golden glow shining and shimmering. Balin had long since disappeared through the polished stone arch.
Tauriel walked into it.
She caught her breath, unable to believe her eyes. The glow wrapped around her, surrounding her in its light. Now she knew why it was so strong, and so bright. For there in the unfathomable cavern before her lay the immeasurable treasure hoard of King Thror.
It was a hall so deep, and so massive, that she could not even hope to see the far end of the other side, and the ceiling was so high it was shrouded in darkness, the pillars holding it up vanishing into the gloom. Another set of steps led down into the hall, where there were heaps and mountains and rivers of gold, silver and precious gems. There was so much of it she wondered how this one Mountain could have yielded it all.
She turned away from the vast riches that lay below, and towards the other end of the landing, where Balin was standing calmly with his hands behind his back, and Thorin was speaking with another dwarf she didn't recognize, apparently oblivious to her arrival. After a few minutes the other dwarf said something in Khuzdul and bowed, then left, side-eyeing her suspiciously as he did.
Thorin turned towards her, the light turning his skin pale gold. It made his eyes look bluer, more vivid. He didn't look away from her as he said, "Balin, go."
Balin bowed once before setting off, passing her as he walked through the archway. She could have sworn he sent her a small wink as he did.
Her earlier euphoria slowly wore off, and she was very aware of how small the landing was, and how trapped she felt, standing with the wall behind her and Thorin in front of her. She tilted her chin up, determined not to give anything away.
"You sent for me?"
He merely looped his hands behind his back casually and nodded. She raised a brow, glancing at the staggering display of wealth and riches behind him.
"Not a very official place to meet a royal ambassador, is it?"
His smile was like quicksilver, elusive and cold. "My apologies," he said, not sounding remotely apologetic. "I had business here and simply couldn't be bothered to go back."
She felt a small smile tug at the corners of her lips. "I see."
He prowled towards her slowly, closing the distance between them. She stayed where she was, though her instincts told her to step back every time he came closer.
"I am sure your king spoke to you of what lies in these halls," he said casually, tilting his head towards the cavern. She narrowed her eyes but said nothing.
"I am also sure," he went on, "that he wove a well-rehearsed tale about how we stole his rightful heirlooms and how we refused to return them."
He smiled patronizingly as he said it, and she scowled in return. "And what, pray tell," she said, "is your well-rehearsed tale?"
His smile widened. "Something that may sound quite familiar. Your king," he said, "refused to return our rightful pay to my grandfather, for which we withheld the jewels from him." He folded his arms across his chest. "Or perhaps that was not familiar to you, seeing as it is the truth."
She bristled at the implications of his words. "Do enlighten me," she snapped.
He smiled pleasantly. "With pleasure," he said. He began to pace around the landing, his hands once again looped behind his back.
"The white gems of Lasgalen are, by birthright, the property of the Elvenking of Mirkwood," he began, nodding to her. She folded her arms, unyielding.
"However, they were put in these halls many centuries ago, long before your people waged war on the lands of Angmar. In due time, of course, we fully intended to return them to their rightful owner. In this case, that is Thranduil." He paused. "As you very well know, our trade with your realm mainly involved gold. Over time your king began to give us an inadequate return for what we in turn gave them. Upon confronting him about it he refused to comment, nor did he avow what he had done. My grandfather attempted to reason with him, to which he did not respond in kind. The next time he graced our halls we made it known that he was no longer welcome there, and his gems have lain here ever since."
He was directly in front of her now, and his features were thrown into sharp relief; she could see every fleck of darker blue in his eyes, the voluptuous curve of his lip, the hollows of his throat. She met his gaze evenly.
"And yet that is not what I heard," she said, tossing her hair back. "I distinctly recall hearing that it was not my king's arrogance, but your king's greed, that ensured the gems of Lasgalen were locked away in the Lonely Mountain. They say his love of treasure drove him mad, and it was in this delirium that he scorned my people." She forced herself to look directly at him, and observed him with hooded, glittering eyes.
"Am I misinformed?" she asked, her tone a shade too innocent. His gaze had darkened fractionally, and something in his eyes seemed to fracture at the mention of his grandfather. She saw his hands clench slightly, but he showed no other outward signs of agitation.
"My grandfather scorned your king because he neglected our relations. Disdain for disdain, you see. It was only fitting that we kept the gems."
She raised a brow, noticing that he had skillfully avoided the question, but pursued it no further; the subject of his grandfather seemed to have struck a nerve.
"And did my king have a say in the matter?" she asked, and was rewarded with a quick smile.
"What do you think?" he said, and turned away, moving down the steps. "Come," he commanded, and she scowled but complied. He turned left into a smaller room off the hall just below the steps, and she followed, wondering what he was doing.
When she stepped into the room, for a moment her eyes couldn't quite process what they were seeing; the whole room seemed to be shimmering and glittering. She blinked several times, and slowly, the room swam into focus.
The hall outside may have been reserved for gold, but this room had been devoted entirely to gems. Rack upon rack upon rack of the glimmering stones lined the walls, of all shapes and sizes. But it was the colors that truly drew her eye; fathomless blue, pastel pink, sunset orange, palest jade. Every facet of every gem seemed to spark at once, nearly blinding her.
Thorin had walked to the far end of the room, and drew out a small chest. She watched him, arrested, as he drew out something long and pale and glittering, something so bright and luminous and glimmering that it took her breath away.
"Gems of starlight, he called them," said Thorin softly, glancing at her. "Pure starlight."
She tore her eyes away from the gems of Lasgalen and their spangled light. "That they are," she said, and heard her king's voice as if from far away, say, "Bring us our forgotten stars."
He carelessly dropped the necklace back into the chest, and she heard the faint clink as it fell inside. She watched as he slid the chest back into its alcove, and made his way to her again. The shimmering light of the gems surrounded him like a halo, shrouding him in pale light. She raised her head defiantly.
"Is this why you summoned me?"
He regarded her with an unreadable expression. "No." He sighed. "I wished to discuss with you the matter of trade. You have been here quite a while, and what with that rebel group, and Kili..." He trailed off, then straightened again. "Discussion has been nil. What does your king have to say for this?"
It took but a moment to gather her thoughts. "We are all but ready to resume trade," she said. "And the Running River may serve as a link between our realms, as it once did for ours and Esgaroth."
He frowned at her. "And is he ready to repay what he owes us?"
She set her jaw. "Quite the contrary," she said. "He is ready to accept payment for what your grandfather withheld from him."
Thorin's brows shot up. "I should not have expected anything less, I think," he said. "Does he plan to meet with me in person?"
She thought for a moment. "No."
"Hmm," he said, eyes glittering dangerously. "No... what?"
She stared at him, feeling her face flush with anger. "No," she bit out, "my lord."
"Good." His voice was awash with satisfaction. "Now," he went on, "you said he wishes for me to return the gems."
She felt it safest to nod.
"You may tell him that deliberation is underway," he sighed. "He cannot expect me to make up my mind with the rising and falling of a few suns. The decisions of my forefathers were made with an intention, and it is not a simple task to disregard that."
He walked past her and out of the room, and she hastened to follow. He had a forceful gait, and his strides were long, and as a result it was hard to keep up with him despite being almost a foot taller.
As they left the cavern behind she chanced once more glance at the rivers of gold below her before she walked through the archway and up into the corridor, leaving the treasure trove of the King under the Mountain behind.

The nib of her quill hovered over the blank sheaf of parchment. It had been hovering there for quite a while, and as she wondered how to begin the letter a drop of ink rolled off the tip and fell onto the paper, the gleaming black dot getting absorbed instantly and spreading across the sheet. She sighed and pressed the nib to the small blot, succeeding in smearing the mess around. Making a face she slid the ruined parchment under a new sheet, dipping the quill into the small pot of ink and once again holding it over the blank page.
She had never been this far away from home before, due to which she had never really found cause to write to anyone. She didn't know how to start; writing to someone was an entirely different way of communication than speaking was, and one didn't employ the words they used to write while speaking.
She blew out a frustrated breath, blowing an indefatigable strand of hair out of her eyes. She knew she had to write the letter, though under the guise of simply appearing homesick. She snorted a little, to herself. She knew Legolas' eyes would immediately skip over the thin layer of polite banter and see her true meaning underneath.
She laid the quill down next to the sheet and gathered her hair up, twisting it into a loose knot behind her head. Securing it, she picked up the quill again and set it to the paper, quickly sketching out a façade of phrases that would appear harmless to any who read it, but the undercurrents of subtlety and deception would be evident to Legolas. Signing it with several flourishes, she rolled the parchment up and tied it with a length of twine, setting it down on the desk; she would send it later.
She wound a curl of hair that had come loose around her finger, frowning at the sparks that danced in the hearth. Today hadn't been a complete waste; she hadn't gotten any further to negotiate with Thorin, but at least now she knew where the gems were kept, and what the dwarves had to say about it.
Thorin's version of events had troubled her more than she had let show, partially because she was tempted to believe him. His story added up to what she knew, and what she had found out, over the years, and it seemed like the kind of thing her king might do. It was often that he turned his back on other lands, believing that as long as his realm was safe the fate of every other didn't matter. Unbeknownst to Thorin, those gems had once belonged to the queen, Thranduil's wife; she had a feeling he would be even more unwilling to return them should he have known. He had no use for the gems, she knew; he was a dwarf, and the heirlooms of Wood-Elves would hardly be of any merit for him. But the fact that he had acquired them, and that they were in his halls and not the elves' was what made it a prize for the King under the Mountain.
She unraveled the thread binding the scroll and opened it, the soft parchment curling around her fingers. She read and reread the letter over and over again, looking at it in a different angle each time. Once she was satisfied nobody could glean anything from it, she tied it again, flinging it onto the desk and standing. She quickly changed out of her tunic as into a thin shift of a nightgown whose strings laced across the front. Then she proceeded to collapse onto the mattress.
She gazed at the dark canvas of the bed above her, floating in a haze of semiconsciousness, simply contemplating. It was tipping into winter, and at the Woodland realm there would be a revel to welcome the oncoming season. Usually she and Legolas would forgo the celebrations, instead going into the forest to hunt, stealing as many hours as they could without hindrance. This time he would have to attend, what with his father being the king, and that she was not there to whisk him away into the recesses and bowels of Mirkwood.
She missed the trees, and the high winds, and the haunting music that poured from the halls of her kin while starlight shimmered and glimmered like water upon the ground, undulating with the music like a snake before its charmer.
She turned, burrowing deeper into the covers. She wondered if Kili had woken yet, and if so, would he remember waking up and seeing her, speaking with her, kissing her? She blushed despite being alone, and bit her lip, the sore skin abraded by her teeth. It wouldn't do to dwell on thoughts like that, not when he didn't even know the truth about why she was there.
I saw you in the rapids of the river, and the white sails of the wind, he had said. She shook her head, feeling hot and cold all at once.
She slowly drifted away into sleep, and just before she closed her eyes she saw a burst of sparks as the wood in the fire burned out, leaching the room of light and plunging it into darkness.

Neither Fili nor Kili were at breakfast the following morning, and Tauriel initially felt uncomfortable without their presence, then chided herself for thinking so. She kept her face devoid of expression as the meal passed in silence, and it was broken only when the leader of the army came marching into the room halfway through.
He didn't begin with the usual your majesty or even my lord, simply walking right up to Thorin where he sat at the head of the table and said, "Thorin, the army is ready. Whenever you feel inclined to go, go. Get it over with, if you're asking me. Kili still isn't awake," he added as an afterthought, as if he knew that would make Thorin leave. "He took the tisane and he's sleeping, but Fili insisted on barging in there anyway."
Thorin scoffed slightly, albeit fondly. "Of course he did. And what news from the rebels? Still hiding and waiting, or have they got the brains to flee when they still can?"
"Unfortunately not," grunted the captain. "They almost seem to be waiting for you."
Thorin's laugh was low and short-lived. "Good," he said, slamming his palm onto the table and standing.
"Might as well give them a show," he added with a grin, and clapped the other dwarf on the shoulder. They left the room together, and just before Thorin left he turned and looked at her, and there was something unidentifiable in his gaze, something dark, almost predatory. She could almost feel the weight of it, lingering on her face, dipping downwards and making her cheeks burn. Then the door fell shut behind him with a final clang, leaving her alone in the room.
She turned away from the door, curling her hands into fists. She stood suddenly, leaving her breakfast half-eaten, not caring whether it would seem rude or not.
She strode to the infirmary, meaning only to see if Kili was awake. She glanced inside through a crack in the door and saw a flash of familiar tawny hair, and heard voices. So Kili was awake, and his brother was there looking after him. She felt a small spark of relief that the elder prince was all right as well, and that the two were together. Cut one, and the other would bleed.
She left before either of them could see her, and walked to her regular vantage point overlooking the entrance hall. She kept to the shadows, knowing that soon the gates would open, yearning to feel the breeze again.
Before long she heard the rhythmic march of hundreds and hundreds of feet, and pressed herself against the wall as the army of dwarves emerged from the armory. The gates opened slowly, and as the sunlight speared inside and lit the hall to a dazzling intensity she saw Thorin at their head, a massive broadsword strapped to his back. The army moved forward, leaving Erebor behind. And as Tauriel stepped forward into the sunlight, she heard the low, piercing note of the horn that echoed through the valley as the dwarves began the hunt to find their prey.

Chapter Text

Legolas

The Orc fell with a mundane finality, the crash of its body hitting the ground resounding around the forest. His arrow had gone clean through its brain, and had flown with such force that it emerged cleanly from the orc's head and into another's throat, dispatching both at once. He didn't have time to react as he spun, lashing out with deadly accuracy at the other orcs behind him. They fell by his hand, one by one, some with daggers slipped between their ribs, some beheaded, and some with arrows spurting from their felled bodies. He felt the air shift behind him fractionally, felt the winds blowing another orc's scent towards him. He leaped upwards, planting his foot on the rough bark of the tree and using the leverage to flip backwards through the air, landing in a slight crouch just behind the Orc that had been foolish enough to think it could trick him. As it turned in surprise, Legolas calmly reached out and drove his knife into its throat.
Black blood spurted, coating the blade as he drew his hand back. The Orc fumbled for the blade, its eyes rolling backwards, and pulled it out, drowning in its own blood. As it fell Legolas caught the dagger, spinning it in his palm once before sliding it back into its sheath at his back. He glanced around at the massacre he had instigated, at the sluggish black blood that now ran across the ground in a widening pool. He ran a practiced eye over the scene, senses alert for any more threats. Seeing and hearing none, he retrieved his arrows, cleaned his blades, restrung his bow and left the clearing.
A harmless exercise; that was what it had been, killing those orcs. They often wandered the Greenway, engaging in petty crimes, as only orcs could do. And while the Greenway lay beyond the borders of the Woodland realm, he felt it would be something akin to selfishness to turn a blind eye to it.
He re-entered the gloom of the forest, feeling his pupils dilate to accommodate the shadows, his vision sparking as the forest came into sharp focus suddenly. Once, it had been called the Great Greenwood, bordering the Greenway, the leaves merry and vivid in hues of green and yellow. But over the years the shadows had lengthened and thickened, and heavy illusion had settled over it, turning the leaves black and gray. The people began to call it Mirkwood, and now the Greenwood of old was but a myth, dissolving into the shadows of the new age.
It took him but a moment to locate the winding stone path that would lead him to the halls of his people, the pale, cracked serpentine track gleaming in the dark. Upon finding it, he scaled a tree directly next to it and kept lithely from branch to branch, his feet barely touching the wood as he moved across the trees. The path was one too exposed, and it was often that they saw travelers or wanderers roaming it. As a result, Legolas had taken to moving across the trees, soundless and out of sight.
His hand wrapped around a branch and he swung easily to the next tree, his feet finding purchase on the rough bark instantly. Gripping his bow with his other hand he moved alongside the path until he heard the sounds of running water. Allowing his fingers to free the branch, Legolas dropped from the foliage and landed lightly on his feet, walking towards the elven gate.
It was just after dawn, the light clear and transparent, sunlight filtering through the gaps in the trees. It lit the gates to a benevolent splendor, the river running under it arcing through the air and crashing against the bottom of the bridge, mist curling upwards and catching the light. Arrays of color spangled the doors as the sunlight slanted through the mist.
He walked along the bridge, the spray of the river peppering droplets onto his boots. Almost every day the same sight greeted him; the blue wooden doors, etched all over with raised whorls, the high willowy pillars, and the trees standing guard, flanking the doors. As he approached, his footfalls near silent, the doors swung open to accommodate him. He walked through, inclining his head to the guards inside.
It was always with Tauriel that he went out to hunt, as only she could persuade him to stay out longer, allow the moon to rise and the stars to come out, to creep beyond the borders of their realm and wait in the shadows of the Greenway. They would climb the highest trees and lay out on the branches and gaze at the stars, allow their light to mingle with the air, heavy with magic. It felt incomplete, leaving without her, returning without her, hunting without her. She was far away, in the stronghold of the dwarves, and it had been weeks since she had left. Since then every hunt felt half as exhilarating, every revel felt half as lively, and every day felt half as memorable.
He was making his way across the endless paths of the Woodland realm, not entirely conscious of his steps, though his body was carrying him to his chambers. He mechanically opened the doors, then closed them, then proceeded to remove his armor. He hung his sword up, tucked his bow away into its compartment, donned a simple tunic with leather trousers and boots, then walked to the window, which he threw open.
The morning burst into the room, the wind swirling, the daylight falling and the scents of the forest filtering through the window. He bowed his head over the rail and breathed, allowing the cool air to relax his muscles, which were still coiled tight with tension. The soothing sounds of the forest seeped into his body, calming him.
A brief knock sounded on the door, and he went to it, opening the door. An armored elf stood there, a soldier from the king's throne room. He bowed his head, his chestnut hair falling forward onto his shoulders.
"Hír nin Legolas," he said. "I bring word from your father. He wishes to speak with you."
Legolas held back a sigh and inclined his head, moving forward to close the door of his chambers behind him and walking with the guard along the winding wooden paths, ascending slowly towards the throne of the King. At the steps that led to the throne his escort bowed shortly and blended with the others standing guard.
The king was standing directly in front of him, his back turned. Legolas said nothing, knowing that the king was not to be spoken to unless he was spoken to. So he folded his hands together and stared into middle distance, his expression smoothening and growing blank. At long last the king turned, his red satin robes swirling around his long, lithe form like tendrils of mist. The fingers of the crown atop his pale hair swept upwards, framing his face in shadow, accentuating the haunting gray-blue of the eyes that exactly matched Legolas' own. His face was as unyielding as his posture, which was upright and proud.
"The laws of this realm," said the king, "are as clear as they are just."
Tilting his head to the side so that sheets of long, silvery hair fell down his shoulder, glimmering against the silken gray of his tunic, he gazed at his son, eyes gleaming shrewdly.
"Do you not agree?" the King went on, and Legolas forced himself to meet his father's gaze.
"I do, my lord."
"Then why," said Thranduil, "do you insist upon breaking them?" He didn't move as he spoke. "Thrice you have deliberately disobeyed me by venturing beyond our borders, and thrice have I turned a blind eye. But as the days slip through our fingers I find that your heart is not in your given tasks, but your chosen ones. Do you wish to anger me?"
"No, my lord."
"The Greenway lies beyond our borders. I trust you know that." He raised a brow, and Legolas swallowed, suddenly uncomfortable.
"I do, my lord."
His father sighed. "I did not raise you to break the rules, Legolas."
Legolas felt a surge of anger, taking over his earlier blankness, causing recklessness to override caution. He raised his head, allowing his rage to show in his eyes.
"I do not recall you raising me at all," he snapped. "Perhaps that is why I break the rules. To bring it to your eyes, that your hand had no part in shaping me."
He remembered those bleak years after the death of his mother, when Thranduil had withdrawn completely, into a shell of grief and helplessness. Legolas had been young, young enough to need a guardian to teach him and help him, and his father had not been that guardian. Rather than being a warm figure, rather than being a father, Legolas had only ever seen Thranduil as king of the Woodland realm, a cold, distant figure wearing a crown of wood and berries, reclining upon a throne.
The king recoiled, eyes narrowing. His mouth thinned into a hard, unyielding line, and he seemed to be on the verge of stepping back, though he held his ground.
"And yet that strikes me as a feeble excuse," he said calmly, regaining his composure. "My role as your father is not my role as your king. You would do well to remember that."
Legolas caught himself before he could snarl a retort and simply took a deep breath, forcing the bitterness down. It was more difficult without Tauriel and her calm smile and gentle gestures of kindness. The thought of her made him relax more easily, and he straightened.
"Yes, my lord."
Eyes the color and warmth of hoarfrost gazed at him with unreadable intensity. Then the king turned fluidly and ascended the curving steps to the throne, folding his long body into the crescent-backed throne, the crown sparking in the dimness. He gazed down at his son, and there was no warmth in it, nothing that even implied that he thought of Legolas as anything but another subject, another one to command.
"Should I find you ungrateful to the halls of our realm," he said softly, "and should I find that you turn your back upon our lands..." He leaned back in the throne, his long fingers curving on the carven wood, the multiple rings bedecking them leering at him.
"Then do not bother coming back," Thranduil said with a cold finality. He waved a slender hand, and Legolas bowed shortly and stalked away from the throne, hands clenched into fists. He looked neither right nor left as he strode to his chambers and slammed the door.

The moon was rising slowly, and the sun was still in the sky, painting the sky red and orange, blue and purple. There was a light dusting of stars in the sky as well, looking like diamonds glimmering far, far away. He could hear the sounds of the revel, the high music, the light tread of dancing feet, the voices raised to sing. As inviting as it must have sounded and seemed, Legolas found the shadows of the forest even more enticing; danger lurked in every corner, and it was that which drew him more than the songs and merrymaking of his kin.
Light was spilling from inside the halls, a mellow golden glow slicing into the corridors. He and Tauriel kept to the shadows as they moved further and further away from the revel and towards the doors. There was not even a guard in sight as they crept out into the waiting night.
"Evening is high in the sky," Tauriel said, the slight breeze making her wine-red hair ripple like the surface of a lake. "A good time to hunt."
Legolas found himself in agreement as they walked together onto the elven path, the sun slowly blushing and falling behind the Misty Mountains, the ragged peaks jutting into the sky. The moon glowed with more surety, its pale silver light smudging the shadows.
"Not the path," murmured Legolas as Tauriel made to walk forward. "Many are drawn to it, and I do not wish to be seen. Should the king find out that we are leaving the feast, he will not be forgiving."
Tauriel's smile was quick but fierce and full of challenging fire. "I wonder how displeased he will be should he discover that we are not only leaving the feast, but the borders of our realm as well behind?"
"Tauriel," Legolas said, an undercurrent of warning evident in his low tone. "We needn't go past the borders. The king-"
"Why do you fret so?" she interrupted, tossing her head. "The king needn't know we are going. If we are careful enough, we can return unscathed, and your father can go on in ignorant bliss."
Only Tauriel, Legolas thought, could speak of the King of the Woodland realm in such a casual, indifferent manner. He knew their relationship was strained, oddly constricted, and though she was working towards claiming the title of Captain of the royal guard, the king was withholding it from her. Too reckless, he had told Legolas. She may have been one of their best warriors, he had said, but she was too unpredictable, too guttering a flame that could turn into a wildfire should he let it grow.
"Few orcs roam the Greenway now," he said. "If we can content ourselves without going after them-"
"When did your caution surpass your spirit?" she asked, raising a brow. "Once you would not think twice before braving the woods even when prohibited. Now your fear of your father overshadows your thirst for the hunt."
Legolas sighed, fingering the flawless uniform feathers on his arrows. "I do not fear my father," he said, though he wondered if he meant it.
"Perhaps you do not, but you do fear to incur his wrath."
"And you do not?"
"I did," she said softly, "once."
She turned abruptly, her expression hidden by the long curtains of her hair. "What more must I do?" she whispered. "Three hundred years I have been hovering just below the position of Captain; three hundred years I have proven to your father that I am worthy of the title. Three hundred years, and still I remain merely a member of the Guard." She turned slightly, and he saw the disappointment in her eyes.
"I am his ward," she said, frowning delicately. "Why does he disregard me?"
He took a step forward, closing the distance between them and laying a hand on her shoulder. The frangible, sweeping bones were sharp under his fingers. "He does not disregard you," he said. "Perhaps he is simply waiting for the time to ripen."
"I feel it is too ripe now," she sighed. "But perhaps you are right." She smiled a little again, and ducked swiftly from under his arm, leaping gracefully into the air and alighting a few feet away.
"I grow restless," she announced, flicking her wrist. A hidden dagger slid from its sheath in her arm, and her fingers encircled the hilt, her eyes glowing. "You may accompany me, or return to the revel, where you will perhaps be subjected to search for a consort." Her eyes glittered. "You are the Crown Prince," she went on, a little smirk tilting her lips when he raised a brow at her.
"That I may be, but I have no wish to return. Not when the other option involves breaking the rules." He smiled artlessly, and received a wicked grin in return.
"To the Greenway, then," she said, and turned fluidly before sprinting into the forest, so fast that she was but a green, brown and crimson blur vanishing into the trees.
Legolas didn't hesitate, nor did he look back, before running after her.

Night had fallen, and the moon was a slice of silver in the black sky. There was a revel that night, and he could hear the beginnings of it, the strains of music, the stamp of dancing feet, the rush of the waterfall as its waters fell into the chasms below. He lay on his bed, making no move to get up and go to it, disinterested as he was.
He was not usually missed at these feasts, for he rarely, if ever, graced the halls with his presence. His father did not demand it, and he felt there was no use to them. Winter was fast approaching, and the forest was beginning to show signs of the oncoming change in season; the leaves had withered, only few in the heart of the forest retaining their color, and the few woodland creatures that resided there had withdrawn, presumably to look for food and shelter.
It was for the prospective winter that the elves were celebrating, reveling in the shift in season and the gradual cold that would spread to all corners of the land. He knew it was his duty as the son of the king to attend the festival, and to address the gathering, but his heart would not be in the task, of that he was certain.
Despite his indifference towards the prospect, Legolas found himself standing and making his way across the room, opening the door and moving towards the sounds of the feast. He glanced into the hall, his eyes meeting a familiar yet unfamiliar sight; the deep, hollow hall was filled with elves, their hair in varying shades of the forest flying and rippling as they danced, the music soaring through the air, mingling with the song that poured from the throats of his kin. His father sat at the far end of the hall, surveying the festivities with haughty approval, the slender fingers of one of his hands curled around the long stem of a gilded wineglass, the dark red liquid inside reminding him eerily of blood.
Legolas stood there awhile, merely watching the dance and hearing the song, until he saw a flicker of movement at his periphery. His eyes flicked towards it immediately, and he saw his father looking directly at him. He tilted his head slightly.
Legolas slipped into the hall, keeping to the pillars and shadows as he made his way towards the throne-like chair at the rear of the hall. He bowed upon reaching it, and straightened to see a small smile playing about the king's lips.
"So," he said, gesturing with the glass in his hand, "you deigned to grace us with your presence. What has brought about this change in heart?"
Legolas moved to stand beside his father, in his rightful place. "It is the last feast of this year. I thought to miss it would seem as if I bore some ill will upon the festivities."
"You came here out of obligation, then," sighed the king. "But if Tauriel were here, I wonder..." He raised a brow. "You would not have come."
Legolas said nothing.
"Have you yet heard from her?" asked Thranduil, his eyes never leaving the circle of dancers on the floor. Legolas similarly gazed forward and spoke.
"Not yet, though she said she would send a letter around now."
Thranduil sighed, setting his glass down. "I fear she may have to remain in Erebor a long while. The King under the Mountain is not like his kin; he is more dangerous, more unpredictable. He will have guessed that it is not only trade that brought Tauriel to him."
Legolas frowned, but the king went on. "Some days I wonder if I have made the right decision in sending her to the Mountain. She has never left our halls of wood, and now she is living amongst the dwarves, in halls of stone. She must learn to adapt, to exploit. For the heirlooms-"
"Of our people are not lightly forsaken," finished Legolas, having heard many variations of this very speech. Of course the king did not care for Tauriel's well-being, nor did he care for her situation. When it came to choosing between his kin and his gems, Legolas knew his father would always choose the gems.
Thranduil nodded without looking at him, eyes shuttered. "Indeed." He sighed again, leaning back. His eyes followed the line of merrymakers in the hall, but there was nothing in his gaze that betrayed any expression. Legolas looked down at his boots, at the thin layer of mud that coated the soles from the long hours he had spent in the woods.
"Orcs still wander the Greenway," Legolas said, keeping his voice carefully controlled. He cut his eyes towards his father, whose eyes had narrowed fractionally.
"Do they?" was all he said.
"Yes. They follow whoever takes the road, and wait for night to kill them. Bones litter the paths still."
"And what can I do for that? The Greenway does not fall under my care."
"People are dying."
"Such is the nature of orcs. I can do little to stop them."
Legolas glared at the revelers. "Then do little rather than do nothing."
He heard a sigh. "Legolas."
"Why do nothing? Do you not care for the innocents who fall at the hands of the orcs?"
There was a slight pause. "Not if they are not of my kingdom."
Legolas felt his lips twist. "Is this indifference, or selfishness?"
"Your place, Legolas," said the king sharply.
"And yours," he snapped back. "You sit on a throne and wear a crown, but those words are not the words of a king."
"That is enough," said Thranduil, standing. "Is this why you came here? To reprimand your king?"
Legolas set his jaw. "I did not come to reprimand my king, but to implore my father. I see now that it is fruitless."
He turned towards Thranduil, a cold expression on his face. "My lord," he said scathingly, bowing abruptly. Then he turned on his heel and left the hall.

He snatched his quiver from where it hung near the bed, hearing the numerous arrows in it rattle as he yanked it over his head and tightened the strap around his chest, retrieving his bow as he did. He slid two knives into their sheaths at his back, four at his waist, three on his arms and two in his boots, then a sword across his back. He stalked out of his room and down the hall, turning towards the doors. As he strode forward a guard at the gates stepped in front of him, blocking his path.
"My lord, the king has ordered none to leave the doors of the realm this night."
"I will not be long, nor will I go far. If my father asks, tell him I did it of my own free will."
He stepped around the guard, who turned quickly after him. "The king's word was clear, my lord," he said apologetically. "I was to let no one leave."
Legolas shook his head. "If you feel constrained by your honor then you may tell the king I have gone. I will return and speak with him myself."
The guard looked apprehensively down the corridor towards the sounds of music. "But I..."
"I will be back before dawn," cut in Legolas, and flung the gates open, walking down the bridge. He walked along the path until the gates vanished from sight, then swung himself up into the trees, disappearing into the foliage.
He had hardly been moving a short while when he heard low, rough voices speaking just ahead. Dropping into the lower branches without even the rustle of a leaf Legolas listened, ears straining towards the faint sound.
It was a harsh, rough tongue, rougher even than the dialect of the dwarves. He could make no sense of it, for he had never heard it before. He descended one more layer of branches, and the risk was not lost on him; he could easily be seen. His eyes sharpened, and he looked down, directly at the pack of orcs below him.
He hardly dared to breathe. They were so close to the doors, not even two leagues away. And all armed, all holding their crudely forged weapons that gleamed with a dull light. There were around fifteen, covered in overlapping scales of rough armor.
Logic pointed him towards the doors, to go tell the king, to mark the position and scent, and return with the Woodland guard. Instinct pointed him towards the ground, telling him to finish them off, track their nest and slaughter them all and bring their leader's head to the king.
He crouched in the trees, torn for a moment. Setting his jaw and deciding, he was about to move when the winds shifted, blowing away from him and towards the orcs.
The orcs fell silent immediately, sniffing the air. Legolas ran through a rather long list of curses in his mind as the orcs looked around, then up, directly at him.
He dropped to the ground, not even waiting half a heartbeat before he was upon them. Three were already dead with arrows in their temples as he slashed with the sharp edge of his bow, slicing open the throat of the fourth. Two twangs of his bowstring and the fifth and sixth fell.
He spun around, driving his knees and elbows into their throats, then pulled his sword from its sheath and made short work of two more. The next few minutes were a blur of slashing and stabbing and shooting, of black blood spraying around him and staining the ground, of the screams of the orcs as he slowly hacked his way through their ranks.
Within seconds there was only one left. He made to stab its throat, but a gnarled hand came up quicker than he had anticipated and gripped his wrist, stopping his hand. He snarled and slid another knife free with his left hand, twisting away and slicing with both. The orc danced away, pulling back its bowstring and aiming for his heart. He spun away as the arrow shot towards him, and time slowed down as he reached up and caught the arrow out of the air, snapping it with his fingers. The Orc had time for only one surprised look before Legolas threw both his knives at once. They hurtled through the air, end over end, and buried themselves in the Orc's eyes.
He whirled around, eyes roving the shadows for any movement. He glanced around at the fourteen bodies that littered the ground around him in a macabre ring.
His eyes narrowed suddenly. Fourteen?
He glanced at the path ahead of him, and he thought he could see a shadow moving along it, away from him. He slammed his sword back into its sheath, gripped his bow and looked around one last time. He would retrieve his arrows on the way back.
He felt the thrill of the hunt fill him, blotting out any other feeling, and allowed himself a small, twisted smile before he turned to the path and gave chase.

The forest blurred around him as he ran, melding into a sightless, soundness blur of darkness and shadows and trees. His feet barely touched the ground, such was his speed; he felt as if he were flying and not running. Within moments he had caught up with the Orc, who was wheezing and panting so loudly it was a miracle the whole forest hadn't woken.
Without breaking his stride Legolas pulled an arrow from his sheath, aimed carefully, and shot the sword out of the orc's hand. It shrieked and slowed, its hand stained black.
Legolas overtook the Orc, then with an effort, forced himself to stop running completely. The sudden stop was jarring, but he held his ground as the Orc all but crashed into him.
He shot out a hand, gripping its throat. "What were you doing so close to the halls of the Wood-Elves?" he hissed, shaking the Orc. "Speak!"
It gurgled, and he loosened his hold slightly. "Got lost?" he asked sardonically, shaking it again. Its eyes widened, and it shook its head.
He held up a dagger, the light glinting off its razor edge, and pressed it to the orc's throat. "I said," he snarled, "speak."
The Orc trembled for a moment, then stilled. Legolas felt a sharp sting on his wrist, and the Orc moved back, holding a rough blade he hadn't noticed earlier. Legolas glanced down at his wrist, where he saw a faint, white scratch, two inches long. His eyes flicked back up to the Orc, and he cocked his head to the side.
"Unwilling to talk?" he asked. "Very well, then."
He surged forward, both his knives in his hands as he slashed at the Orc. It parried one blade but couldn't stop the other from burying itself into his throat.
It choked and gagged, then slowly fell backwards. It was dead before it hit the ground. Legolas straightened, fingers going to the faint scratch on his wrist. Rubbing it away, he yanked the knife from the body, a spray of black blood going up as he did. Sheathing it despite the gore, he walked back down the path, sure that there were no more; orcs never wandered the elven path unless absolutely necessary, and this seemed trivial.
He walked past the bodies of the others, not bothering to retrieve his arrows. He made his way slowly to the gate, where a guard was stationed.
"Did the king inquire after my absence?" Legolas asked the guard, who merely shook his head. Apprehensive, Legolas walked inside, making his way once more to the throne.
The king was seated on the throne, looking at Legolas with a coolly disinterested expression. Legolas walked directly up to the stairs and unsheathed his blades, dropping them to the floor. The black blood on them gleamed like an accusation in the dim light. He flung his bow down as well, the wood stained black as if with oil. He raised his head to look at his father, feeling his own eyes burning with the wordless challenge.
The king was looking down at the blades and bow, his brows lifting. His lashes fluttered as he glanced upwards, cutting his gaze towards Legolas.
"Explain," he said tightly.
And so he did, speaking of leaving the realm against his orders, finding the orcs, slaying them all. The king's expression didn't change throughout, and once Legolas was finished he came down from the throne, going to the blades and nudging them with his foot. The black fluid on them smeared on the flawlessly clean floor, but Thranduil paid it no heed.
"You did not go beyond our borders." It wasn't a question.
"No, my lord."
"And yet you disobeyed me by leaving," he sighed.
"Yes, my lord."
"Though I suppose it was for the best," he said, turning away from the discarded weapons. "Should you have stayed behind the orcs would have advanced, perhaps even made it to the doors unseen."
"A shot in the dark, my lord."
"Not entirely." His eyes gleamed. "You still have many arrows left, and I wager there were little more than ten of the foul creatures. A shot in the dark, perhaps, but a well-aimed one nonetheless."
Legolas only bowed his head, feeling his hair sweep forward onto his shoulders. He looked up a moment layer to see the king reclining upon the throne once more. He waved his hand, and Legolas quickly gathered up his fallen weapons and left the throne room, ignoring the blatant stares of the guards as he passed.

Dawn was beginning to creep upon the forest, the sky blushing as the sun kissed it. Legolas quietly slipped into his room, going immediately to the bathing chambers and cleaning his blades and his bow, then hanging them up again. It was only when he was tucking his bow into its case that he saw the scroll of parchment lying on the table by the open window.
Striding to it, he glanced at the name on the front, feeling a wave of relief crest and break over him when he saw the familiar hand and letters that spelled out her name. Slitting the seal open he unrolled the parchment and began to read.

Legolas,

My warmest greetings. It has been many moons since autumn left the halls of the Woodland realm, and along with it so had I. I wished to inquire after you and how you fared, for I know winter is not easy upon those who find their home in the forest. I hope that you are well, and that the happenings of the kingdom are carrying on without hindrance.

The role of an ambassador is one new to me; my vocation, I think, lies more in the art of the blade rather than that of the courtroom. However, our relations to the King under the Mountain are strengthening ever so slightly day by day. It has been nigh on five decades since the gates of Erebor have opened for any but a dwarf, and while they seem content to keep their distance, deliberation is underway. Trade is a delicate subject here, for Dale still endures; their king has reached the end of the road, but he insists upon building anew, trying to salvage from the wreckage. His zeal is one admirable but fruitless, I think; the Mountain King is made of unyielding stone, and in the matter of Dale is certain that he will not give them any more.
The stars shine bright and long here, a chain of light locked deep into the caverns of old that are only ever opened at night. I have seen them but once, although their light is locked in my eyes forever. It has been long since we have seen those stars in our halls, and it is my dire wish to bring them there.
The beauty of this fortress-city is one that takes the breath from my lungs; the gates themselves seem miles high, and the halls are so vast their ends are lost in shadow. And while my stay has been yet comfortable, my heart will always belong to the forest.

How fare the halls of our realm? I remember the revels and song, though we never danced, nor did we sing. We will be welcoming winter into our halls soon, and though I wish I could be there to see it I think it will be but a while before I may return, and along with me I will bring with me what I swore I would.

Tauriel

He combed through the letter multiple times, each time finding a subtler hint disguised within her apparently harmless words.
The stars shine bright and long here, a chain of light locked deep into the caverns of old that are only ever opened at night.
So she had seen the gems, and only once. She had vowed to return with them, and breaking an oath such as that could yield disastrous results. He set the scroll down, gazing into the morning. Birdsong began to flit back and forth, filling the forest with their sweet chime.
She was hiding something. Of that he was sure. Perhaps it was her hesitant words, or the way she pulled back before she could fully explain, or her graveness when she spoke of bringing back the stars. Either way, something was missing. He glanced down at the scroll, knowing that the King would have to know about this; he, after all, had sent Tauriel to Erebor as not an ambassador but as one in disguise, one there to take and not to give. He took a deep breath, sorting in his mind what to tell the king, and what not to tell the king. But first, he needed to do what he had to do with the letter; for the king to believe him, the letter would be an obstacle, a liability, a drag down into the truth that he needed to avoid.
He set his jaw, nodding to himself. He stood, making to tell the king about the letter. He held it in his hand, and glanced down at it one last time, at the curling script as familiar to him as his own hand, at the sign at the end, the slight curve of the letter T she always employed whenever signing an official document.
His fingers freed the parchment and it spun gracefully through the air, landing in the fire. The flames licked it greedily, the ink melting, the paper blackening and curling as the fire consumed it. There was a small burst of sparks as the letter was devoured by the flames, and now it was gone, and he knew no more could be done, and that the truth's door had been firmly closed. And he did not regret it.
Legolas watched it burn.

Chapter Text

Tauriel

She found herself in the library, the massive shelves towering over her and casting her in their shadows. She was walking along the rows of books, allowing her senses to guide her to the very back of the library. Feeling the floor smoothen suddenly she looked down to see the wooden panels meld into stone slabs, and the lamps were replaced by guttering torches that cast eerie shadows along the walls. The very air here smelled old, as if nobody had been there for hundreds of years. It smelled less like candles and ink, and more like parchment and leather here, and the temperature dropped a few degrees, the stone all around her radiating the chill.
She liked it. Granted, it was cold and somewhat uncanny, the shadows long and leering, but it felt old and quiet and peaceful, like being inside a museum.
She sat at a table nearby, opening the book she had slid from a shelf not far away. It was in Westron, and while she would have preferred her native language, it was one she knew nonetheless. Tucking her legs under her and folding her arms on the wood, she began to read.
She lost all sense of time; she could have been sitting there eons, or millennia, or perhaps half an hour. It was like this whenever she read. She would disappear for a little while, escape the confines of her life and delve into someone else's. It was nothing short of magic, to her.
The sound of footsteps jerked her out of her reverie, and she slid a finger to the word she had been on and looked up, squinting.
"My lady," said Prince Fili, nodding politely to her. She hastily made to stand, but he held up a hand, smiling a little.
"There's no need," he said, sliding numerous books from the surrounding shelves. "I'll only be a moment," he added, scooping the stack into his arms. She raised a brow, sitting again; he was holding a veritable mountain of them.
Catching her look, he grinned, turning to her. "They're for Kili," he explained, hefting them onto one arm. "He reads so quickly, practically tears through them. And he still remembers every little detail," he sighed, shaking his head.
She smiled. "Is he still in the infirmary?"
Fili nodded, brushing an errant strand of gold from his eyes. "He claims he's well enough to leave now, but I'm not taking any chances."
She remembered how detached he's seemed when she had gone to see him, how unfocused his eyes were and how he seemed to be floating in semiconsciousness.
"He was whining about how bored he was, hence the-" he shook the books in his arms. "Books."
She couldn't stop her little smile. "I see," she said amusedly.
"He loves it here," Fili went on, nodding at the stone walls and flickering torches. "It's the one part of the library that's the oldest. He always comes here; he loves history."
She raised her brows at him. "Your mission," she said. "You sent out that distress signal."
He looked surprised. "Yes, Kili shot a burning arrow- how do you know?"
She offered him a little smile. "I saw it. The raven brought the signal to the rampart as I was sanding there."
He bowed his head a bit. "Ah. For that you have my thanks- Kili wouldn't have made it otherwise. Dwalin told me he got the message- Dwalin," he repeated when she shot him a blank look. "The captain of the guard."
She nodded. "Yes, I've seen him."
"He told me they got the message almost immediately. We thought it wouldn't work." He sighed, hefting the books again. "It seems we were proven wrong," he smiled.
She glanced curiously at his eyes; they were the exact shade of blue as Thorin's, but they seemed lighter somehow. Less of dusk and more of dawn.
She remembered that day in the meeting, his hands balled into fists and his defiant voice as he said, Then maybe I do not want to take the throne. He was just as different as his brother, a far cry from what she had imagined dwarves to be like.
He cared so much for Dale, she remembered. She had seen it in his eyes, his expression, how responsible he felt for their fates.
"Esgaroth," she said, looking down at the book she was reading, which spoke of the history of the town. "What happened to it?"
Fili's eyes shuttered. "It collapsed," he said shortly. "Days, and they were gone. It became a ghost town, and folk today don't stray there; they say it's bad luck. Both your realm and ours withdrew their helping hands at the same time. Without the support, they were nothing. They fell within weeks."
She glanced up at him, hearing the faint catch in his voice. "Just as Dale will fall someday," he continued, and straightened, his expression suddenly cold.
"My apologies for any disturbance I may have caused," he said, and inclined his head to her.
"Not at all," she replied, eying him suspiciously. He nodded to her again before turning and walking away, his shadow stretching against the opposite wall, then vanishing altogether as he left the library and closed the door.

She meant to go to her room. She sincerely did. But her legs carried her in a roundabout route, and she found herself walking in a completely different direction and heading down a familiar corridor. Before long, she was standing outside the infirmary, wondering why on earth she was doing what she was doing.
As if in a trance she pushed the door open, braved by the fact that there were no voices coming from inside. She blinked in the slight, sudden illumination, and looked towards the bed she knew was occupied by Kili. She noted with some amusement that he was hidden from view due to the towering pile of books on the table next to him.
She walked to the stack, then peeked out from the side, startling Kili so badly that he dropped the book he was holding and it went flying.
"Mahal, Tauriel, don't do that!" He sat back, eyes wide. She sidled around the table, smiling teasingly.
"My apologies," she said. "I didn't know you were awake."
He grinned; it was a boyish, roguish grin, entirely happy. "So you were just going to come here and weep over my lifeless form while I slumbered on, oblivious?"
She couldn't help her returning laugh. "Something like that," she said. Kili scooted aside, and she ignored the flutter of her heart as she sat next to him.
Did he remember the kiss? She found herself gazing into his face, trying to discern any hint that he did. So far she was coming up empty handed.
"Thorin left," he said. She nodded, feeling nervous for some reason. Kili sighed and leaned his head against the brass headboard.
"He was so angry," he said, a humorless little smile twisting his lips. "Whenever it comes to me and Fili, he always- I don't know. He becomes twice as intense. It's a little frightening; those rebels won't stand a chance. He'll be back tonight, I'm sure of it."
She looked down, swallowing. He raised his head to look at her. "So- why?" he asked.
She frowned. "Why what?"
"Why did you come?"
She smiled a bit. "To weep over your lifeless form while you slumbered on, oblivious." She leaned forward and nudged his shoulder with hers. "Why else?"
He laughed. "I don't know," he said, dark eyes glittering. "But I'm awake now."
"So you are." Her body felt oddly weightless, and she felt herself flush as she looked at him.
"But you would never take advantage of a poor, wounded dwarf," he sighed. "Tauriel of the Woodland realm, molester of indisposed dwarves. I suppose it has a nice ring to it."
She stared at him, feeling her brows rising. She felt incredulity spread across her face, widening her eyes. A second later, she burst out laughing.
Every time she came close to sobering she saw Kili staring at her with a brow raised, and it would set her off again. After what felt like years, she finally subsided, still giggling a little, robbed of breath.
"When you're quite finished," Kili said, folding his arms and attempting a condescending look. She waved her hand, still grinning.
"It wasn't even that funny," he said almost defensively. "I've made better jokes before. Like that one I told Fili. It goes like this: An elf, a troll and a dwarf walk into a pub-"
"No, no, I don't want to hear it!" She clapped her hands over her ears. "You'll make me laugh again."
"What, you don't have jokes in Mirkwood?"
She sighed. "Not many."
He made a face. "Dull. What do elves do all day, anyway? Hunt, feast and dance," he said, counting off on his fingers. "That's all they did while I was there."
She smiled reminiscently. "That is remarkably accurate," she said. "And then there are dwarves. You do so much here that the shorter list would be what you do not do."
He huffed out a laugh. "What do we not do?"
"You don't dance, for one thing."
Kili snorted. "One day I'll introduce you to Bofur. If he doesn't change your mind I don't know what will."
She thought hard. "I've never heard you sing."
"Clearly you've never been to one of our festivals. Song is plentiful."
She made a face. "I didn't see a single archer in the battalion that went to the mountains."
Kili smiled artlessly. "You're looking at one right now."
She raised her brows. "You use a bow?"
"Few do. I'm just one of them."
She sighed frustratedly. "You don't... you don't- I don't know," she said finally, throwing her arms in the air. "You do too much."
His lips tilted. "But we don't have hair like yours." He hesitated a second before reaching forward and tucking a stray bit of hair behind her ear. She shivered at the contact, but couldn't take her eyes off his. She could get lost in those eyes; deepest brown, with flecks of gold and russet accentuating the color. Fringed by lashes so long they cast shadows on his arching cheekbones. And his soft, full lips- lips that had kissed her own-
She swallowed, and he dropped his hand abruptly. His eyes darted away from hers, and he leaned back again. She didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
"How did you find the infirmary?" he asked, frowning. "It's quite deep inside the Mountain- pretty far from your room, I should think. And seeing as you've never been here before."
Her heart plummeted. So he didn't remember. She pressed her lips together to hide her dismay, and tried to smile.
"That's one thing an elf has that a dwarf doesn't," she said, gently wiggling her fingers. "A superlative sense of direction."
He laughed. "Nothing could be more true. I'll let you in on a little secret," Kili said, leaning forward conspiratorially. She raised her brows and leaned in too.
"Thorin's sense of direction is the worst," he said in a stage whisper. "It's a miracle he gets around this place without getting lost. Must have something to do with the fact that he's lived here for two hundred years," he grinned.
She laughed quietly. "And the fact that he's the king."
He dimpled adorably. "Or that."
He looked at her, tilting his head fractionally. "I saw you with a bow the first time," he said. "You shoot as well?"
She nodded. "I was captain of the guard- I was expected to learn every skill in battle."
He smiled fleetingly. "I bet I could beat you in a round of shooting."
She raised her brows high. "Is that a challenge, Prince Kili?"
He pretended to think. "You know what, I think it is, Lady Tauriel."
She leaned back. "You are signing yourself up for failure," she sang. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
He sniffed with apparent disdain. "When it's over," he said, "I'll be accepting your apology."
"We'll see," was all she said, and they grinned at each other. She sighed and stood, smoothing down her tunic.
"I won't impede upon your time any longer," she said, moving away and picking up the book he had dropped earlier. She handed it back to him, then raised her brows.
"So... when shall we have our little contest?"
He loosed a breath, thinking. "How about... the day after next, before dinner?"
"I will be there," she vowed, and shot him one last smile before turning away. "Goodbye, Kili."
She didn't see him smile after her, but heard his voice say quietly, "Goodbye, Tauriel."

Tauriel wondered where the weapons room was. She knew there was an armory, so there had to be a general weapons room for all the dwarves who weren't in the Royal guard. She had seen the guard come out from somewhere in the western wing, so she headed there first.
As soon as she entered the west wing, the sounds of the great forges of the dwarves reached her ears; the rhythmic hammering, the clang of metal, the whoosh of bellows. She walked past it and towards a massive oaken door embossed with the symbol of a double-edged sword with runes encircling it. Gripping the massive handle, she pushed out and opened it.
Her mouth fell open.
It was a hall, a massive hollow room with a smooth marble floor and tables lining the walls. Cloths were draped along the walls as well, and the ceiling dripped a chandelier laden with intricate metalwork. But what made the room so extraordinary was the fact that every single surface was covered in weapons.
Hung on the walls, spread across the tables, fitted into stands and displayed in every corner of the room; they were everywhere the eye could see. Even the chandelier was made of weapons, the candles in it cradled by daggers and framed by arrows. Spread on the rich cloth in deadly silver fans, gleaming on the tables, hanging from pegs on the door.
She spun in a slow circle, trying to absorb the sheer number of instruments of war in this one room. She never thought she would describe anything so warlike as beautiful, but this room was; everything gleamed as if new, and the marble floor was engraved with chants of war and songs of battle.
Further into the hall, a row of pillars separated another room from the first; here the floors and walls were worn wood, and there were rope nets hanging from the ceiling. Sandbags lined one wall, and a smaller changing room was set apart as well. Her eyes sharpened. It was a training room.
There were targets, standard bull's-eyes, painted onto the wooden wall of the far end. She ran a practiced eye over the row of weapons, choosing a slim, long dagger- a misericord, it was called- used to slip past rents in armor and deliver killing blows.
Taking her position, she aimed and flung it, end over end. It shot through the air and slammed into the middle ring of the target, but not quite in the bull's-eye.
Unsatisfied, she aimed again, sucking a breath and drawing her hand back, loosing the breath and then releasing the dagger. It stuck, quivering, a hairbreadth away from the first. Still not exactly in the center.
Seething, she palmed another dagger, this one short and silver and heavy. She threw it, her aim unerring, and it sang through the air, burying itself in the bull's-eye.
She exhaled harshly, stepping back. Then she made her way to the stand that held numerous bows in it. She picked one up, marveling at the difference between the structure, the shape, and size of the bow as compared to her own. Running a finger along the linearly curved length, she plucked the string. It was a good bow, hard, unyielding, durable. It wasn't her soft, pliant rounded bow, but it would have to do.
Fitting an arrow to the string, she took her position in front of the target and set the bow to shoulder level, pulling the string back as far as it could go, until she could feel the physical strain on it, vibrating as she stretched it so far it was seconds away from snapping.
She loosed the arrow.
It flicked through the air, so fast even her eyes couldn't follow its path. She heard the sound of an impact, and looked at the target, where an arrow now quivered, directly on the small black dot in the middle of the smallest ring. She grinned fiercely, triumphant.
She shot over and over and over again, getting the feel of these new weapons. The string was tighter, and the arrows shorter, but once she got used to them they felt familiar in her hands. When her fingers were sore and raw, and her forearm was covered in oozing scratches from the number of arrows that had grated the skin there, she put the bow back in the stand, retrieving the arrows from the targets and depositing them in the quivers lining the walls. She shook out her arm, feeling the blood rush back into it. Shooting with a dwarvish bow, and without a bracer, had proven to be more than a little painful. Pulling her sleeve down, she left the training room, walking back into the weapons hall. The smooth floor made no sound as she walked along it, and she turned back one last time before leaving the room, the heavy wooden doors meeting with a final, echoing boom as she closed them.

Her mind was straying to her earlier conversation with Kili, and the habits of the elves. She had sent the letter to Legolas, and knew it would have reached him by then. She wondered if he had made any sense of it; her subtleties had been quite hidden, and she hoped that he had understood.
Something like guilt was blossoming in her chest every time she thought about it; she could talk to Kili, laugh with him, but she couldn't tell him the truth. She was afraid of his loyalty to Thorin; of course it would be obligation that would carry him forward and tell his uncle, who was king besides. She knew she was there for a decidedly unethical reason: theft. Her king had used a more gracious word, reclaim. But in her eyes that was as good as stealing.
Tauriel was in Erebor to steal the gems of Lasgalen.
Negotiation could yield the same result, and if she could convince Thorin to give them to her king, stealing them wouldn't be necessary. But if all else failed, she was to take them and leave. Those were her orders. And she was so afraid.
Afraid of what, exactly, she couldn't put her finger on. But the feeling was there, a lingering knot in her chest. Afraid of failure, of course; afraid of being discovered; afraid of the watchful eyes that looked at her with distrust; and most of all, afraid of her own feelings.
She had hit a few unexpected obstacles in these past few weeks. One was Kili, one was her fascination with the whole kingdom, and the other was Thorin.
She couldn't deny the deep, carnal pull she felt whenever he was near, couldn't help but yearn for tactile contact. She felt his presence like a weight, and she knew it was an attraction limited only to physicality and nothing else, though she didn't want to admit it.
And with Kili it was entirely different. She felt a pull in her heart rather than her body, wanted to be with him not only physically, but emotionally. She had never felt this way before, nor had she experienced desire such as the one she harbored towards the king, in all her life. And the fact that those two reservoirs that had been closed all these centuries were opening for dwarves was not lost on her.
It had occurred to her briefly, the thoughts occasionally coming and going: what would have happened if she had not been the one to volunteer as ambassador, if another had gone in her place? The answer sprang readily to her mind. She would have lived a normal life, captain of the guard, serve the king. She would marry Legolas as she was expected to, and serve as consort of the King of Mirkwood and General of the royal guard. It would have been a good life, an honorable one, a rightful one.
But then she would never have met Kili.
There was something about him she couldn't shake off. She barely knew him, and he was still so young, but he was also kind, and sweet, and had an odd yet endearing sense of humor. She cursed her own foolishness, for trusting in happiness; she should have known he wouldn't remember the kiss, and yet...
She remembered it. And maybe, just maybe, that would be enough.

She went back to her room, meaning to pick up where she had left off on a book she had begun to read, and had just snuggled into a warm chair by the fire when she heard the piercing sound of the hunting horn of the dwarves. She glanced at the time, amusedly noting that it was late night, nearly midnight; just as Kili had predicted. Sighing, she went back to her book, even as she heard the rumble of the gates opening, and feel the shock waves traveling through the floor, making the whole Mountain vibrate for just a second. It ceased after a moment or two, and a comfortable silence fell again.
She had been sitting for about half an hour when a sudden knock on the door made her jump, and she frowned, tucking a silk bookmark into the page she was on, heading to the door. Who could it possibly be? Fili? Kili? Her heart jumped a little at the prospect of the latter, and she shook her head minutely at herself, unlatching the door and opening it. She blinked in surprise upon seeing the captain of the guard. Dwalin, Fili had said his name was. His chest was heaving, and he looked a little wild- wilder than he usually did. He seemed to have run all the way there without fully removing his armor; his breastplate was still on, as were his knuckledusters.
"You need to come," he gasped without preamble. "We need your help."
She frowned, leaning against the door. "But why?"
"No time to explain," he said, waving his arm towards the corridor. "Follow me."
"But-"
"For Mahal's sake, woman, just do as I say!"
She bristled at his impertinence. "Very well," she sniffed. "Wait here a moment."
She closed the door, wondering what on earth he could possibly want from her. Throwing on a dressing gown over her thin nightgown, she emerged, scowling. He set off immediately, and she hastily shut her door before following.
As they walked along the passage, she glanced tentatively down at him and asked, "What of the rebels?"
"Wiped 'em out," he grunted without looking at her. "Every last one."
She didn't speak again as he led her down the corridors, turning right and left so many times she lost count. Finally they arrived at a door in the east wing, etched all over with delicate yet harsh runes that spiraled on the dark wood. It was slightly ajar, light spilling onto the stone. Dwalin pushed it open and she followed, thoroughly bewildered.
It was a bedroom, and a lavish one at that; large, with multiple smaller chambers branching off the main one, where she could see a large oaken desk, and a bed against the far wall, and, surprisingly, a window. More of a skylight, mounted on the ceiling and letting in a slice of moonlight. There was a pot of steaming water on a smaller desk near it, next to a box that seemed to be full of leaves.
The room was crowded with dwarves, all speaking at once, but her eyes were drawn immediately to the desk, where someone was leaning, someone taller than the rest, with long dark hair and hot blue eyes that burned like flames.
Thorin.
He looked at her a second after she looked at him. His eyes moved past her, then suddenly darted back and locked onto her, pinning her in place with his electric blue gaze. His face was slightly flushed, his lips parting as he looked at her. She couldn't remember how to breathe, her chest rising and falling shallowly. The clamor of voices in the room went on, but it had all faded; for a moment there was nothing in the world except for the two of them and their eyes staring into each other.
"Everybody, leave," he said quietly. Somehow, it still carried, cutting through all the conversation and making the whole room fall silent.
A harried-looking dwarf stepped forward nervously. "But, your majesty-"
"I said, everybody leave." He glared around the room. "Now!"
There was a collective tussle as all the dwarves scrambled to leave the room, the room emptying quickly. Balin was the last dwarf to leave, and shot her an unreadable look before shutting the door behind him.
She was still half-turned towards the door when Thorin's voice rang out from behind her.
"Lock it," he said quietly.
Taking a shaky breath, she did, fingers fumbling on the latches. She turned, feeling her heart hammering in anticipation, but for what, she didn't know-
She turned just in time to see him reaching down and grasping the hem of his tunic, then dragging it upwards, pulling it up off his head. She stepped back, her hand flying to her mouth.
"What are you-"
She saw a flash of white teeth as he laughed. "Relax," he said, dropping the discarded tunic on the chair next to him. When he straightened, she felt her face flush as her gaze roamed against her will, taking in the defined muscles of his chest, the smooth pale skin ridged with scars, the impossible breadth of his bare shoulders- and the bloody tear in his skin just below his right pectoral muscle. She felt her breath catch in her throat, and slowly lowered her hand from her lips.
"What happened?"
He sighed and leaned back against the desk. The gash looked deep, and his abdomen was stained scarlet, but he showed no sign of any pain.
"A rare blade, one nobody has seen in centuries. A blade seethed in the black fires of the east. Slashed me with it- it melted, as expected, but the damage was done."
She was gazing at the wound, assessing and deducing, but he had eyes only for her. She felt the weight of his gaze, feeling her face flush.
"Our healers can do little to heal it. But elvish medicine..." She glanced up at him, and he raised a brow. "Elvish medicine can," he finished.
She pursed her lips, drawing herself up. "What herbs do you have?" she asked, stepping forward to the box on a chair nearby, which was full to bursting with herbs and shrubs. She sorted through them, pulling out a few and leaving a few in the box.
"Can you heal it?" he asked, and she didn't look up at him as she bit her lip, separating a few leaves from the shrub she was holding.
"You seem to have quite a lot," she said, sidestepping his question. "If I can grind them-"
"Can you heal it?" he repeated slowly, his voice soft, and she looked up at last.
Slowly, she nodded.
She saw him swallow, and was briefly fascinated by the play of muscles in his throat, the pale, unmarked skin, the way she could see his pulse fluttering-
She tore her eyes away and rummaged in the box, pulling out the herbs she needed, her heartbeat soaring. She put down the box, dropping the leaves into the pot of water and sweeping her hair into a knot at the nape of her neck, pulling a slim dagger from her pocket and sliding it through the knot, securing it in place. Then she turned, shrugging off her dressing gown, so beyond caring about modesty as she draped it carelessly over the back of the chair. The thin shift nightgown was revealing to say the least, but she couldn't have worked with the dressing gown; it was too heavy.
Removing the sodden herbs from the pot, she wrung them out slightly. She turned away for a brief moment, holding them in her hands and bringing her palms together, grinding the herbs into a salve that coated her hands in a sticky green paste.
She slowly made her way to the desk where he was standing, and she motioned with her hands, gesturing for him to step away. He did, brows raised. Stepping back every time he stepped forward, she let him walk her backwards till the chair, where she sat, and he stood over her. He was slightly taller because of it.
"This may sting a little," she said, and her voice sounded odd to her own ears, too breathless and rushed. He only nodded, and she steeled herself, set her jaw and pressed her hand to the laceration.
His arms came around the chair, caging her in his heat as he clenched his hands on the wood, his back arching. She saw him grit his teeth, but he said nothing, only nodded again. His knuckles were whitening alarmingly, and she swallowed once before filling her lungs and beginning to chant.
It was a long string of words, falling under and over each other as she covered the wound with her palm, feeling the torn skin underneath knitting back together. Time lost all meaning as she chanted, channeling the energy locked deep inside her body, wakening the slumbering beast in her breast. She heard Thorin's quick, short breaths as she slowly closed the wound, feeling her own energy seeping out along with the magic. Her head was beginning to spin as the last words flowed past her lips, and she yanked her hand back from his skin, which was burning hot.
He stepped back suddenly, his hands unclenching from the chair, and moved away, glancing down at where once, there had been a bloody tear in his skin.
She felt the sudden absence of energy like a physical blow, slowing her senses. It was through blurred eyes that she saw Thorin's gaze locked on her own, and through echoing ears that she heard, as if from far away, a clock begin to chime the first hour of the morning.

She sat there, her breathing ragged, exhausted. She looked down at her shaking hands, covered in a welter of blood.
Thorin's blood.
He was standing above her, chest rising and falling rapidly. The gash in his chest was gone, a silver scar across his side all that was left of it. She swallowed, gasping.
"You did it," he breathed. His eyes were wide and blue in his pale face. "You healed me. I knew you could. Tauriel..."
It was the first time he had said her real name, and not the usual scornful elf. Her name in his mouth made little shivers dance down her spine, but she kept her face blank. She said nothing, looking up at him and trying not to glance down at his bare chest as she did. He came towards her slowly, and suddenly he was standing between her legs, heat rolling off him in waves that made her shiver.
He took her hands, her hands that were scarlet with his own blood, and looked at her, his expression intense. His pupils were dilated, black almost swallowing blue.
He put her hand flat against his chest, just above his heart. She exhaled a startled breath and looked at him, and he pressed her hand to him hard, her fingers splayed over his chest. She felt the beating of his heart under her fingers, erratic and quick. She gasped; his skin was fever-hot.
He let her go as suddenly as he had held her, and she saw her bloody handprint clear against the pale skin of his chest.
He slowly reached behind her head and slid the dagger from the knot in her hair. Her hair spilled down her shoulders, tickling her neck, liquid copper. He flung the dagger away, and she turned her head to watch as it clattered away and slid to rest near the bed. She turned back to face Thorin, and her heart stuttered when she saw that he had moved. He was too close, too close to her. Her chest was hitching up and down with her heavy breathing, and then he moved closer still, and she felt his chest against her own, and she blushed at the intimacy of the position.
Their bodies were aligned, chest to chest, and she gasped, her breasts flattening against his chest as she did. He growled low in his throat, and the sound made heat curl inside her and wanting beat through her blood, and she closed her eyes involuntarily.
He placed his hands on either side of her face and leaned in, and her breathing was so loud that it was all she could hear as his lips grazed her jaw, his breath stirring her hair. He trailed butterfly kisses along her cheek, then moved down her jawline. His lips were warm as they traveled downwards, and they stopped at the pulse in her throat, mouthing her skin, swallowing her racing heartbeat. His tongue darted out, and she whispered incoherently as she felt him lick her skin, tasting her. His hands slid down and skimmed along her sides, and her head fell back as she made a small noise, a breathy whimper that she couldn't recognize as her own voice.
He kissed her neck and she gasped, arching her back at the sensation. Her bloody fingers scrabbled at his back, leaving crimson smears on his shoulder blades. His breath was hot against her throat as he leaned back to look at her.
She shouldn't want this, she shouldn't be allowing him to touch her, and yet she couldn't imagine telling him to stop. He leaned forward, his breath warm on her lips, but she turned her face so that his lips touched her cheek instead. He murmured against her skin, and then his lips were on her neck again and it was all she could do not to moan as she felt his hands squeeze her hips.
She felt his teeth graze her jaw and stilled, her whole body tensing. He bit down on the side of her throat and this time she couldn't contain the moan that escaped her lips as the pleasure-pain radiated through her whole body. He kissed her cheek, his beard rough against her skin, and she turned her face towards him as his lips touched the corner of her mouth, and she jumped as he closed the distance between them, his mouth sliding over hers.
He pressed himself against her, his hands twining around her and pulling her closer. She tilted her head and allowed him to take control of the kiss as he tightened his grip. She gasped against his lips as he ran his fingers up her back, and he parted her lips with his own, his tongue slicing into her mouth to tangle with hers. She moaned into his mouth and put her hands on his shoulders, drawing him closer and closer still, but it still wasn't enough, it would never be enough.
He was saying her name, almost incoherent between kisses, his voice thick with desire and his breath mingling with hers. She felt his teeth graze her bottom lip, then he drew away. She arched up, desperate to kiss him again, but he only brushed his lips against hers, teasing and light, moving away. He leaned forward, nipping her ear, and she tightened her grip on his shoulders as her desire sparked tenfold, a pulsing ache between her legs. He drew back, breathing hard, and they looked at each other. His eyes looked nearly black in the dim light. She could see herself reflected in them, flushed with desire, her lips swollen from kisses. She glanced at his mouth just as he glanced at hers; they leaned forward at the same time, and their lips crashed together. She bit down as they kissed and he groaned, the sound making her body tauten with pleasure. Heady lust filled her, and she moved her hands to his chest, sliding her hands up his body and kissing him so hard she tasted blood. He made a soft noise, sucking her lower lip into his mouth, his tongue sweeping across her lip and licking every last drop of blood clean from her skin. She whimpered, and then his fingers tangled in the strings of her nightgown, unknotting them so roughly that the neck tore, drawing the fabric down her shoulders. He drew away, and bent his head over her bare skin, his mouth outlining the shape of her collarbone. Her head fell back, and she made a desperate noise she later realized was his name as his lips traveled lower and lower, and with every rise and fall of her chest he pulled the neck of her nightgown down, until she felt his breath on the swelling curve of her breasts. She moaned loudly as he kissed her exposed skin, her hands buried in his hair, and then he pulled her towards him, his tongue pushing into her mouth as he kissed her. She tentatively touched her tongue to his, and he put his hand behind her head and deepened the kiss, and it wasn't so much a kiss as it was a clash of tongues and teeth and lips, of pleasure and pain. Their bodies pressed together and then his fingers were reaching to tear the rest of the gown away and they were still kissing and she couldn't get enough air, she couldn't breathe-
There was a loud knocking from the door, and they broke apart, Tauriel gasping for breath. They were staring at each other, unable to comprehend what had happened, until Thorin glanced away, looking towards the door. They were still close enough that when Thorin called, "Who is it?" she felt him speak, a low vibration in his chest. She was sure he could feel her hammering heartbeat.
"It's me, uncle, it's Fili," said Fili's voice on the other side, and Thorin moved away from her, the heat of his body vanishing. She pulled up her torn nightgown, which was hanging off her shoulders. She put a hand to her head, fisting in her hair. What had she just done? What had they just done? She could still feel his lips on her, and his teeth- she shivered as Thorin undid the latch that held the door closed and opened it, admitting Fili into the room. It must have been a strange sight; Thorin, bare chested and a bloody handprint clear against his skin; Tauriel, her hands covered in drying blood and gasping with a torn nightgown, both their lips swollen and pink, and herbs and shrubs strewn everywhere.
He looked his uncle up and down, apparently checking for the injury. Seeing none, he raised a brow, and Thorin smiled, but there was a shadow in his eye.
"A bit of elf healing works miracles." He looked at Tauriel, who was shivering. "Doesn't it?"
She stood, and almost fell over due to her exhaustion. Her legs felt weak, and her head spun. She took in a rattling breath, her heart still pounding. She still couldn't quite catch up to the situation. Her mind was dizzyingly blank, and her skin was crawling.
Fili was holding a scroll, and he handed it to Thorin, who glanced at it, then looked at Tauriel.
"Go," he said tersely, and she held the tattered neck of her gown closed, quickly leaving the room and ignoring Fili's quizzical look in her direction as she did.
The moment she closed the door behind her, she began to run, despite her weak state. She didn't stop sprinting till she had reached her room, whereupon she collapsed onto the bed. She thought sleep would have come easily, but she couldn't close her eyes.
She couldn't believe herself, what she had just done in Thorin's room. She knew that it would have gone further if Fili had not come when he had. She knew she would have let him go on, go on until the point of no return. And she had enjoyed it, too, had basked in the sensation of his lips on her body, his breath on her skin. She shivered. It didn't help to know that she would have let him undo her, allowed him to take her innocence.
She rolled over, not knowing how to feel. Kili had kissed her, that day in the infirmary, but he didn't remember it; he had been delirious. And she liked Kili, his shy smile, his casual flirting. But Thorin... Granted, she was attracted to him; how could she not be? But he was so cruel, and cold, and no matter how much her body wanted him, she could never love him.
Her hand went to her neck, where she felt the mark on her skin where Thorin had bit her. She rolled off the bed and hurried to the bathroom, glancing at the mirror.
Her face was pale, high color on her cheeks. Her hair was disheveled, her lips kiss-swollen, and there was a dark red line on her lower lip where it had been bitten, and she didn't know who had done it: her or Thorin. Her nightgown was torn and showed a great deal of her chest, and just below the curve of her jaw was the red mark that Thorin's teeth had left on her skin. She looked thoroughly ravished, she thought, and blushed, looking away from the mirror quickly.
She ran a bath, submerging herself in the scalding water. She scrubbed her whole body clean of his blood and his touch and his lips, staying in the bath for almost a whole hour, and when she emerged, fully dressed, she felt a little better.
They had been desperate, out of their minds. Both of them had nearly died, and it was that disbelieving shock that had driven them to do what they had done. A temporary insanity on both their parts. That was the only explanation she could think of, for all the kissing and biting and tearing at each other.
She sat in front of the fire, the warmth washing over her skin, soothing her rigid muscles. She felt her earlier exhaustion catch up with her, and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, and she was fast asleep before her hair had even begun to dry.

Chapter Text

Thorin

He was burning.
The magic was still singing through his veins, turning his blood to liquid heat and his skin to a scorching furnace. But that wasn't what was making him burn, that wasn't what was turning him into a raging inferno, it wasn't the reason his breath refused to even and his heart refused to slow, hammering a staccato in his chest.
It was her.
He hadn't let himself admit how much he had wanted it, to feel her like that, finally touch her freely, and he had never, not even in his most depraved dreams, imagined those sounds pouring from her throat, the breathtakingly sensual arch of her back, her fingers as they clenched on his shoulders, her lips as they claimed his own.
He had felt detached from himself, not in control of his own body as he had obeyed an instinct that ran deep under his skin, an instinct that would have driven them over the edge if not for his nephew's timely appearance. He would have done it, he would have marked her with his scent forever, imprinted himself onto her until she heard, saw and felt nothing else. And he wouldn't have regretted it.
He sucked in a breath, looking down at his hand, where the scroll Fili had given him was being crushed into a shapeless ball by his clenched fingers. He slowly loosened them, and the paper slumped forward, limp, and landed on the floor. He glanced out of the skylight, where he saw the sun rising slowly from behind the distant mountains, turning the surface of the Long Lake into a rippling sheet of fire. There was a faint smear of blood on the glass, his own. He could still hear the distant strains of the battle, the clash of blades, the shouts of the dying.
It has come as more of a surprise than pain, when the blade swept forth and cut a clean gash into his skin, the one place on his armor that wasn't as defended as the rest. The blade had melted, black and dripping red as the empty hilt clattered to the ground. There had been a brief flash of pain, like a lightening bolt tearing through him, then it had faded, only to be replaced by a terrible burning heat, a sightless fire that tore through him. He knew that Erebor did not have the capacity to heal it, but the elves...
Which led his train of thought back to Tauriel. He sighed, not without some frustration. Everything in his world at that moment led him back to her. The clear outline of her slender hand was still livid red across his chest, just over his heart. The blood had dried into a cracked hardness, making it look like paint. There were crescent-shaped bruises forming on his shoulders from where she had gripped him, and four oozing parallel scratches on each of his shoulder blades from where her nails had gouged his skin. Not to mention the blood on his lip, blood her teeth had drawn. He felt raw, as if her hands and lips had cut him open and left him bleeding, lacking, lusting.
He ran his fingers through his tangled hair and stomped to the baths, allowing the hot water to fill the tub before stripping and submerging himself in the steaming water.
He didn't move to clean himself, simply drew his knees up and allowed the heat to leach the tension from his muscles. The water that wafted away from him was tinged pink, and he felt numerous other smaller cuts and bruises on his body convey their presence as the water's heat caused them to flare up.
Once the water began to lose its heat he sighed and rubbed his hands together, watching a faint sheen of dirt and grime sift off his fingers. Scrubbing off the rest of his body, his hands lingered at the bloody handprint on his chest before washing it away as well, until it was nothing more than another smear of pink in the water, another stain. Tired suddenly, he drained the bath and dressed, moving into the bedroom.
His crown was gleaming on the bed, as if reminding him that there was no time to dawdle, and that his duties awaited. He made a face at the elaborately carved metalwork before snatching it off the covers and setting it on his desk, where he sat. He pulled a stack of papers towards him and picked up his quill and dipped it into a pot of ink. He set it over the paper.
He couldn't concentrate.
Try as he might, the words on the paper simply didn't register in his brain. He realized belatedly that he had been reading the same sentence over and over for the past twenty minutes, and valiantly tried again, moving to the next sheet.
His fingers brushed unconsciously over the cut on his lip, a sharp, sweet pain emanating from the spot. He could still taste her blood in his mouth, salty and coppery and hot.
He clamped down on the unwelcome memories and looked back at his work, the crown leering at him from its perch on the pile of papers next to him.
It took him two hours of trying until he gave up, knowing that there was no way he could concentrate when all he could think about was her, the curve of her hips under his hands, the sounds of her pleasure in his ears, the flutter of her lashes on his cheeks.
He had been so close. If Fili had chosen to come to his room even ten minutes later it would be done. She would be his. The edge of the precipice had been drawing closer and closer with every kiss, every touch. Another few minutes and they both would have fallen over the edge, into the eternal abyss.
He wanted her, more than he chose to admit to himself. Had been wanting her since the moment she had gasped out a little breath upon seeing him for the first time, clearly unprepared for what she had seen. She had straightened and spoken clearly, but he had seen in her eyes that he intrigued her. And when she thrust her chin up and spoke down to him and refused to let an honorific slip past those sensuous lips... he knew some sort of retribution was necessary. However, he had, quite admittedly, lost control.
Just as he had last night.
He hadn't let himself dwell on it before, hadn't even let himself entertain the possibility that she might want the same. But the way she clenched her hands whenever they spoke, the way she would press her thighs together under the table when he looked at her, the way her eyes lingered on his face when she thought he wasn't watching... it told everything male about him that she wanted him.
When he touched her, her eyes had gone black, dark and wide and full of desire. And when he kissed her, her hands had drawn him closer with such force he had nearly stumbled, as if she had to touch him or she would otherwise drown.
He stood forcefully, his chair skittering backwards as he did. Half of his mind was telling him to let go, forget about what happened, confess that it was in a haze of delirium and insanity that he had done what he did. But the other half was urging him on and telling him to go and finish what he had started, to surround himself in her scent, pine and fresh air and feminine arousal, feel skin rather than fabric under his hands when he touched her.
He swallowed, and with an obvious effort, wrenched himself away from the desk and left the room, slamming the door behind him. He didn't even know where he was going, just that he had to get out of the room, where Tauriel's scent was now laced with his own.
He locked the door, fuming silently. To think that a woman, an elf, of all races, had affected him so strongly, was absurd. Setting his jaw he stalked away from the bedroom and into the corridor, letting the shadows of Erebor swallow him whole.

"Thorin, what are you doing here?"
He turned in surprise to see Balin, panting slightly from having ascended the stairs to the rampart where Thorin was standing. He came to stand next to him, and it was so odd, that he who had taught and guided him and was like a father to him was so much shorter than him.
Thorin shrugged absently. "Too much to think about."
Balin raised a pale brow. "The elven healing did the trick, then?"
Thorin said nothing, only gazed out into the morning. Balin went on, tucking his hands into his belt.
"You should thank your stars she was there, and ready to help you."
Thorin tilted his chin imperiously. "I will thank no one for the favors of fortune," he said hotly, eliciting a sigh from the older dwarf.
"Thorin... if not for her patience and kindness you would not be alive," he said reproachfully.
"And if not for my liberality and hospitality she would not be here at all," Thorin shot back. "Leave it, Balin. If it is gratitude you want me to give her then you presumed too much."
Balin shook his head. "Maybe not gratitude," he said, "but a simple acknowledgement would do. She saved your life."
"Acknowledgement?" murmured Thorin, fingers gripping the railing with a force that should have seared his skin, but didn't; his hands were numb.
"I think I have rather duly provided her with the proper acknowledgement." He felt his lips curl, an expression halfway between a smirk and a sneer.
Balin turned to him, apparently surprised. "Did you?"
Thorin still didn't look at him. "Mmm."
"Thorin."
"I did," he said defensively, finally looking at Balin, who was gazing at him dubiously. He sighed.
"I'll take your word for it, then," he said, shaking his head. Thorin hid his smile and looked back at the valley stretching away before him.
"I thought you were going to die," Balin said with disarming frankness. "When I saw you. You carried yourself as if it didn't hurt you but I saw your pain. You insisted on walking when I know your legs could scarcely carry you. I wondered if you would let us help you at all."
Thorin snorted softly. "I knew the moment I was cut with that blade that nothing in Erebor could heal me."
"Ah, but you didn't," said Balin. "You knew there was one thing in Erebor that could heal you," he corrected, smiling serenely.
Thorin huffed out a laughing breath. "I did," he admitted. "Only light that strong can drive out a darkness so deep. Elvish medicine was the only thing that would do it, and she..." He trailed off, but he was not entirely sure why.
"You could say her name," sighed Balin. "It won't kill you."
Thorin laughed. "Tauriel," he said, ignoring the mad fluttering of his heart at the sound of it. Saying it now only brought back how he had said it last night, broken and incoherent against her mouth, feeling her breath fanning his lips.
Balin put a hand on his arm, effectively stopping his racing thoughts. "Your pride was always your strongest and weakest point. Often you choose to let it control you rather than controlling it."
Thorin kept his face impassive and still. "Do I?"
"You know you do."
Thorin only blinked, not showing Balin anything.
"I imagine she would have been weak after she used the magic," said Balin, frowning up at him. "It would have drained her strength."
Her breath had been ragged, sweat shining on her brow, flushing her cheeks, smoldering her eyes. She had seemed dizzy too, he realized belatedly, as she left the room. So it hadn't been deprived passion that had caused her such fatigue. Oh, well, he thought. He supposed one couldn't have everything in life.
"I imagine so," said Thorin, carefully controlling his voice. He glanced at Balin out of the corner of his eye, and saw him nod, then tuck his thumbs into his belt again.
"It'll begin snowing soon," he said, glancing at the sky which darkened more every day. "Winter is nearly upon us."
Instinctively Thorin cut his eyes to the flickering lights of Dale, lights that lessened in number every time he looked at it. Soon there would be none.
"And the people are overjoyed," said Balin, taking a deep breath.
Thorin crinkled his brows, still staring at Dale. "Because of the approaching winter?"
Balin loosed the breath with a laugh. "Of course not. Because of you."
Thorin snorted. "Now what is it? You know I'm far too old for courtship, and far too dour for it as well. Even you have to give up eventually."
"While I wish you had found a suitable bride in the proper time," said Balin with a long-suffering sigh, "it's not that either."
"Good," said Thorin, unlacing his hands from the rail and cracking his knuckles. "Well?"
"A double victory," he said, arching a brow. "You defeated the rebels, and while you didn't emerge unscathed, you survived, you were healed, so was Kili, and you are victorious in two ways."
Thorin sighed theatrically. "A feast," he said. "There's always a feast, or a revel, or a-"
"A ball," corrected Balin, a small smile on his face. "This time it will be a ball."
Thorin raised a brow, turning away from the railing. "And naturally, I don't get a say," he said, smiling down at Balin, who beamed back at him.
"Of course not," he said brightly, and the two shared a grin before Balin put a warm hand on his shoulder and turned away, saying, "It's far too cold out, I'm going back inside. Don't stay out too late, and without a coat, that too, you'll catch your death..."
Thorin opened his mouth to call after him, his hand reaching out, the words burning behind his lips, but thought better of it and withdrew his hand as Balin disappeared down the stairs and out of sight.

The thought of visiting the infirmary briefly occurred to him as he left the rampart, and deciding he was unlikely to be able to get any work done, he walked along the winding corridor towards the infirmary. Kili had been protesting for a day or two, insisting that he was fine and that he didn't need to be in bed all day, but before Thorin could even think of anything to say Fili had already been there, firmly shutting out his brother's protests and telling him that he needed to stay there a few more days. Kili had subsided under Fili's unusually stern gaze, and had obediently stayed in the infirmary.
Thorin pushed the door open, hearing voices. Walking inside, he saw a small commotion around one of the beds, the one that had held his nephew for the better part of the last week. Kili had vacated the bed but was standing next to it, frowning whilst shrugging on a tunic, pulling the hem down over his belt. Catching sight of Thorin striding towards him his face broke out in a small, nervous smile.
"Leaving, I see," Thorin said, earning another small grin.
"It's practically completely healed over; I needn't tarry here any longer, it's fine now."
Thorin drew up to him, feeling worry and concern drawing his brows together. "Are you sure?"
Kili nodded, turning fluidly to douse the small lamp that was sitting on the bedside table before turning back to his uncle.
"It's fine, look," he said, drawing the neck of his tunic down so that it exposed the skin of his shoulder. There was a puckered scar there, no longer livid red as it had been when Thorin had seen Fili carrying him- livid red and weeping blood, blood tinged black, a blue-black bruise surrounding it in a dark ring, ragged, torn skin- but clean, shallow, just another testament of battle, a map of scars that proved his bravery, his will to fight for his people. His mind dragged him irresistibly back to the previous night, when Tauriel's fingers had traced every scar on his own chest, brushing her soft skin over the raised marks, her hands sliding up his body-
He yanked himself back to the present, watching as Kili bent his head to look at the scar, affording him a glimpse of his long, dusky lashes fluttering as he blinked.
He drew the next up again, shrugging to settle the fabric comfortably over his shoulders again. He raised his brows at Thorin.
"Well, then? Am I allowed to go, or will you and Fili continue to keep me locked in here?"
Thorin patted his shoulder, careful to avoid the one bearing the healed wound. "If you think you're fine-"
"Which I am," Kili muttered.
"Then you can go," concluded Thorin. Kili nodded again. "I don't think I can stay here any longer anyway. I'll die of boredom."
Thorin scowled as the two of them left the infirmary. "You shouldn't be complaining about boredom when you're on a sickbed," he pointed out. "You're meant to be resting."
"Yes, well," Kili said carelessly. "It did get rather tedious; the hounding-"
"All they did was give you medicine-"
"The fussing-"
"You nearly died, of course they would be-"
"The swooning-"
That caught him off guard. "Swooning?"
"But of course," Kili said with a roguish grin, "all the pretty ladies were crying into their handkerchiefs when they discovered my condition."
Thorin rolled his eyes. "Of course they were."
Kili smiled innocently, and Thorin couldn't resist reaching out a hand and ruffling his hair, mussing the dark mane so that it stuck all around his head. Kili made an undignified sound of protest, slapping Thorin's hand away.
"I stopped appreciating that when I was little," he muttered, eliciting a small laugh from Thorin.
"I know," was all he said.
They had reached Kili's room, and Kili leaned on the doorframe, surveying Thorin with a hooded gaze.
"It'll be Yule soon, in a few weeks," he said, folding his arms. "There'll be a celebration, and a big one at that. It'll last for days."
Thorin sighed. "So it will be. And not to mention the ball Balin said will be in a few days."
Kili frowned. "A ball? But why- oh," he said, eyes clearing. "Because we took out the rebels."
Thorin grunted. "And because of both of us as well."
Kili frowned again. "What did we do?"
He shrugged halfheartedly. "We survived, I suppose."
"What, this scratch?" Kili snorted, gesturing to his shoulder. He winced slightly, and amended, "Well, a big scratch, but still, just another day at the office. What about you?"
Belatedly Thorin realized that Kili had been in the infirmary the whole time, and hadn't been awake to witness Thorin's arrival- or his recovery. Quickly he outlined what had happened at the battle, and coming back and being healed, carefully sidestepping what had happened immediately after.
Kili's brows had drawn together once Thorin finished. He looked on the verge of saying something scathing- probably about the rebels, Thorin thought, raising his brows, when:
"And you didn't spend a single minute in the infirmary," Kili said, outraged. "I had to lie in there for days!"
Thorin burst out laughing.

The wine was bitter, sour, sweet and strong. It wasn't thin like elvish wine, nor was it moderate like the wine the men prepared, but thick, potent, heady, musky. It was good in smaller amounts, and tended to make one easily light-headed or even a little tipsy, within a glass or two. Thorin, having finished half a bottle, still wasn't feeling the effects, as if the elven magic still hadn't worked its way out of his system yet and was preventing the wine from taking effect.
He took another sip, allowing the taste to fill his moth before swallowing it, then picking up another sheet of paper. It was simple: one sheet, one sip. By the time the night was through he'd be through seven bottles at this rate; there were veritable mountains of papers on the desk.
He sighed long and deep, trying in vain to bring his mind to the task at hand. It kept flitting in all sorts of directions, refusing to linger in one place.
He set his jaw and forced himself to focus, glaring down at the paper in front of him. He would finish these by tonight, and not think about Tauriel's hands or her lips or her blood on his teeth, a little salty and a little sweet, with the scent of female arousal clinging to it and making him brazen, reckless-
He slammed his fist onto the table suddenly, feeling the wood vibrate acutely. With an audible clatter, the goblet of wine he had been drinking tipped over, falling onto the floor and causing gleaming red liquid to spread rapidly across the floor in a widening pool. He paid it no heed, putting his head into his hands and closing his eyes.
This needed to stop. He had to stop thinking about her, or else it would drive him mad. He knew he should forget that anything had happened between them, but he knew this insatiable desire would only truly go away once he finished what he had started, once she was his.
He stood mechanically, making his way to the bathroom and wetting a cloth, then knelt in front of his desk and scrubbed the floor clean of wine. It wasn't his task, he knew, but he didn't want to see anyone right then, nor did he want anyone to see him.
After all traces of the wine were gone, he disposed of the cloth, set the goblet back onto the table and sat at the desk again. He took a deep breath and set to work, emptying his mind of anything else but the dull task, the methodical reading, reviewing, signing, modifying, writing.
The clock struck two in the morning, and he looked up with tired eyes at the ornate clock that hung from the mantelpiece, then glanced back at the papers. It didn't seem any smaller than it was when he had begun, but there was a new pile of finished ones lying haphazardly next to it. He swallowed thickly and stood up, tiredly making his way to the bed.
Just a few hours, he thought. I can wake by four and continue my work.
Nodding as if to convince himself, he lay down and closed his eyes, falling asleep within seconds, his thoughts slipping away and darkness replacing it.

Light sliced through the blackness, causing his eyes to open of their own accord, before he was even fully awake. He blinked groggily. How was it so bright? Surely he had only been asleep for a couple of hours. He peered sleepily at the clock on the mantel, the numbers on the face coming into focus slowly.
He winced, quickly getting out of bed. It was well after breakfast, nearly lunch. The light stabbed into the room, lighting everything to a blinding intensity. It was late, he still had tons of work to do, everyone was probably wondering where he was, and to top it all off, he had a splitting headache.
Dressed and ready, he was about to head for the door when a loud knock sounded, a little impatient, as if reprimanding him for being late.
He opened the door, out of breath, to see Dwalin, a scowl on his face and an indignant look in his eyes.
"What are you playing at, Thorin, look at the time!" was Dwalin's greeting.
Thorin stepped out, closing the door behind him. "Good morning to you too."
"Good afternoon, more like," snorted Dwalin. "What took you so long?"
Thorin raised a brow as the two of them left the door behind. "What do you think? I've been getting two hours of sleep every night for the past century. I need rest."
"That's no excuse," tutted Dwalin. "Kings need to be-"
"Sleep-deprived?" muttered Thorin.
Dwalin snorted, but said nothing as they reached the throne room. "Balin thought you'd died," he said, earning a chuckle from Thorin.
"Wouldn't put it past him to think that," he sighed. "Wasn't there a meeting today?" he asked, blinking at Dwalin in surprise, remembering suddenly.
"There was."
Thorin stifled a groan. "And...?"
"'Fraid you missed it," Dwalin said candidly. "It was terribly awkward."
Thorin wondered idly what on earth he had done to deserve such a terrible fate. "One morning," he said through gritted teeth. "One damned morning I can't wake up there's a meeting, I have more work to do, there's some ridiculous ball this evening I'm meant to attend, and Balin said there was another meeting today afternoon." He scrubbed a hand across his face. "Anything I missed?"
"Don't think so," Dwalin said thoughtfully. "Though that is a lot of work, and half the day is over."
Thorin ground his teeth together. "Thank you for reminding me that I am a terribly incompetent king."
"Any time," Dwalin said cheerfully, clapping him on the shoulder. "Why couldn't you have chosen to sleep in yesterday?"
Thorin rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I didn't choose to sleep in," he said. "I just rested my eyes for an hour or two" -Dwalin snorted- "and when I opened them it was practically lunch, what am I to do?"
"The meeting begins in ten minutes, I suggest you get a move on," Dwalin said, trying to hide his grin in his beard but failing to do so. "Don't want to be late, do we?"
Thorin's fingers had just formed a rude gesture in reply when Balin came striding around the corner, frowning.
"Thorin, where on earth were you?" he demanded, and Thorin hastily withdrew his hand, determinedly not looking at Dwalin as he spoke.
"I overslept," he said shortly.
The frown melted off Balin's face, replaced by a mask of unadulterated incredulity. "You?" he said, surprise evident in every line of his face. Thorin sighed, passing a hand over his eyes.
"I am mortal, you know," he muttered. "I need sleep."
The shocked look still hadn't fully evaporated from his face as he said, "Of course, of course, it's just- I never would have expected it from you."
"Yes, well," grumbled Thorin, "nobody did. Now, there's a meeting now, is there?"
"Yes," said Balin, immediately switching back to his usual officialism and straightening perceptibly. "It's starting in another few moments."
Thorin made a fade at Dwalin before making his way down the corridor, Balin following dutifully. As they left the doors of the throne room behind, Thorin glanced tentatively down at Balin, knowing full well that he had missed the earlier meeting.
"I hope my absence was not one too harshly felt?" he ventured cautiously.
"We did wait for a whole hour, but besides that, no."
Thorin couldn't decide whether to hide or laugh. "A whole hour?"
"We eventually began without you."
"I'm-"
"Don't be," Balin cut in. "How many hours of sleep did you say you get every night?"
Thorin swerved around the question. "I didn't."
"How many, then?"
He muttered something. Balin frowned. "What was that?"
Thorin sighed. "Either two or four, it varies between them. Sometimes none."
That got him a long sigh. "Thorin, you're not a child for me to tell you this, but you need to get rest, at least six solid hours. If you don't, this will happen." He gestured grandly, apparently encompassing the current situation.
"I know," said Thorin, "but I have too much work to do." He shrugged.
Balin shook his head. "That's no excuse. And tonight there's the ball, and you know how it will be, it will last into the morning."
Thorin made a face. "I'll be asleep with my eyes open anyhow, I don't think it'll make a difference. I never liked revels."
Balin hummed. "You have to attend; it is, after all, your victory."
"And Kili's," Thorin said absently. "And Dwalin's."
"Yes," said Balin impatiently. "But mainly yours."
"Hmm," said Thorin, his mind elsewhere.
"Thorin, what happened?"
He looked down at Balin, his brows knitting together. "Nothing."
"Ever since you were healed your mind has been unfocused. Did something happen?"
"Nothing's wrong, Balin," he sighed. "I'm just tired."
"If you say so, I suppose," Balin said. He never was one to pry into things Thorin didn't want to disclose. If possible, that just made it easier to tell him things he could tell no one else.
Thorin allowed himself a smile. "I say so."

The hall was dimly lit, the candles in the chandeliers guttering and casting a mellow golden glow onto the whole room, which was packed with dwarves. It was an explosion of color, light and sound, music pouring from the instruments being played and mingling with the air, the torches and lamps and lights, the strangers dressed in their finest finery lingering about, flitting to and fro like ghosts, never stopping, always moving.
Thorin sat at the rear of the hall, in a throne-like chair, simply watching the festivities rather than participating; he was not one for a good revel. He didn't sing, nor did he dance. But he was the king and thus his presence was one that couldn't be forgone. It was a masked ball, and he briefly and irately wondered who had come up with such a ridiculous idea; what with everyone wearing masks that obscured half their faces, he couldn't recognize anybody. Which made it very difficult when well-wishers came traipsing to him for congratulations and other such nonsense; he couldn't place anyone.
He saw Fili and Kili at one end of the room, both laughing at something Kili had just said. Fili looked collected and calm, as usual, polite to everyone who spoke to him; chaste and gentlemanly. Kili was lounging against the wall, his hair rumpled in a way that suggested carelessness but probably wasn't, throwing winks at pretty girls and making them blush into their hands. Thorin hid his smile.
"It's a lovely evening, isn't it?" said a voice at his elbow. He looked around to see Balin.
"It is, if you prefer this sort of thing," he replied.
"And you don't." It wasn't a question.
"I never understood the point of them," he admitted. "Dressing and acting like aristocracy for one night doesn't make you one. And those who are gentry simply flaunt their wealth. It's useless."
Balin chuckled. "So it seems. But a ball isn't any fun without dancing, is it? A proper revel with good strong music and lively dancers is all we need."
"And that can be done without decking yourself in so many layers of silk you resemble a tent," pointed out Thorin. "It's quite unnecessary."
Balin smiled. "Fair point well made. You look particularly fine today, my liege," he went on jovially. "Small wonder the women have been flocking here all evening."
Thorin sighed. "I told you to let that go seventy years ago."
"And yet," sighed the older dwarf, "Erebor could have done with a good, strong queen."
"Perhaps," said Thorin. "But I had no interest in marrying whatsoever, and still don't."
He saw Balin raise a brow in his periphery. "But you courted a few."
Thorin winced. "Sporadically. And I would hardly call it courtship; all of them lasted only one night."
Balin laughed earnestly at that. "Those were the days," he said reminiscently. "You always were reckless when it came to bedding women."
"Balin, don't," sighed Thorin, but his lips were twitching into a smile. "I grew out of it eventually," he said, shrugging.
"You said you grew bored."
"Perhaps I did," said Thorin. "But it's over now."
"There are some fine women here tonight," Balin went on shamelessly and relentlessly. "That one looks particularly fetching." He gestured.
Thorin didn't bother looking. "Balin, no."
"Well, why not? I say you could do with a good- ah, now that is a sight to behold!" he said suddenly, peering enraptured at the doors. He wasn't the only one; heads were turning all over the room, gazing at the entrance. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kili stiffen and stand up straight, his eyes also latching onto the doors.
A woman was walking through them, a tall, slender woman with luscious vermilion hair woven elaborately into a braided crown on her brow and decked in a long, fathomless green satin dress that fell about her long body in elegant folds. There was an intricate mask on her face, encrusted with whorls of gems and flashing in the dim light, but that did nothing to hide the vibrant green hazel of her eyes as they gleamed, outlined in gold.
His breath caught violently in his throat. "What is she- I didn't- who invited her?"
Balin puffed out his chest. "As a matter of fact, I did."
He swallowed with great difficulty. "Balin," he rasped. "Why?"
Balin didn't have time to reply; Tauriel had already reached them. She was smiling softly, and there was a subtle hint of cherry red coloring her lips. Her alabaster skin seemed to be glowing, and the gold ringing her eyes brought out the flecks of amber in her irises. The dress clung to her body, hugging it in all the right places, outlining her voluptuous figure and rendering every dip and curve in brutal clarity.
"You look lovely," Balin said, positively beaming. Tauriel blushed slightly, smiling. There was a faint red line on her lower lip, one that the coloring did little to hide. One that matched the mark on his own mouth. He swallowed again.
"I wondered if I was welcome," she said tentatively.
"Of course you would be," twinkled Balin. "I'm sure we're all delighted to have you."
Thorin silently cursed Balin's well-intentioned meddling. He couldn't stop staring; he had never seen her in anything but her worn tunics, and, on one occasion, a flimsy nightgown; but never in such finery, with her hair up and braided, and gems dripping from her throat. Despite being fully covered, he had never seen this much of her body before.
"Thank you," she said with a smile. She wasn't looking at him, a slight flush on her cheeks.
The last time he had heard that voice, seen that face... it brought back the flood of memories he had been trying so hard to detain. He stood abruptly, and Tauriel finally looked at him directly, her eyes locking onto his.
For one brief second he could look directly through her eyes and into her mind, reading her expression like a book, seeing everything laid bare. Then, just as quickly as she had let him in she shoved him out, her expression turning smooth and blank, her eyes hardening like chips of emerald. She inclined her head slightly, a curl of red dropping artfully onto her shoulder.
"Your Majesty," she said, her tone slightly sour. He said nothing back, willing his lip to curl in contempt just as he was expected to, turning away as if she wasn't worth his time.
"If you would excuse me," he said coldly, earning an exasperated huff from Balin, "I'm going to get some air."
Without even a glance at Tauriel he strode away and out of the hall, leaving the doors open behind him and allowing the music to leach out like tendrils of mist and warm the cold air of the Mountain blowing from beyond.

He supposed it was cold.
Even if it was, he couldn't feel it; his whole body felt numb. He thought he had put it behind him, what had happened between him and Tauriel. Or, at least, he hoped he had. Seeing her was one thing. Seeing her in that accursed, gorgeous dress that displayed her every curve was another thing entirely. Why did she have to wear it? Why couldn't she have come wearing an old threadbare tunic? Why did Mahal hate him?
He scowled at the distant hills from his vantage point on a balcony right outside the ballroom. It was dusk, the stars shimmering like diamonds in the darkening sky. The faint streams of music could be heard from the balcony, mingled with the low rumble of talk, the occasional high note of laughter distinguishable from the rest of the din.
Balin had been right; it was snowing, ever so lightly, just a dusting of white powder sifting from the sky. The cold was upon the air, freezing the stone, seeping through the layers of his clothes and raising goosebumps on his arms. Still, he didn't feel it.
He heard a creak behind him and turned to see the swinging doors of the balcony open, admitting, to his horror, a slim figure bedecked in green satin onto the small space, a slim figure with a crown of flaming red hair and piercing green eyes.
Mahal didn't just hate him, He was trying to kill him.
Tauriel stopped short upon catching sight of him, her eyes widening and a gasp escaping her lips. Her cheeks flamed, and he saw her swallow.
"I'm sorry," she said hurriedly, looking away. "I didn't know you were here."
She turned and made to leave, and he called out without meaning to.
"Wait," he said.
She stopped, turning to him slowly. The swaying movement of her hips under the tight fabric really was distracting. He forced his gaze back to her face, steeling himself.
"About what happened last night-"
"Nothing happened," she interrupted tightly, her chin tilted imperiously. "I know naught of what you speak."
He narrowed his eyes. "I think you do."
A muscle in her jaw jumped. "Well," she said, "I don't. So excuse me," she said haughtily, turning away again. Before he was fully conscious of what he was doing he moved forward, catching her arm and spinning her towards him, forcing her to face him.
"Let me go," she snarled, trying to wrench her arm away. "You've done enough already-"
"So you admit to me having done anything at all," he said, raising a brow. She scowled.
"I said, let me go." She bared her teeth, her cheeks pink. He held her tighter.
"Not until we settle this."
"There is nothing to settle! What is done is done, and all we can do is-"
"Pretend it never happened? Come now," he said, faint amusement coloring his voice. "You must have felt something. In body if not in mind."
She glared at him, the faint starlight glinting off the metallic golden lining around her eyes. She tried to yank her arm away, to no avail.
"You do not speak for me," she snapped, finally giving up and going limp. She straightened, and he raised his brow again.
"I daresay you were quite responsive to my advances," he said casually, causing her to go completely still. "Had my nephew not arrived-"
"Don't," she whispered. "Don't make this worse than it already is."
"Would you have allowed it?"
It was a brutally honest question. She balked, her eyes dropping from his to fixate onto the floor. She didn't say anything, her lips compressed into a tight line. He gripped her arm a little more tightly, causing her eyes to flit up to his again.
"Would you have allowed it?" he asked again, his voice rougher, and she swallowed once, then twice, her eyes darting from the floor to his shoulder then back again.
"Yes," she said finally, and her eyes came to rest directly on his. He could see her uncertainty, her hesitancy, her fear, displayed there clearly.
"Yes, I would have." They were words spoken with a sort of finality, as if they sealed something important, though he couldn't have said what.
"But it was a shock," she went on. "It was the sense of unreality that we had both almost died, and in that moment of delirium and unawareness, we..."
"You say that as if to convince yourself," he said, catching the waver in her voice. "You say it as if to convince yourself you didn't want it, didn't want me. But you did."
Her lower lip trembled. "What do you want me to tell you?" she whispered. "The truth?"
"When you say you were out of your mind," he said evenly, "that is a lie."
Her defenses shattered. "You want to know the truth?" she hissed, drawing closer, so close that her body was flush with his. His breath hitched as the movement pressed her chest against his. Her eyes bored into him, the circle of her pupils expanding rapidly. "The truth is that I wanted it, I wanted all of it, and not only then; I'd wanted you for weeks, ever since I saw the bruises your fingers left on me, I realized I wanted more and it sickened me and I tried to deny it, only I couldn't. And when you kissed me," her voice hitched, "I knew that in that instant I wanted all of you. If Fili had not come when he did then it would be done. And do you know the worst part?" Her voice dropped to a whisper, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glittering. "I would have enjoyed it. And I wouldn't have regretted it. I still don't. I've left my marks on you, Thorin Oakenshield," she continued, the fingers of her free hand coming up and brushing across his lips, moving over the abrasion caused by her teeth. His eyes fluttered shut at her touch, and as her hand moved to his shoulders, digging into the bruises there, a rough groan was dragged from his throat.
"Just as you have left your marks on me," she said, and her voice was low and husky, sending rippling shivers running down his spine. He opened his eyes just as she turned her head to the side, a red mark under the sweep of her jaw clearly visible against her pale skin- a mark his teeth had left there. Her pupils were blown wide, her chest rising and falling heavily.
He lifted his other hand to her face, his fingers curling under the edges of the silk mask resting on her angular cheekbones. With great deliberation he lifted it up off her face, baring her pale white cheeks and long russet lashes. He dropped the mask onto the ground, his thumb tracing over the faint indentations where the sharp edge of the mask had dug into her skin, rubbing away the soreness gently. A soft moan spilled from her lips as he did.
He leaned forward as if drawn by some sort of external force, and stopped just a hairbreadth away from her. He could see every brushstroke of amber and hazel in those green, green eyes, then she tipped her head up, eyes falling shut and hiding their vivid color as she fit her lips to his.
The moment stretched on for forever, interminable, boundless and slow. Her lips were soft as they moved against his own, her fingers bunching in the fabric of his sleeve. He stroked a thumb over the sensitive skin of her inner wrist, causing a little noise of surprise to fall from her lips. Emboldened by the sound he tilted his head, his tongue running along the seam of her lips, threatening to delve into her mouth. She acquiesced, her lips parting, and he deepened the kiss suddenly and roughly, stroking into her mouth with his tongue, biting her lip, his hand cupping the back of her neck and pulling her closer. She retaliated, kissing him back so hard his head nearly snapped back with the force of it. Their tongues were engaged in a fiery tangle, small moans passing between their shared breath as they caught fire with the heat of their passion.
She stiffened suddenly, ripping herself away from him as if burned. Her eyes were wide and glassy, unfocused. There was a sharp blush on her cheeks as she swallowed, staring at him as if she had never seen him before. He felt dazed and a little hazy, and everything around him seemed to be shimmering, blurred around the edges. He blinked at her, confused.
Her eyes went down suddenly, looking at his hand gripping her arm. Her breath appeared to catch for a moment, then she looked back at him, and the sultry look in her eye had vanished, a blank horror replacing it. Sensing her sudden hesitation he loosened his grip on her, his other hand falling away from her cheek, and she gasped, tugging her arm away.
"I- I don't-" She looked away from him, a hand coming up and pressing against her lips. She was staring at the fallen mask on the ground, like a spill of green acid on the stone floor. She looked as if she was about to be sick, sweat beading at her temples.
"Tauriel?" he asked, uncertainty and concern evident in his tone, and she cringed away, her other hand clutching her forehead.
"I'm sorry, I don't know why I-" Her chest heaved. "I don't know why..."
She moved backwards blindly, reaching behind her to fumble for the handle of the door. Finding it, she pushed it open from behind, her eyes still wide and shocked. He felt worry draw his brows together, and made to move forward, but she held out a hand, a clear indication for him to stop. He did, a hand outstretched, but she only shook her head.
"Please don't follow me," she choked out, and turning on her heel she hurried away from him, leaving him alone at the balcony, the wind tousling his hair and his hand still outstretched for her to take it.

Chapter Text

Sigrid

The bed was warm, the blankets that covered her thick and heavy, blocking out the morning chill. It was well after dawn, she could tell from the lightening of the insides of her eyelids and the cool air on her cheek. Not wanting to open her eyes she mumbled to herself and pulled the covers over her head, effectively blocking out the sun and encasing her in warmth. Sighing happily she relaxed, feeling sleep pull her down under its surface like an anchor descending into the ocean—
"Sigrid," called a familiar voice. "Sigrid, wake up!"
She frowned and adamantly didn't move, knowing that waking up meant cold, and cold meant—well, it meant waking up.
"Five minutes," she groused, still half-asleep.
"Sigrid, it's nearly breakfast," said the familiar voice. Bain... it was Bain's voice.
"Mmm," she said, turning away from him.
She felt a sharp tug at the blanket and a sudden chill on her skin, shocking her eyes open as Bain yanked the covers off her. He bunched it in his hands, smiling triumphantly as she spluttered, dragging her hair out of her face.
"Bain—I'll—" she launched herself out of the bed, lunging for the blanket, but he flung it away and it slid to the balcony. He nimbly dodged her flailing arms.
"It's nearly midmorning," he said with a grin. "Da asked me to wake you."
She glared at him, shivering slightly. "He asked you to wake me, not give me a heart attack," she snapped, moving tiredly towards the bathroom.
"Good thing you woke up," he called nonchalantly after her. "I'd have poured water on your head if you hadn't."
She scoffed, changing course and heading to the fallen blanket. Picking it up, she tossed it to her brother, giving him her best withering look.
"When I come out that had better be folded and neat," she said waspishly, turning on her heel and stalking to the bathroom. "And if you don't then next time Da asks me to wake you up, I'll put an ice cube down your shirt, see how you'll like that."
Bain chuckled behind her, but as she closed the bathroom door she saw his brows creased in concentration as he methodically folded the blanket up, smoothening the wrinkles and creases off the bed before neatly laying it down.
She smiled to herself, knowing that Bain couldn't tolerate messiness of any kind, be it his room or anyone else's. He was always the one who rushed around the house holding a broomstick whenever he spotted a speck of dust on any surface.
"Just like his mother," laughed their father every time. "Neat as a pin." But there was a trace of sorrow in the words every time he spoke them.
Just as it always was whenever he mentioned their mother.
Yule was drawing closer with every passing dawn, and snow had begun to fall, coating everything with a thin layer of white in the morning, hoarfrost creeping up the windows and coating the stone. Chanting filtered through the open windows every day, high haunting voices raised to sing mingling with the tinkling bells and whistles. Once it had been a merry holiday, with warm golden light filling the halls, warmth from the fire blocking out the biting sting of the cold, songs and chants dancing through the air, heavy with the magic of the season.
But now there was nobody left to sing, and with food so scarce and dear, and the few who remained in Dale closed their doors tightly, choosing to spend the festival alone. It had been Sigrid's favorite holiday back then, before her world had fallen apart.
Erebor had opened their gates, her father had told her, a faraway look in his eye. Mellow golden glows would creep from the stone, lighting the path into the Mountain. Plentiful music and dancing was seen and heard, and it was a cherished time.
But, she supposed, all good things had to end some day.
She dressed quickly, mindful that it was well after the required time for her to be ready. It was usually her who woke her siblings and reprimanded them for being late, but it was cold, she thought defensively, and she could hardly be blamed for that.
She hurried down the steps, adjusting the hem of her dress, which was slightly askew. Catching her breath a moment, she headed into the kitchen.
Tilda, Bain and her father were already there, and Bain shot her a quick, teasing smile before busying himself with his bread. Tilda barely looked up at her, but acknowledged her with a wave of her fork and an enthusiastic bite. Sigrid pulled up a chair next to her and smiled at her father.
"Sorry I'm late, Da," she said, pulling a plate towards her. "I didn't see the time."
He smiled back at her, dipping his chin slightly. "Better late than never," he replied, and she offered him a close-lipped smile, rolling her eyes as she did.
"It's cold," she said, shrugging and forking up eggs. "One can hardly be motivated to be woken when it's cold. And it didn't take me that long to wake, either."
Her father raised a brow. "Is that so? Bain told me he'd been trying to wake you for hours."
She scoffed, pointing at Bain accusingly with her fork. A bit of egg flew off the end and landed on the table between them.
"Liar," she said. "You'd only just arrived when I opened my eyes!"
He turned his nose up delicately. "I did not. I came there hours ago, and you were fast asleep. I shook you about a thousand times, yelled in your ear, blew in your ear, snapped my fingers under your nose..." He bit a piece of bread with a theatrical sniff. "You didn't even twitch. Such abandon."
"I'm sure I would have woken if you did all that," she said, glaring at him. "Slave driver. It's nearly Yule, have some pity."
"So you admit you'd been drooling all over your pillow when I came to wake you."
Her ears pinked. "I admit to nothing of the sort."
He spread butter on his bread with a smile. "You were, though. I saw you—"
"All right, I was asleep, and next time I'll wake on time, all right?"
"Do mine ears deceive me?" said Bain with a mock gasp. "Did I just hear you say I was right?"
She pointed a finger at him. "Laugh away," she said. "Enjoy it while it lasts."
Their father laughed quietly. "Stop your bickering, both of you," he said. "And, Bain, when I came to wake you this morning, you were snoring, so I suppose the two of you are even."
Sigrid grinned delightedly, and Bain promptly choked on his toast.
"I don't snore," he said after his coughing subsided. "You just heard the wind."
"No, I'm sure I heard you," said their father nonchalantly. "It was awfully loud, too."
It was Bain's turn to go red. "It was terribly windy last night, wasn't it?"
"No, it was clear last night," Sigrid said with a smirk. "Clear as crystal."
"I hate all of you," Bain muttered into his glass of water.
Sigrid and her father shared identical grins. "Merry Yule, Bain," she sang.
"Laugh away," Bain sighed. "Enjoy it while it lasts."

"Who was it?"
Sigrid was lying on the couch in her father's study, a book open on her lap. Bain was sprawled next to her, and Tilda was on the floor next to the hearth, flat on her stomach. Their father was sitting at the desk, working. It was usually like this, on cold days; there didn't seem to be any point in lighting four fires in the house when they were the only ones, so they usually congregated in the study, which was was the coziest room in the house.
Her father looked up, momentarily disoriented. "Who was what?"
She stretched, flipping the book closed. "Someone came to see you a few nights ago, at two in the morning. I was down to get a glass of water and heard noises."
He sighed, sitting back. "I'd met him only once before then, long ago, when he had first come to Dale. He's a wizard," he said upon seeing their puzzled looks.
"His name is Gandalf, Gandalf the gray. He came to see how we fared. He offered to go speak with Thorin on my behalf, to ask him to reconsider opening his gates."
Tilda looked up with a frown. "And did he say yes?"
"He said he tried to speak with him, to make him see sense. But it was to no avail," he sighed. "Erebor's gates will remain sealed, until the king decides to open them." He paused. "He mentioned an elven ambassador, an elf-maid who is negotiating with the king. But perhaps she is not what she seems."
Tilda frowned again. "You means she's a spy?"
Bain looked at their father, brows furrowed. "That's not possible, though," he said. "The Woodland realm's gates have been similarly shut. How...?"
"They are, apparently, rumored to succeed in reopening Erebor's gates to resume trade with the elves, and only the elves," sighed their father. "Their gates opened. She is there, and she will succeed, I'm quite sure."
Sigrid worried at her lip. "But they're plenty competent even without Erebor."
"Exactly," said Bard. "From which there arises a rumor. A debt to be settled between the two kings, Gandalf said. Something the Mountain King owes the Forest King. She is there to take it back."
Tilda's eyes were wide as saucers. "Does the king know?"
"No," said Bain, looking impressed. "Obviously not. But if he finds out... it won't be pretty."
Sigrid sat back, deep in thought. "What could it be?" she asked, partly to herself. "What could King Thorin have that King Thranduil doesn't?"
"Doesn't have, but wants," corrected Bain, frowning. "Wants so desperately that he sends a spy there under the faux veil of an ambassador to steal it back."
Tilda piped up, "Jewels."
"Can't be," Sigrid said, shaking her head. "I've never heard anything about elven gems in Erebor before, and besides, how would they have wound up there?"
"Some sort of magic?" Bain asked, sitting next to Sigrid. "An object, maybe with a spell on it?"
"Maybe," she said, "but then again comes the question of how it would have come to Erebor in the first place."
Their father was looking at them appraisingly. "Many a thing finds its way into the halls of the King under the Mountain," he said. "Paying homage to him often involved the giving of treasure or wealth in some way or the other, which would eventually go to the treasure hoard within."
Tilda sat up. "What did our family give?"
Bard rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Girion, one of my forefathers, gave King Thror a necklace of emeralds," he sighed. "It was our most prized possession, a chain of pure gold dripping emeralds, they say. They lament his ever giving it away, but I can't say I agree."
"Why not?" asked Sigrid. "We could do with a few emeralds."
He laughed humorlessly. "To tangle oneself in the net of treasure never did prove advantageous," he said. "See what happened to Thror, then Thrain."
"And Thorin," muttered Bain.
"Thorin does not covet gold," Bard said. "No, he is not mad like his grandfather became. He thinks himself a god because of that stone he possesses. To him it is worth more than a river of gold and a mountain of treasure. It is worth more than the lives of those he deems... unworthy." His lip curled as he said it, faint contempt evident on his face.
"Lives like ours," said Sigrid, and her father sighed. "Indeed," he said. "Men, elves, they mattered not. Only his people, his city, his priority. We were only ever a means to an end."
"But now he's opened his gates for that elf," Tilda said. "Does that mean the Woodland realm will let us start trading again?"
Sigrid and Bain cut their eyes to their father, waiting with bated breath. Bard seemed to hover a moment, wondering, weighing his words before he spoke them.
"King Thranduil is wise," he said at last. "He will do not only what is best for his people, but what is best for all people."
Bain scoffed dubiously. "Doesn't look like that to me," he said. "To me it seems like he's just as tight as King Thorin; I think he sent a spy, and he has no interest in trade."
"It's just a rumor, Bain," said their father with a sigh. "Don't put too much stock in rumors."
"But this makes sense," he insisted. "It all fits!"
Sigrid couldn't help but agree. "It does," she said. "It makes more sense than suddenly wishing to resume trade when they didn't even need it. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing they would do."
Tilda shrugged. "I still think it's jewels," she said, flopping back onto the floor with a book. "Doesn't everything happen because of jewels? People fight wars over them, people kill other people because of them, people steal them. So they can also send spies to take them back."
Sigrid frowned. "It stands to reason," she said thoughtfully. "But... I can't see how it would happen. Elven gems in a dwarven treasure hoard? King Thorin wouldn't have any use for them."
"Except taunting the elves," said Bain. "Which he has already established in so many ways."
"It isn't our place to be discussing this," said their father, glancing around at them all with slight nervousness. "Should anyone overhear us speaking of this, it will not end well for us."
Bain shot to his feet, scowling. "Either way it isn't going to end well for us, what does it matter?"
Bard looked conflicted. "It's just a rumor, Bain," he said again. "We shouldn't put hope in rumors that people have created."
"But you said the wizard told you this," Tilda said. "Aren't wizards wise? Wouldn't he know?"
Their father hesitated a moment. It was brief, but Sigrid caught it—so did Bain; she saw it in the way he narrowed his eyes, the way his shoulders refused to relax.
"I don't know," Bard said finally. "But it does not concern us, and it is not our place to be discussing such matters. Should the gates of Erebor reopen, it will not affect us in the slightest. The same thing goes without saying for the Woodland realm as well. Either way we are without support."
"Either way we'll have to leave Dale one day," Sigrid interpreted softly. Bain tensed.
"I don't know, Sigrid," said her father, looking very tired suddenly. "Perhaps we will, perhaps we won't. It is up to fate."
"No, it's up to the whims and fancies of the Mountain King," Sigrid said. "It always has been; he controls our fates, holds our lives in the palm of his hand."
"And he'll crush us," Bain said with a detached indifference, opening his book and resuming it casually. "We're not worth a speck to him."
"Bain," muttered their father.
"What? It's the truth," he shrugged.
Tilda made a face. "I hope that spy gets what she came for. It'll teach the king not to abandon us like this."
Bard glanced up from the sheet he was reading. "We still don't know whether she's really a spy, Tilda," he said. "We can only wait and watch."
The rest of the day passed in silence.

The seat of the bench running along the inside of the pavilion was crusted with ice, and hoarfrost had crept along the floor, rendering it slippery and frozen. Sigrid didn't particularly mind it, only the seat was freezing, and her legs were nearly numb.
Snow was falling gently, dusting everything pale white. The sky was slate gray and overcast, and her breath puffed out in white clouds, mingling and hanging in the air. She rubbed her hands together to bring the feeling back into then, blowing lightly on her numb skin. She didn't mind the cold, liked it, in fact, and spent most of her time here despite her father's tutting.
She propped her chin onto her hand and allowed her mind to wander, creeping to the Mountain and what was happening within. There had been a slight commotion a day or two ago, when they had heard the piercing hunting horn of the army of Erebor and the rhythmic march of a hundred feet heading to the forest and the low, surrounding hills. She had wondered what on earth could possibly have coaxed the dwarves out of the Mountain, then she remembered the rebel group the wizard had spoken to her father about. They had gone off to eliminate it, and judging by the horn sounding again not even a day later, they had succeeded.
Just as her father had predicted.
She sighed, her breath steaming in the frozen air. It was hopeless, to hope. In a position like theirs, there was nothing that could be done except watch silently as their whole world came crashing down around them and break apart at their feet—
"Sigrid?"
She stood hastily, nearly skidding on the ice-slick bench as she carefully stood and made her way into the open courtyard. Tilda stood there, her small face scrunched against the biting sting of the cold wind and her arms wrapped tightly around herself to keep herself warm.
"Tilda, I'm here. What is it?"
She shivered, and her breath clouded. "There's a council meeting now."
Sigrid started. "It's today?"
"Yes," Tilda murmured, teeth chattering. "It's in four minutes."
"Four—good lord, I—" Sigrid braved the ice, slipping and sliding across the courtyard and careening into the corridor. She grabbed a pillar to keep herself from falling, and straightened in undignified haste.
"I didn't even know," she muttered as she and Tilda marched down the corridor towards the council room. "Da didn't tell me–"
"Because you were supposed to know," countered Tilda, ever the voice of reason. Sigrid scowled.
"Your usually the one who reminds Da about the sessions," she went on, turning left towards the main chamber. "He knew you'd be at the pavilion, so he sent me to get you. Bain is already there, so is Da, so is everyone else, too."
Sigrid stifled a groan. "So I'm late."
"Yes," replied her little sister. "You are late. Just like the last six times you were late."
Sigrid sighed. "You kept count."
She could almost hear the smirk in her sister's voice. "Of course I did. So would you if you'd had to go to the pavilion every time there's a meeting because you'd forgotten."
Sigrid huffed. "I didn't forget, I just—"
"Forgot," insisted Tilda.
"Fine," sighed Sigrid. "I forgot."
Tilda smiled. "I know."
Bard was not the kind of father who tried to hide the world from his children. No, he made sure they knew exactly what was out there, so that when they one day became kings and queens, they wouldn't be afraid. Ever since Sigrid had turned ten she had a place next to her father in every council session of the year. Once Bain had turned five, he was next to Sigrid, and since Tilda was born, she was on Bain's lap, or Sigrid's, or their father's.
Bard also never objected to hearing their opinions. Children, he said, had a very different, very unique conception about tidings of any sort, and never objected to hearing their views on any topic discussed in any meeting. It earned him a few raised eyebrows, but the majority of the cabinet had found themselves in agreement before long.
Tilda and Sigrid pushed open the doors of the council chamber, walking quickly along the long rows of tables to the front, where they sat next to their father, who shot Sigrid a shrewd look.
"Late as usual," said a snide voice to her left. She already knew who it was, but she turned her head nonetheless, wiping her face blank as she did. The crowd tittered slightly, and Sigrid felt her face flush.
"This," Alfrid went on, "is why I never approved of the presence of..." He paused, leering at them. "minors," he said with a slight sneer, as if minors hadn't been quite the word he had been thinking of, "at these important meetings." He turned to the crowd and gave them a falsely knowing smile and an even falser helpless shrug, as if to say, see what I mean?
Bard cleared his throat pointedly. "Thank you, Alfrid. That will be enough."
Alfrid shot her father a fake smile that thinly veiled the mockery beneath. "My apologies, sire."
Bard his his scowl. "There has been news from the last meeting, and much has happened since then, some of which you may know, and some of which you may not. There is good news, and there is also bad news, as there always is and always should be. Let's begin with the good news first," he said, sitting back. Any tension that was left in the room dissolved. This was a rare power her father had, to put people at ease with simple honesty. It never seemed to work whenever anyone else tried it; perhaps it was because her father was so grim that good news to him meant celebration for all. "Last month we were discussing about the upcoming harvest," he said.
The crowd murmured. He went on, "I'm pleased to announce that the harvest was a success, and we have grains aplenty, and will last well into spring."
Brief smiles were exchanged, but the room sobered quickly.
"The more unfortunate news, however, is that Gandalf returned without success." He sighed. "He said he tried to reason with Thorin, but to no avail. The Mountain King will not, I think, ever give us more than he thinks we are worth."
Bain snorted softly next to her. "Succinctly put, Da," he said, earning scattered laughter. Bard offered him a tight, close-lipped smile.
"He also told me, however, that–" he hesitated, "the gates of the Woodland realm have been opened."
Murmurs turned to gasps. "So King Thranduil has finally decided to help us?" asked a robust woman with luxuriant black curls frosted with gray. "I don't think so."
"You're right, Hilda," sighed Bard. "He hasn't. In fact, he has opened his gates to resume trade, with—" That hesitation again. "With Erebor," he finally said.
Whispers turned to, contrary to what Sigrid had expected, which was a clamor, blank silence. It settled heavily over the whole room, and it was so quiet that Sigrid could hear the snow falling onto the arched windows. It sounded like rain.
"Erebor?" Hilda repeated blankly.
Her father nodded slowly. "The elves sent an ambassador to the Mountain not a month ago," he said with a sigh. "She is there to discuss trade and the possible reopening of their gates. Gandalf said she is succeeding."
"You mean there's an elf in that Mountain right now negotiating about trade?" Alfrid asked, disgust clear in every syllable. "As if they even need it," he snorted.
"Which is what leads us to believe that that is not why she is there," Sigrid said, casting her voice far so that everyone could hear her, unafraid. She had practically grown up in these chambers; the courtroom had been her nursery, the gavel had been her plaything, the discussion had been where she learned to talk. Here she was in her element; it was her passion, her raison d'être, her way of proving to these people that maturity did not always arise from age.
"It is a popular conception that the elf-maid who now resides under the Mountain is there for ulterior motives," she said, her voice echoing strongly through the wooden chamber.
"Oh, please," Alfrid scoffed. "So the elf is actually masquerading as an ambassador while she's actually there to steal something? Very likely," he sneered.
"Actually, that's exactly what we think," her father cut in smoothly, making Alfrid's ears go red. "Why else would the elves send a spokesperson when they are plenty competent without Erebor?" He shrugged. "It stands to reason that she is there for, as Sigrid said, ulterior motives."
"Even if this fancy tale is even partially true," said Alfrid sourly, "what is she there to steal, the whole treasure hoard of Thror? If anyone has the right to steal anything from them, it's us. The elves don't need a single coin."
"I say jewels," Tilda piped up again from Bain's lap. "I think there's something in the Mountain that belongs to King Thranduil, and he wants it back."
"But why would the Elvenking give jewels to Erebor to begin with?" asked a man. "It isn't as if he simply gave what was rightfully his to one he can hardly stand."
"Homage," said Bain, bouncing Tilda idly on his lap. She giggled. "He paid homage to the dwarf King and now he wants it back."
"But what is it, that makes him send a daughter of his halls half a world away, perhaps risk her life, to bring back?" asked an elegantly elderly blond woman not far from Sigrid. "Surely jewels would not be of such importance to the Elvenking?"
"We know little of the nature of elves, and from what we do know, they are quite a haughty people, and do not take lightly their heirlooms," shrugged their father. "It must be something that had long since belonged to the elves."
"Then why did they give it away in the first place?" Alfrid burst out, scowling. "So they covet this thing you claim lies in Erebor, but they gave it away to the Mountain King long ago for no apparent reason?"
"Didn't we already establish that it was homage?" Bain asked idly, examining his fingernails and cutting Alfrid a rude look. "Or didn't you hear us the last three times?"
Alfrid glared at Bain. They'd never liked each other—Sigrid thought one could even go as far as to say they hated each other. Conversation between the two during council sessions was always watched closely by anyone who wanted to see Alfrid put in his place by a seventeen-year-old boy. It was usually most entertaining, and had earned Bain many admirers among the council. That day didn't disappoint.
"Excuse me if I don't believe your made-up stories and rumors," Alfrid hissed.
"Excused," Bain said with mock-politeness, making Alfrid flush angrily. "But I would like to hear your version of events," Bain went on with narrowed eyes. "Why do you think the elves have suddenly decided to resume trade with a realm they don't need to trade with?"
Everyone looked at Alfrid, who balked under the weight of everyone's glances. He never really formed opinions of his own, relying on Sigrid or her father to put an argument forth, then simply seconding it. But now Bain had backed him into a tight corner. She silently cheered for her brother, who was wearing a pious expression.
"So he sent an ambassador to resume trade," Alfrid said, eyes darting around. "Maybe that's all it is, and besides, it doesn't even concern us. Why are we—"
"It doesn't concern us?" asked Sigrid dryly, cutting smoothly across Alfrid's stutters. "You do realize that the fate of Dale is tied to the fates of Erebor and the Woodland realm? Should the King under the Mountain decide to resume trade with the elves it means that two gates will be open. And if one does not open for us then maybe the other one will. We need to speak with the Elvenking, send en envoy to beseech him to allow something to connect our realms."
"Chances are he'll say no," observed Bain, raising a brow at her. She supposed everyone expected them to always be on the same side of an argument, but despite being siblings they were usually on opposite ends of the table. Some of the most spectacular, most dirty debate they'd ever observed, second only to Alfrid and Bain, was arguments between Sigrid and Bain.
"It's like Da said, they're so haughty. We're worth as much as we are to Erebor to King Thranduil. He will say no."
"But how do you know that if we haven't even tried—"
"Because he didn't send her there for trade, Sigrid," Bain said testily. "And here I was thinking we'd already established that fact multiple times."
He stood, dislodging Tilda from his lap. She grumbled something and sat on the chair next to him.
"I hope we've made this clear," he snapped, "but I'm saying it again. That elf in those halls," he said, pointing out of the window. Everyone turned, even if they knew what they would see: the stone gates of Erebor, guarding the city beyond.
"She's not there for amicable purposes. Of that I am sure. She's there to settle something, and whether we like it or not we are going to get entangled in the net King Thranduil has woven for King Thorin. Because it is as Sigrid said; our fates are entwined. I don't know what's going to happen. But if you break Erebor two things can happen."
Sigrid didn't look at her brother when she spoke, in a soft calm voice that somehow echoed all around the room.
"Either it will raise us up in glory," she murmured, "or it will raze us to the ground."
Bain set his jaw. "The time to sit idly is over," he said. "We need to do something, anything, to ensure our survival. Because let me make one thing crystal clear."
He lifted his chin, and the resemblance between him and his mother was startling suddenly.
"I am not leaving this city," he said evenly. "Come what may, I am not setting foot outside Dale for any reason. Even if every single person leaves and I am alone here I will stay and I will die in Dale. I will die for Dale. And nobody can stop me from doing it."
A pregnant silence greeted his tirade. Bard's face was full of trepidation and worry as he gazed at his only son, who sat with a stony expression on his face.
"And this is exactly what I meant," hissed Alfrid. "Youth, sire," he said in an aside to Bard. "They're too reckless, impossible to control. Ignorant, willing to sit back and tell us what to do. Give them an inch, they'll walk all over you."
Bain's already stony expression turned even more unyielding. "Another thing you forgot," he snapped scathingly, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "They can hear better than adults."
Alfrid sneered, displaying yellowing teeth, but sat back. Bard was frowning, looking down at the table, looking like a thundercloud.
"Any suggestions?" Sigrid prompted to the congregation, sensing her father's turmoil. He didn't even look up to acknowledge her, his eyes filled with sightless fire.
"Sending a petition to the Elvenking asking him if he is willing to help us," Hilda suggested with a helpless shrug. "Maybe we could throw in a hint or two that suggests we know why he's sent that maiden to the Mountain. It'll open his eyes, that's for sure."
Sigrid jotted it down. "Petition... noted. Anyone else?"
There was a chorus of suggestions, all of which she wrote obediently; the first thing she had learned about the courtroom was that liberality was key. And so was no small degree of patience and fairness. She secretly prided herself for her conduct during council session; she got better every time, every day seeing a slight improvement in the way she handled the whole affair.
Alfrid, of course, chided her for it; women her age, he had said, shouldn't tangle themselves in matters of such importance. They should be obedient and docile, shut up at home cooking and cleaning whilst the men handled politics. They knew better than women, were stronger, better at making decisions, according to him.
She had asked him what he was doing in the courtroom then, since he was clearly none of those, inspiring a fit of raucous laughter from Bain.
He had hated them both ever since.
She didn't mind; making enemies was another thing their father, rather than asking them to be courteous with everyone, told them was essential. "If you don't make an enemy or two here and there, it means you're afraid," he had said with a wink. "And how on earth are you supposed to keep your enemies closer than your friends if you have none?"
No, Bard was not like other fathers. Not by a long shot.
She adjourned the session with cheerful words of parting, promising to see them all again the next week to put to vote the ideas they had given. Dale's political stance had grown extraordinarily loose over the years, and meetings were casual but weighted. It was a good way to slowly expose oneself to the strain of political drama, and Sigrid was beginning to think she had found her true vocation.
"That went well," she muttered to Bain as the room slowly emptied.
He snorted without looking at her. "The very best."
Tilda scowled at them. "It'd have gone better if everyone had agreed on something instead of arguing about everything."
Their father, who was sitting rather dejectedly at the head of the table, managed a weak laugh. "If that were so, this world would be very different."
His eyes shuttered as Alfrid traipsed over to them, leering. He was the only one in the room besides them, and he had shed his official court discipline exterior.
"Ever the patriots, aren't we?" he sneered, though it was mainly directed at her and her brother. "So noble, so willing to die for a good cause."
"And what are you willing to die for, Alfrid?" Sigrid asked, her carefully checked temper flaring. "A handful of golden coins?"
"A handful of our golden coins, more like," said Bain with a sneer that could rival Alfrid's own. "You've nothing to call your own, do you? Except perhaps a personality that reeks almost as badly as you do."
Alfrid's face twisted into an ugly grimace, and he lurched forward, his hands clenching into fists. It would have been funny if it weren't for the look on his face. "Shut your mouth," he snarled. "Show your elders some respect!"
Sigrid couldn't help an incredulous, borderline derisive, laugh. "Maybe he would," she said, "if you deserved it even by half."
"That's rich, coming from you," he sneered, turning on her. "Says the princess of Dale who doesn't even have the decency to leave, marry and produce an heir like any other noblewoman should. Still can't live without daddy, can you?"
She scoffed, stepping forward and bracing her hands on the table, then leaning right into Alfrid's face. She noted with satisfaction that he broke her stare immediately.
"Yes, I am a woman," she said. "Yes, I stay in my city and help my father to take care of it even though we have councilors for that exact reason. No, I have not married. No, I will not be some gentle domestic creature who bends to a man's will. I write my own fate," she said, glaring at him. "And you have no part to play in my life. Your opinion has never been of any merit to me, because you never have an opinion. You're just a leech, latching onto people and taking their opinions and ideas and making them your own. You shouldn't be allowed in these sessions at all, but lucky for you we feel pity. I wouldn't like to think of your condition should we not. So, two words." She narrowed her eyes at him, her voice filled with venom.
"Get out," she said, and Alfrid turned tail and hurried out, the doors swinging shut behind him without so much as a glance at any of them.
Bain whooped, clapping her on the shoulder. "That was well handled, sister," he laughed, shaking his head. "That's putting Alfrid Lickspittle in his place, that is."
Her father was attempting to swallow his smile, but failed. "So it was. Quite the show it was, too. He's been getting on my nerves for weeks now."
Tilda gave a tinkling laugh. "Sigrid, don't look like that, it was brilliant!"
Sigrid allowed herself a small smile.

"Higher... no, lower. A little higher... that's perfect," Tilda called happily, dancing up and down on the balls of her feet. Sigrid leaned back, admiring the string of lights she was hanging onto the courtyard walls. It was probably improper for a woman to be standing on a ladder wearing a dress, and anyone walking below her would get an eyeful, but she didn't think she could have cared less. And besides, she thought as she descended from the ladder cautiously, there was nobody in the house besides her family that day.
"Now the star," Tilda said, holding out a glowing golden five-pointed star lit from within with gaslight. Sigrid jumped down from the ladder, and was just reaching out to take the star from Tilda when Bain's voice came floating from somewhere above them.
"Tilda?" he called. "We need a hand!"
Sigrid took the star. "Go," she told her little sister. "I'll manage fine on my own."
With a nod Tilda raced off, swinging around the corner and shooting up the steps towards the sound of Bain's voice. Sigrid sighed, bracing two hands on her hips and leaning back to work out the kinks in her lower back from all the running around putting up lights she had done that day. Yule was approaching rapidly, only three days to the annual celebration. They usually put up lights in the ides of the month, but work had kept them from celebrations.
Oh, well, she thought as she glanced around the courtyard to look for a good place to hang the star, Better late then never, like Da always says.
Finding a small niche in the wall to hang the ornament, she tugged the ladder over to the spot and climbed it, reaching up to hang the star.
Just as she did, she heard a sharp caw, startling her so badly she nearly fell off the ladder, the star tumbling from her fingers and hitting the ground with an audible thump, accompanied by the sound of glass breaking. As she watched, a dark spill of oil leaked out from under the felled ornament. She righted herself with a gasp, and glared at the bird that had been the source of the sound.
It was a raven, a large one too, with dusky feathers and glittering beady eyes. Its beak was as black as its feathers, its eyes as black as its beak, and its talons as black as its eyes. It was perched on a statue right next to her, and she could have sworn it was laughing at her, irregular sharp cackles coming from its beak.
"Now look what you've made me do," she snapped at it, fingers bunching in the material of her skirt. "You made me drop it."
She wasn't usually one to state the obvious, but she supposed when you spoke to birds who could make not head nor tail of what you were saying, stating the obvious seemed like the correct direction to go in.
It preened its feathers in answer, beak clicking. She made a furious swipe for it, but it was just out of reach. As a result she overbalanced, nearly falling again. She clutched at the wall, finding a handhold and steadying herself.
"Do you want to get me killed?" she sighed, making her way down the ladder. "Oh, you'll pay for this," she hissed at the raven when she inspected the extent of damage done to the star. "You broke the glass, spilled the oil and tore the fabric here." She held it up, showing the bird. It gave a shrill screech, flapping its wings in what seemed like a show of pride.
"Oh, go away," she snapped. "Dont you have somewhere to be? Some lovely female raven waiting for you at home?"
It blinked at her.
"Shoo," she said, waving her arms. "You've done quite enough already. Go on, out with you."
It spread its wings like distilled night and flapped off the statue—and directly next to her on the ground. It skittered on the stone floor, a loud caw coming from its beak. Sigrid sighed, dropping the sad remains of the ornament onto the floor beside her.
"Must you?" she sighed, drawing her knees up to her chest. It twittered, blinking again. Sigrid reached out a hand, intending to chase it away, but it danced backwards, buffeting its wings frantically. She tried again, and this time it lifted up off the ground, flying into the air. It circled the courtyard a couple of times and cawed once, loudly, before flapping away into the burgeoning evening.
She stood with a sigh, toeing the torn star with only a small twinge of dismay. There had been something about that bird that had unsettled her, be it the knowing eyes or the way it seemed to have been waiting to catch her alone. The moment Tilda had left it had arrived, as if it had waited there until nobody was there but her, and almost seemed to have been assessing her before flying away. Its eyes had been much too shrewd for her taste, and it was positively enormous; its spread wings were as long as her whole body. A small idea began to grow in her mind, something that connected that raven to the Mountain looming above her—
She heard footsteps rapidly descending steps, and only had time to whirl in surprise before her brother came skidding into the courtyard, out of breath from a hard run.
"Sigrid, Da wants to know if—" Bain broke off, wryly glancing at the broken star at her feet. "I thought so," he sighed, advancing warily, and they looked down at the ragged, torn mess that had once been a Yule ornament.
"It's glass, and oil, and a lamp," she tried with a helpless shrug. "It's a disaster—"
"Waiting to happen," finished Bain, eyeing the heap of cloth stained with oil with distaste. "You dropped it?"
She nodded mutely. He grimaced, kneeling down to sift through the remains with his fingers. Making a face he stood again. "Pay it no heed," he said, waving at it indifferently. "Anyway, Da wants you to come upstairs, we need your help putting up the rest of the decorations."
She sighed. "You go on up," she said, waving. "I'll clean this mess up and come soon."
He jogged backwards towards the stairs, nodding before turning and racing back up the stairs. She craned her next to watch him as he did, nothing but a brown and black blur shooting up the steps.
She quickly got rid of the mess, cleaning the stone floor and wiping the whole thing down before quickly changing her dress and hurrying to the study. She passed through the courtyard as she did, and as she ran across it she thought she saw the black shadow of a raven perched onto the pavilion, watching her every move, her every breath, with inhuman precision.
She glanced up, unable to help it, but where she had thought there was a shadow moments before, there was only a breath of wind, teasing and light as it blew through the open space, a few dead leaves caught in the breeze dancing on the air. A wave of cold washed over her and she shivered, exhaling hard. Her breath misted, painting the air in front of her white.
As she crossed the pavilion and went into the mellow warmth of the house, she heard the soft, harsh caw of a bird, but before she could act on impulse and look behind her, she ran into the house, not looking back as she reached the study and closed the door firmly behind her.
She neither heard nor saw anything uncanny for the rest of the day.

The frozen lake stretched on for forever, an endless wasteland. Pale blue ice with fine cracks spiderwebbing across it was the only thing for miles and miles and miles, spreading towards the horizon.
There was a lone figure on the ice, a figure with a hair like threads of gold and eyes the same color as the ice walking along it, detached, unmoored, cut off from the rest of the universe.
But not from her.
She could feel the warmth of his skin like a furnace, heating her from the inside out. His face had been cool and unruffled and expressionless, but the moment he caught sight of her the unyielding lines of his face turned soft and becoming, and the hardness in his eyes melted away, tenderness replacing it. A callused yet soft hand came to rest on her cheek, an infinite amount of sweetness in the simple gesture.
His voice was like bells ringing in the first hours of the day, and like sunlight warming glass and like the first snows of the season, awaited and cherished and coveted.
"I promise," he whispered, silver lining his eyes. "I promise..."
She cried out as, suddenly, without warning, he burst into flames, fire wreathing his form and spreading rapidly across the frozen wastes, turning frosty blue, white and gray into burning red, gold and yellow. She could still see his form, kneeling amongst the flames even as they surrounded him, arcing upwards, touching the sky. The flame, rather than heating her skin, chilled it in the absence of his warmth. A fire not of giving, but of taking.
His voice still reached her ears when he spoke again, over the raging inferno that was devouring him, and she still heard it as if he had whispered it into her ear.
"I will see you smile again..." Her heart ached. "I will see your fates restored," he whispered, and then came the words that chilled her down to the bone, more so than the soundless fire that now enveloped he who, though she did not know it then, would change her whole world.
"Even if I die."
The fire swelled, searing her eyes, a flash of light erupting from the form inside the flames, spearing into her vision and forcing her to close her eyes, throwing a hand across her face. Just as the intensity grew unbearable it faltered, and she opened her eyes.
The lake stretched towards the horizon, devoid of life and color, devoid of the fire, devoid of him. He was gone, disappeared like the fire that had swallowed him whole, leaving her alone on the frozen land, her heart aching and her eyes burning. He was gone.
The lake groaned, ripples of jagged ice spreading rapidly across the surface. The lake trembled, the ice slowly breaking and melting and threatening to spill her down into the sightless depths where creatures lurked, creatures that fed on happiness and joy and ecstasy.
The ice shattered. It sounded like her breaking heart.
She welcomed the rush of darkness that followed, and as she fell through the ice and into the water beneath, she thought she heard laughter ringing in her ears.
She opened her arms and closed her eyes.

Her eyes shot open just as the clock struck three o'clock in the morning.
She gasped for air, heart hammering wildly as she lay there, unable to move as the dream's after effects tore through her body. It was cold, so cold, a cruel wind cooling her burning cheeks.
She swallowed thickly and turned her head, glancing at the opposite wall. The window was open—no wonder it was so cold.
She lurched out of bed, the faint illumination from the decorations for Yule all over the city creeping in and lighting the way slightly. Hues of green, red and gold spangled the floor, and she half-fell onto the window, slamming it closed and stumbling back to bed.
She thought sleep would claim her instantly, but her mind refused to drift off, trying and failing again and again to recall the dream that had just woken her up.
Just as it did every single night.
She shivered, burrowing deeper into the covers. She remembered nothing, absolutely nothing. Just a burgeoning feeling of dread, creeping up her spine and settling in her mind, a knot of worry and fear and anxiety. It was the same dream each night, she was sure of it, and yet how was it that she remembered not even a speck?
Her eyes closed slowly, and within minutes she was asleep again, her breaths turning light and even as her mind slipped from her fingers, seamless and soft.
She slept a dreamless sleep, and when she woke the next morning she remembered nothing of the dream, nor did she remember waking up at all.

Chapter Text

Kili

A small lick of pain shot up his side and he winced.
Rubbing ruefully at the fresh scar on his shoulder he dispelled the faint sting that often plagued him due to the recent injury. Just an arrow wound it may be, but the fact that it had been tipped with poison did, he supposed, make it a bit out of the ordinary.
He sucked in a long breath, then expelled the air in a sigh, leaning back against the bed frame. It had hurt, more than he let on. Pain like fire, spreading up his arm, in his blood, going to his heart. If Fili hadn't brought him back in time, it would have consumed him, burning him from the inside out.
Thorin and Fili had looked at him with concern evident in their eyes, sweeping up and down his body as if to assess, deduce, see if he was in any pain, see if the wound was still affecting him. While he didn't really blame them for their concern, knowing it was born from brotherly and fatherly protectiveness, he wished they would tone it down; he knew that every time they looked into his eyes it was to check if he was all right, or whenever they touched him it was to check his temperature.
But Tauriel hadn't looked at him like that.
There had been concern, yes, but it had melted away the moment she had seen him sitting upright, and had been replaced by a sort of burning shyness and tentativeness. It had pinked her cheeks and made her avert her gaze, he had noticed. Something about the memory made a small grin find its way onto his face.
Not that he had been much better, he supposed; but he had found himself saying thankfully normal things rather than turning into a flustered mess, which was how he had felt on the inside. He had even made her laugh—a sound he had never heard come from her lips. It had sounded like a sparkling fountain of wine, sweet and potent. He didn't know if one could compare a fountain of wine to a laugh, but that was the only way to describe it.
He snorted to himself, running a hand through his hair. If only his mother could see him now. She had always told him that he'd go down a winding path, one that would twine away from what was expected of him. That he fancied a bit of spice, exoticism, something different. And she knew he'd always been fascinated by elves, their long lithe bodies, smooth slim limbs, flowing sheets of hair that always seemed to glow from the inside, the way they always spoke in riddles and seemed to live as one with the forest around them.
She would have laughed and told him with a wink that she had known all along that Tauriel had grabbed his attention the moment he had seen her first. The smile on his face grew wistful. It was like a constant ache in his heart, as if Mahal had carved out the bit of his heart that had been buried with his mother. Some days it was easier, but some days it felt as he were being choked with grief, drowning in a sea of sorrow, spinning forever through the dark.
She had been a solid presence in his life after their father's death, a foundation he and Fili had built themselves upon. She had been the calm soothing voice that stayed Thorin's hand, whenever he was too harsh or too stressed, and she had been his right hand.
When she died... that foundation beneath them had cracked like a thin sheet of ice, sending him down into the depths where the forgotten remains of a shipwrecked life floated in bleak oblivion. He was still clawing his way to the surface. Wondered if he'd ever make it out.
Thorin's initial grief had been a horrible blank bleakness, appearing to numb him completely. He hadn't spoken, hadn't eaten, hadn't slept, for weeks. He had withdrawn from everything, and there had been one terrifying period where Kili had thought that he would join his sister in eternal slumber under the Mountain.
But then came the blood.
Not Thorin's own; but the blood he made spill, the blood he himself spilled. Blood he drowned her memories in, blood he coated his hands with, using the ruthlessness as a drug that would help him forget. He tightened the already choking leash he kept on the city, sealing the gates, allowing no one to enter, and no one to leave. Something in him had cracked and broken the day his sister died, the day that Thorin Oakenshield became the last direct descendant of Durin the Deathless, the day everything had fallen apart, the day his uncle had changed forever.
There were still memories, though, memories that penetrated the blackness like rays of sunlight finding their way somehow through the clouds and spearing onto the ground. Happy memories. Something that made him smile. That made him think that maybe, just maybe, there was some good left to be fought for in the world after all.

The kaleidoscope of misted windows behind the throne were glowing softly in the golden afternoon light, and even within the heart of the Mountain the faint daylight illuminated the room. The stone was glowing a deep, rich green, cold marble and stone edifices reflecting the pale sunlight. The Arkenstone was twinkling innocently on the throne, throwing off rays of dazzling light that gleamed a hundred different colors at once.
Thorin was sitting on the steps of the throne, his feet up and his hands braced behind him in a rare display of casualness. Being Crown Prince did demand some aloofness, and he played the part flawlessly—in front of outsiders, anyway. But only in the company of his family that day, he had relaxed completely.
Dis was next to him, her skirts pooling around her like the open petals of a flower. She was sitting more demurely than her brother, albeit with two toddlers on her lap, both giggling. One with hair like gold and the other like obsidian. One with eyes like a clear sky and the other like the night. Two brothers, two princes, two sides of the same coin.
"How are my favorite nephews?" Thorin asked, a hand reaching out to ruffle Kili's hair. He giggled at the feeling of his uncle's hand, as large as his whole head, tangling in the soft curls.
Dis laughed warmly. "Thorin," she said. "They're your only nephews."
"Be that as it may," he smiled, his eyes crinkling. They were the same blue as Fili's. "That does not mean I do not have the right to coddle them."
She rolled her eyes. They were Kili's eyes, sunlight on ebony. "You coddle them more than I do. Mahal, you coddle them more than grandfather does. It cannot possibly be good for you."
"Whyever not? It's good training for when I become king." He lifted Fili up off Dis' lap and settled him onto his own, whereupon he commenced to braid his nephew's golden hair. It was only shoulder-length, but Thorin's skilled, nimble fingers had no trouble at all tucking the strands into a neat crown. He made a satisfied sound, finishing the elaborate braid and tying the end off.
Kili gazed at it interestedly. It looked like there was a large flower sitting atop his brother's head. Or a mushroom. Or a star. Or—
"No touching!" Fili said haughtily as Kili made to do just that. "It'll come out."
Thorin's laugh was deep and merry. "It won't," he said, with a faint strain of pride coloring his voice. "Even if you were to wrestle with Dwalin the braid would stay in place."
Dis clucked. "If Fili were to wrestle with Dwalin it is not the braid I would worry for."
Thorin hummed. "Indeed. Fili would give Dwalin a sound beating, wouldn't you, Fili?"
Dis' laugh was half exasperation as Fili gave his uncle a toothy smile. "I would!" he announced enthusiastically.
Dis grinned. Kili noticed with interest that the curve of his mother's jaw when she smiled was exactly the same as Thorin's. Their hair was the same color too, but his mother's was longer, hanging in an elaborate rope till her waist and woven through with silver beads. There was a silver tiara encircling her brow, the point resting neatly between her brows.
"My little warriors," Dis said, cupping Kili's face in her callused palm. The cold of her numerous rings seeped into his skin and he made a soft, involuntary sound.
"Cold," he muttered, and she laughed and swooped down to kiss his cheeks. He batted her away, blushing. She hummed, the sound reverberating through his whole body.
"Aren't you meant to be busy?" Dis asked, looking to her brother. He shrugged indifferently in response. "I suppose," he said, twining the braid in his beard around his finger and lightly tugging on the clasp that held it closed.
"I'm always meant to be busy, but I just can't find the time to be." He offered her a small smile. Kili leaned back against his mother, allowing her warmth to seep into him.
Fili seated himself more comfortably into Thorin's lap, making him wince slightly. Dis bit her lip to keep from laughing as he shifted so that Fili sat on his knee instead.
"One wrong move and it'll destroy the chances of me producing an heir," murmured Thorin, and Dis giggled, fingers combing through Kili's hair. He closed his eyes, feeling safe and cherished and happy.
"Uncle Thorin?" piped up Fili.
Thorin's hands came to rest on Fili's small shoulders. "Yes, little one?"
"Will you ever marry?"
Thorin laughed a bit. "My father wishes for me to," he admitted. "You see, if I do marry, when I become king then Erebor will have a queen."
Kili frowned, sensing the slight hesitation. "You don't want to get married?"
Thorin sighed. "No, I do not. I feel marriage a burdening bond. If I do ever marry, it will be only out of obligation. Out of duty. Kings must be dutiful creatures."
"But will you love her?"
There was a pregnant pause. Dis' fingers stilled in Kili's hair. "Perhaps, in due time," Thorin said at last, "I may come to." And Dis' hands resumed their careful combing.
"Isn't that why you married Adad?" Kili asked drowsily to his mother, coaxing a smile out of her. She nodded, eyes full of tenderness.
"Yes, darling," she said. "That is why."
Thorin snorted. "It's looking at the two of you that daunts me when it comes to marriage," he said. "Wrapped around each other's fingers, you are."
"Don't forget our little boys," said Dis, squeezing Kili around the middle. He giggled.
"I'd have to be dead to forget." Thorin's voice was a low bass rumble. "Maybe not even then."
Fili squealed in delight as Thorin lifted him onto his shoulders, then stood up, wincing slightly as Fili's fingers wound into his hair, fisting into the thick black strands. His face softened into a smile a second later as Fili laughed, clear and bright.
He stooped, sweeping Kili from his mother's lap. Kili giggled at the feeling of being weightless, easily carried high into the air by Thorin's hands. They wrapped around his small form, holding him close. Kili could feel the regular, even beating of Thorin's heart, rhythmic and calming.
"The sun and the moon," he said, and his voice vibrated through Kili's whole body. "My two little princes, one light and one dark."
Dis smiled up at them. "They will make fine kings, will they not?"
Kili felt Thorin's laugh. "Oh, yes. The very best. Maybe even better than me."
Dis stood as well, dusting off her dress. "But you aren't even king yet."
Thorin waved her off as best as he could whilst balancing two toddlers clinging to his body. "Semantics," he said. "I'm next in line."
Dis shook her head with a grin. "You never know," she said. "Father is so constrained by his duty I wonder if he ever will give the throne up to you."
Thorin bounced Kili in his arms, making the world shift around him and blur slightly. He clung to Thorin's forearms, feeling hard muscle like steel cables jump beneath his hands as his arms tightened around Kili's small body.
"It's only a matter of time," he said with a teasing grin. "Though I must say I don't think I'm ready to take the throne just yet."
"Why not? Unless I am very much mistaken it was all you wanted when you were a child."
"You're not," he said, shrugging. Fili gripped Thorin's hair even more tightly as the movement displaced him slightly. "It is an erratic thing, kingship," Thorin went on, turning to gaze at the throne. Something in his eyes tightened as they fell upon the Arkenstone. It made him look—scared, almost.
"Thorin?" Dis put a hand on his arm. "Are you all right?"
He turned to look at his sister, and the frightened look evaporated from his face just as quickly as it had come. He smiled, and the room seemed to brighten a little more.
"Nothing's wrong," he said, and put his free arm around her shoulders. "Come. Let's raid the kitchens. I heard they are making blueberry pie."
Dis laughed as Thorin raised his brows meaningfully, and a second later Fili and Kili had disembarked from their uncle and were tugging on his hands.
Dis was still smiling when Thorin allowed his nephews to lead him away, and just before they left the throne room he looked back and smiled, and it was the last thing she saw before the doors closed behind them.

Kili gazed glumly at his plate. He wasn't hungry. Fili was next to him, similarly poking at his food. To add insult to injury it was cloudy outside, and snow was drumming onto the high windows. He'd never much liked snow; it was cold, and so devoid of color, and chased away the plants and animals with its frozen hands and creeping frost.
Thorin was sitting at the head of the table as usual, but even he wasn't eating; he was sitting rather distractedly with his chin propped on his hand, and was gazing into space with a slightly vacant expression. His blue eyes were unfocused and hazy, as if his mind was elsewhere. He'd looked like that a lot lately, Kili thought. For the past two days he'd been—distracted, restless, as if since he had been healed he couldn't focus properly. He wondered what had happened.
The door opened and both Fili and Kili looked up in unison to see Tauriel tentatively edge into the room. Kili swallowed; the last time he'd seen Tauriel had been at the ball the previous night, and she'd seen him too, but hadn't spoken to him. She'd seemed preoccupied.
Fili's eyes immediately snapped to Thorin, narrowing slightly. He always did that; whenever Tauriel walked into the room his gaze would go to Thorin, and whenever Thorin walked into the room his gaze would go to Tauriel. His own face was unreadable, but he seemed to read the look on Thorin's face like a book.
Not that Kili saw anything out of the ordinary; there was faint surprise there, darkening the blue of his eyes, and slightly more vivid contempt, as if the mere sight of her irritated him. But then again, he always looked at Tauriel like that. So what did Fili see that he couldn't?
Tauriel's expression, on the other hand, was a little easier to read. There was an unmissable, unmistakable blush on her cheeks, and she was very determinedly not looking down the table. He saw the line of her throat as she swallowed, her lashes fluttering.
Kili frowned at his plate. There were white-hot lines of tension between the two, that was for certain. Thorin had mentioned being healed by Tauriel. Then he'd seen them at the ball, speaking, albeit tensely. Maybe something had happened then.
Fili was looking shrewdly at Tauriel, discreetly. He was always an expert at reading people, but was impossible to read himself. Kili, on the other hand, wore his heart on his sleeve, according to his brother.
Thorin was still staring into space, but his shoulders were tense, his hands clenched on the table and his gaze more alert. A heavy blanket of tension settled over the table, and it felt downright awkward. The only sound was the irregular clinking of their plates, and the sound of the snow on the windows. Nobody was looking at each other.
Tauriel stood first, very deliberately looking right at Thorin as she did. Her cheeks flushed a dark red when he met her gaze, steel for steel. Then he looked away pointedly, dismissively, and her lips twisted slightly before she stalked from the room.
Kili let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, glancing at Fili. He started when he saw him standing, excusing himself with a murmur. Thorin had gone back to staring moodily into middle distance, and hardly noticed when Kili mumbled some polite nonsense about having some work to do and hastily followed his brother.
He stepped into the corridor, looking up and down. He thought he saw a flash of blond hair disappearing around the corner up the corridor, so he set off, softly closing the door behind him and following.
It took him a few turns and more than a couple of staircases above the Mountain to realize where his brother had been headed. He'd been spending a lot of time around here, he thought vaguely as he ascended the stairs of the parapet. Surely enough he saw Fili, fingers gripping the railing and leaning out slightly, watching a dark shape fly away from the Mountain.
Kili approached, frowning at his brother's back. "Fili, what are you doing?"
Fili jumped, turning hastily. He relaxed visibly when he saw it was Kili. "I thought you were Thorin," he sighed. "And—nothing. I wasn't doing anything."
"Oh?" Kili was having none of it. "Then why were you so relieved when you realized it wasn't Thorin?"
Spurred on by the silence that ensued, Kili approached the railing, watching the raven fly towards Dale. He raised a brow, turning to a very blushing Fili.
"What in Durin's name are you doing?"
Fili mumbled something, clearing his throat. "It is as I said," he said. "Nothing."
"Then why does it look as if you just sent a raven to Dale?"
Silence.
"So you did send it," sighed Kili. "To Bard? Fili, you know that's illegal. Communication with the king of Dale, and being the prince of Erebor..." He passed a hand over his eyes. "Thorin will not be forgiving."
"It wasn't a message, nor was it sent to Bard," Fili said, looking towards the city. Decorations for Yule were cropping up every day, and soon, what with all the snow and lights, Dale would look like a gingerbread house nestled amongst the hills. Well, he amended, noting the size of the city, perhaps a gingerbread mansion. Nevertheless, it was always a sight to behold.
"Well, then?" Kili asked impatiently, folding his arms across his chest. His mind displayed to him a catalog of different reasons and people that Fili would have sent that raven to. Grabbing the most likely one, he raised a brow.
"Sigrid, then?"
Fili coughed suddenly, probably to hide the noise of surprise he had made upon hearing her name. Kili rolled his eyes as his brother's fit subsided.
"I don't—no idea what you're on about," Fili said. "I'm not—"
Kili's brow climbed higher. "You're spying on the princess of Dale?"
Fili's face flamed. "No! I'm just—concerned," he said, swallowing and looking away. Kili hid his smile, feeling the sort of satisfaction observed only when a younger sibling caught the elder. It was rare, and thus coveted.
"She isn't going to appreciate being spied on," he murmured, moving so that they stood shoulder to shoulder.
"I'm not spying," snapped Fili. "I'm just—I wanted to see if—it's snowing," he finished rather lamely. "It's getting colder day by day, and with food so scarce there, I..."
"You sent a raven there to watch her, then it's going to report back to you."
Fili's lip caught on his teeth. He clearly hadn't intended to be caught. Kili made a face.
"What on earth are you expecting to get out of this? 'Today, Sigrid ate her lunch with her family, then read a book, then attended a meeting, then sang some Yule carols, put up lights, read some more and ate dinner, then slept'? Because let me tell you, that's all you're going to get. Unless you're expecting her to die a sudden and untimely death for no reason, that's it." He sighed. "Know you not the meaning of the word 'subtle'?" he muttered. "If I were being rude"—Fili snorted, but said nothing—"then I'd call it stalking."
Fili made an inelegant sound of protest.
"That's who you met the other day," Kili realized suddenly. "You didn't go to Dale to meet Bard, you went to meet Sigrid, didn't you?"
He shook his head in disbelief when Fili's silence confirmed his thoughts. "Why did you lie to me?"
He tried to keep the faint reproach out of his voice and failed.
"I didn't want you to worry," murmured Fili, looking at his boots. "I knew you'd have something to say about it."
"I'm not the one who's sneaking out of Erebor to illegally meet with the princess of the neighboring realm, who we happen to be not-so-friendly with," Kili shot back, stung. "You didn't have to lie about it. What could I have said, anyway?"
Fili shrugged with a rueful half-smile. "Probably something about my terrible courting methods. I may not have been at my best."
Courting? "Scared her off, did you?"
He snorted, turning away. "Quite the opposite." When Kili raised a questioning brow he sighed. "She's quite... independent. She made it quite clear that she wasn't..." He trailed off, swallowing. "I never thought of her that way," he said softly. "I just—"
He stopped abruptly, his fingers gripping the railing so tightly his knuckles were blanching.
"Fili," he said, bumping his shoulder gently. "You don't have to tell me any of this."
Fili's blue-gray eyes were full of trepidation. "I thought you'd know," he said rather helplessly, "something about all this. You were always better at it, you've been with..."
"With women?" snorted Kili. "You know all of that was just for fun. One of us has got to be a bit loose. Look at Thorin; he's a virile male, he's king, he's handsome, but he won't even look at a woman. Look at you; you're Crown Prince, but you're the polite gentleman who holds every female at arm's length. I thought..."
"You'd take up the role as the roguish prince who indulged the deprived dwarrowdams?" snorted Fili, to which Kili huffed out a bit of a laugh.
"Something like that," he said. "When you're given a jawline, use it, as I always say. Mahal didn't make us this good-looking for nothing, you know."
Fili laughed earnestly at that. "I suppose," was all he said.
"So she chased you away?" Kili asked, leaning against the banister. "I'd have paid to see that."
"She didn't chase me away," snapped Fili. "She simply made it clear I wasn't welcome in Dale for my lineage. She was remarkably polite about it."
"I'm sure that's not what she meant," scowled Kili. "Women love to say the opposite of what they mean. Did she outright tell you to get out?"
"Well, no," said Fili. "I may have been a little... I don't know," he sighed, not without frustration. "I'm not good at this. I told her I wanted to talk to her because she made me feel calmer—"
"You really don't know anything about this," Kili observed. "Obviously she didn't take well to that."
"She didn't," admitted Fili. "In the end, it ended up being... I don't know. I'm not sure what exactly I had been looking for, going there, but I know that I found it."
A faint pang went through Kili at the words. "Would you look at that," he said softly. "Prince Fili has finally taken interest in a woman. But a human," he said. "The dwarrowdams will go on strike once they find out."
"Which they won't," Fili said sharply. "Thorin can't know."
Kili made a noncommittal sound of assent. Fili went on, eyes glittering. "I wonder how they'd react when they realize prince Kili, for all his winking and flirting, has taken fancy to an elf."
Kili rolled his eyes. "They'll do what they always do," he said. "They'll chase after Thorin."
Fili laughed softly. "I always did wonder why he never married."
"He never wanted anyone like... that. Permanently," said Kili. "His idea of a relationship was more of the one-night stand variety."
Fili snorted. "I remember," he said. "But he did get easily bored."
"Good thing, too," muttered Kili. "It couldn't possibly have been healthy."
"No," agreed Fili. "I don't think it was."
A comfortable silence fell between them. Fili was watching Dale, the banners fluttering in the breeze that blew through the valley. Kili was gazing at the sky, watching the clouds trade lazy white paths over the radiant blue.
"I knew," Fili said finally, his voice tight, "the instant it all began, when mother died and it all went to hell—and then when she arrived. Your elven maiden."
"Knew what?"
"That all this was just a game to him." Kili didn't have to ask to know who Fili was talking about. "He may have seemed angry about it, that the Elvenking sent her, but she was never an ambassador from a foreign realm to him. She was just another pawn on the board, another piece to move and direct and sacrifice. So was Bard."
He was still staring at the banners, not looking at Kili. "Whether we like it or not we're on that board too," he said. "One day we'll have to decide whose side we're on. And when we do," he stopped a moment, swallowing. "It'll change the course of the whole game. So..."
He finally looked at Kili, and his eyes gleamed astutely. He looked old suddenly, not in his face, but in his eyes, a sort of bone-deep wariness and experience showing through the cracks in his armor. A humorless smile twisted his lips.
"Choose wisely," he said.

Of all the rooms and halls and chambers under the Mountain, there was one very rarely used; well-known, and admired, but never used. Nobody ever went there, and it was just a huge empty hall that served next to no purpose.
Lonely and sad as it was, Kili often went there, if only to give the poor place some reason to exist. It was a majestic hall, so large that he could scarcely see the rafters on the ceiling and the opposite end was distant and small. The gallery of the kings was used, apparently, for coronations and other such celebrations of great pomp and splendor; but nowadays one could hardly find the time to do those things. And so the hall lay here, the long, rippling banners hanging from the opposite wall frosted with a thick layer of white dust.
There was a bit of a depression on the middle, almost like the opposite of a stage; sunken into the floor about a foot deep, with pillars surrounding it. There was a door below the banners, one that led to the forges, but, much like the room it led to, it wasn't used.
What a waste, he thought sourly as he sat on the edge of the depression and stretched his legs, this massive thing, and I'm the only one who bothers with it.
"I thought I would find you here," said a low, amused voice, and Kili whirled around as best as he could whilst sitting with his legs stretched out. He scrambled to his feet, hastily smoothening his slightly rumpled tunic.
"Thorin," he said in the most dignified manner he could muster. "What're you—"
"Looking for you," he cut in, folding his arms. He was leaning casually against a pillar, and surrounded by the tapestries and the banners and all the wood and stone he seemed as if the hall was meant to hold him; the metalwork etched into the pillars echoed the carvings on the crown atop his head; the rich fur on his shoulders marched the dark wooden paneling; the silver adorning his fingers and gleaming in his hair shone like the metal on the banners.
"Why?" He tried not to sound too curious; he needed to be wary, for anything could happen now, what with everything being so volatile a subject—
"I needed to speak with you about your brother," he said casually, tipping his head back against the pillar. A braid in his hair slipped out of the dark mane and fell across his shoulder. Kili blinked, thinking furiously to himself, keep your face blank, keep it blank, don't show him anything—
"About Fili?" he asked, feigning surprise. "But why?"
Thorin walked forward, stepping into the light as he did. He cut an impressive figure, framed in soft light with that crown and the width of his shoulders made even more so by the fur lining them, and the impossible-to-read expression on his face, which was set in harsh, forbidding lines.
"I thought of speaking to you before," he said, "but too much happened in too less a time. I couldn't manage to find time."
"Well, I suppose we can hardly be blamed for that," tried Kili, but it came out as halfhearted and slightly limp. "It's been a hectic couple of weeks."
"That it has."
He was too good at this, Thorin; this careful dance of deception. His face betrayed absolutely nothing about what he may have been thinking, even his posture designed to display only what he wanted to be seen. Kili shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying to seem opaque. Judging from the shrewd gleam in Thorin's eyes, he wasn't succeeding.
"The gallery of the kings," he said softly. "Everyone knows of it, everyone has looked at it, but no one has truly seen it. No one, I think, except for you."
Kili shrugged as nonchalantly as he could. "It's not used at all," he said. "I thought I'd give the place a purpose besides sitting here gathering dust."
"And what purpose would it serve you?"
Kili swallowed past the sudden dryness in his throat. "Just somewhere I can think in peace and quiet, I suppose. Everywhere else is so busy, crowded, loud. Here it's—quiet."
The corner of Thorin's lip curved upwards slightly. "I find it rather empty. Lonely, almost, rather than peaceful."
"The two are often confused."
Thorin nodded decisively, as if he had heard what he was waiting to hear. "I'd been meaning to speak with you," he said, stepping closer. "About—"
"Fili." His pulse quickened, the daunting prospect of hearing what exactly Thorin had to say—it had been weeks since he had last mentioned this.
"His mind has not been in his tasks as of late. I'm sure you've noticed." When Kili said nothing he went on. "He has been detached, disinterested almost. I am beginning to worry." He raised a brow. "Well? Have you also noticed, or is this simply the inconsequential fretting of an overprotective uncle?"
Kili cracked a thin smile at the last bit. "A bit of both, I suppose," he said carefully. "Ever since King Thranduil sent his envoy, something's been disturbed. A long-kept distance has suddenly been breached. It was bound to create ripples; I've felt it too."
"He is to ascend the throne soon," Thorin said. "I cannot rule this kingdom forever, and my time is drawing to a close. I feel that he may not wish for kingship."
"I've never had cause to think that," Kili countered. "He's always wanted it. I know that much. But—" he hesitated. "I don't think he'd want to rule a sealed kingdom."
He bit the inside of his lip, shrugging. "To Fili, being king means having relations with other lords, trading, opening the gates, seeing movement between his realm and the realms of others. It means maintaining careful bonds with other kings." It doesn't mean shunning them and sealing yourself into a fortress of stone whilst those we have abandoned struggle to survive, doesn't mean holding the Arkenstone and using it to prove to everyone that you're undefeated and always will be, doesn't mean wearing a crown and sitting on a throne.
"So he wants it?" Thorin's voice jumped slightly, as if he couldn't get the words out fast enough. Even as they did, his gaze remained enigmatic. Kili met the king's eyes evenly, and nodded.
"Yes, he does."
Thorin looked away sharply, his gaze straying to the banners on the far wall. "I was afraid something had happened," he said, half to himself. "That there was something he couldn't tell me. Ever since your mother died—"
He broke off with a visible jerk, as if the words had caused him some sort of physical pain. He swallowed, then turned to Kili again.
"Is he all right?" There was a sudden, overwhelming vulnerability in his eyes. The suddenness of the question momentarily caught Kili off guard.
"I—what?"
"Fili," said Thorin. "Is he all right? It isn't—nothing's happened?"
He was shaking his head almost before the question had even registered in his brain. "No. No, nothing's happened, Thorin, he's fine. If something had happened then I would know." There was no room for doubt in his tone.
"He's barely eating," murmured Thorin. His lashes fluttered as he cut his gaze to Kili. "He always leaves so early—does he get enough sleep?"
Kili was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed. "I don't know," he said honestly. "But I think so."
"He won't tell me anything," Thorin said almost beseechingly. "I try to ask him, he waves me off. I was beginning to think something was wrong."
Kili shook his head, hoping that nothing showed on his face. "Nothing's wrong, Thorin. If it were, I don't think you'd need me to tell you so."
Thorin smiled tiredly. "Perhaps. But still, I worry. It calms me to know there is someone looking after the two of you. I see you so rarely..."
"Oh?" Kili said, raising a brow. "Then who's looking after you?"
"I do not need to be looked after," replied Thorin, folding his arms.
"That's not what Balin told me." He smiled at the indignant look on Thorin's face.
"Balin has a great imagination," muttered Thorin. "And an alarming tendency to exaggerate."
"I don't think he was exaggerating when he said you've been getting two hours of sleep, give or take, every night."
Thorin merely shrugged. "Duty calls. Demands, actually. If I don't stay up then I'll never get any work done. And it has no real repercussions on me."
"Is that so?" Kili asked, skeptical. "Haven't you looked into a mirror lately?"
Thorin actually seemed surprised. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about your face," Kili explained not-so-patiently. "You've got huge dark circles under your eyes, you look as if you've just been to hell and back"—"You're not far off," muttered Thorin—"and you've been drifting off as of late." He swept a critical eye up Thorin's length, shaking his head. "I don't think Fili is the one we should be worried about."
Thorin waved a dismissive hand. "You waste your breath," he said. "There is nothing to worry about. I am perfectly fine."
"Did something happen when Tauriel healed you?" he asked, ignoring Thorin's weak protests. "Something to do with the magic...?" He trailed off, seeing Thorin stiffen suddenly. His face shut, eyes shuttering and wiping away all emotion. His hands were fists.
"Thorin?" Kili ventured. "Is everything..." all right?
"It's nothing," he said shortly. "I need to go. I have work to do."
Kili was slightly taken aback by the abrupt dismissal. "Oh. All right, then. I'll... see you at dinner."
Thorin nodded, turning almost blindly and leaving the hall, a broad figure growing smaller and smaller until he disappeared from view.
Kili watched him go in silence.

His fingers ached as he pulled the bowstring back, feeling the pleasant vibration that always accompanied the fitting of the arrow to the string. He sighted along the shaft, feeling his gaze narrow as he focused on the small black dot in the center of the ring. Sweat dripped into his eyes, but he hovered a moment, then exhaled and loosed the arrow.
He stepped back the moment it sprang free, wincing slightly as it scraped along his sore forearm, drawing another long, thin scratch where beads of blood were already gathering. He usually wore a bracer, but he hadn't gone to his room that day, not wanting to be contained.
The arrow was quivering, the shaft and feathers protruding from the exact center. He wiped his forehead, panting. He'd been training most of the day—Fili had joined him for a brief few hours, and had run off just before dinner, presumably to continue spying on Sigrid. The poor woman, he thought as he fingered another arrow. Whatever had she done to deserve it?
Grinning to himself he grasped the feathers, fitting the arrow to the string and pulling it to his shoulder, aiming carefully. Inhale, pull. Exhale, release.
It sang through the air and pierced the previous one, cutting through it and peeling the wood apart before slamming into the center. The broken halves of the first arrow were split through the middle, held in place by the point of the second.
He lifted an arm to his mouth, pulling his sleeve down with his teeth. He looked at the rows and rows of targets, all pierced through the exact middle. Fili would have shaken his head and called him a show-off, but he'd look grudgingly proud all the same.
Kili dropped the bow onto the stand, stripping off the quiver and hanging it up again. He headed into the changing room, intending to get out of his current, very sweaty and disgusting clothes.
He emerged, feeling a bit better, and was about to go for his bow again when he saw her.
Like a wraith of fire and forest, with hair like burnished copper and eyes like sunlight on the leaves, she was standing there, face uplifted as if to feel a breeze that would never blow. Her skin glowed like moonlight, pale and lovely as she walked towards the rope ladder stretching across the far wall. She looked at it a moment, assessing, then decidedly began to climb it.
Her movements were smooth, languid, and of unearthly grace. She scaled the rope with laughable ease, and it barely moved as she reached the top, not even swaying under her weight. She gripped the rope with her fingers and leaned out, her hair falling down her shoulders in waves. Her knees bent slightly in a crouch, then she leaped.
For one moment she hung there, suspended in midair, her long red tresses lifting and surrounding her body in loose, soft curls. Her arms were uplifted, her back arched slightly. In that one fleeting second she was one perfect, unbroken line; the curve of her spine, the bend of her legs, the wings of her arms. Then, slowly, she plummeted.
It was an incredible display of grace and balance; her arms moved outwards as she curled in on herself, flipping under and over so many times he lost count. There was no leverage, and yet she fell—no, floated, flew—downwards like a breath of wind. She was a blur of red and green and brown, and her long body curved one last time before she alighted upon the ground, in a slight crouch, her arms held out.
Her eyes were closed, lips set into a faint smile. Her face was glowing with delight, exhilaration, rendered clearly. She looked—alive. And happy as he had never seen her before.
Kili was moving to walk forward when she walked over to the table that held daggers and knives, picking up one in each slender hand. She weighed them a moment, fingers loosely encircling the hilts. Then she gripped them tightly and moved to stand in front of the target.
Not that she was anywhere near it; she was standing in the archer's position, nearly halfway across the room; she couldn't hit it, he thought, because nobody who wasn't using a bow could possibly throw a knife so far...
His breath came out in a harsh little exhale of surprise when the knives flew from her hands—both of them at once—and slammed into the targets. Right into his arrows, splitting them and causing the useless remains to fall to the floor.
She smiled, a fierce challenging smile that seemed tipped with flame. She fingered the leather bracer on her arm as she gazed at her triumph.
"Now, that's just showing off," Kili said, walking forward into the room. She whirled in surprise, her hand dropping from her bracer. Her brows were uplifted and her lips parted in an expression of surprise. Her featured softened a moment later into a smile.
"I didn't see you," she said, stepping back as he drew up to her. They both looked at the targets, all pierced with arrows and knives.
"Practicing?" he asked sardonically, raising a brow. She folded her arms.
"As a matter of fact, no," she said. "I have no need to practice—although I do not think the same could be said of you." She gestured to the numerous arrows spurting from the walls. He waved a hand.
"Just warming up," he said. "Getting ready."
Her eyes sparkled. "And are you?"
He picked up his now from where it lay on the table and plucked the string experimentally. He loosed a breath, offering her a smile.
"I was ready the day I asked you."
She shook her head, spinning around to head over to where she had left her bow. She was laughing and saying something about how she had wanted to use her own, and how she thought their arrows were too short, but he was hardly listening; he couldn't take his eyes off her. She seemed so loose, so present, so unlike how she had looked at the ball last night. She had seemed like something faraway and untouchable, like the stars she so loved. A far cry from this easy, smiling Tauriel who was holding her bow as if it were a precious relic, who was dressed in a forest-green tunic and boots rather than a flowing satin dress and gems.
He liked this Tauriel better.
She was running a practiced finger along the string, testing it. Then she shook out her arm, unbuckling her bracer and tossing it to him without warning.
He caught it out of reflex, glancing at her in surprise. She sent him a frivolous, slow smile that did strange things to his heartbeat, then said, "If you aren't wearing one, why should I?"
He grinned and flung the bracer behind him, not caring where it landed. He heard the soft thud as it hit the floor, and her smile widened.
"Ladies first," he said with a bow, gesturing for her to take her place. She made a face but complied, walking to the spot and locking her eyes onto the target. Her expression turned sharp and focused, her body straightening and her limbs loosening. She fluidly reached behind herself to grasp an arrow, then slowly drew it over her head and fitted it into the string. She sucked in a breath and pulled, setting the bow to her shoulder. Her eyes narrowed.
She loosed the breath, and the arrow, the bow twanging and her fingers curling immediately and her arm moving back as the arrow flew straight and true, going through the central ring, and directly into the center.
She shook her hair back, smiling as he stepped forward next to her. He moved to the next ring and mimicked her stance, carefully placing one foot behind the other to offer himself better balance. He allowed everything to fall away, the world narrowing down to just him and the bow and arrow and target. No, not the target—just that little black dot in the center where the arrow he chose would soon find its home.
He felt the stretch of the string, breathing deeply and loosely as he pulled it back. He sighted along the arrow, aimed for half a moment, then let it fly.
It flicked through the air and hit home, neatly and smoothly. He stepped back, barely feeling the protests of his lacerated skin as yet another cut opened up on his arm. It had scraped along a fresher scratch, deepening it. He paid it no heed.
Tauriel shot again, her arrow going straight into the center again. Then Kili's followed. Then another of Tauriel's.
Kili's wasn't far behind, and as it neatly sank into the target he winced suddenly and looked ruefully down at his arm, where a line of red was standing out lividly amongst the rest. As he watched, a single large bead of blood welled from the tear in his skin and dripped down his arm like a crimson tear. He wiped it away carelessly, ignoring the shriek of pain his arm conveyed as he did. A smear of red streaked from where he smeared it.
"All right, last round," he said, glancing at the targets. There were only three left, and he didn't much feel like going around yanking all their arrows out of the walls.
Tauriel flipped her long red hair over a shoulder and hefted her bow. "Tired already, Prince Kili?"
He shot her a disarming grin that usually had the dwarrowdams giggling and blushing behind their handkerchiefs, but she returned it, only full of malice.
"You wish, my lady," he said, drawing another arrow. "Unless you would like to do the honors of retrieving our arrows."
She looked around, as if only now realizing that there were only three targets remaining that didn't have arrows or daggers sticking out of them.
"I suppose not," she said, and nocked an arrow herself. She nodded at him. "Together," she said.
He felt his lips tilt up into a half-smile. "Together."
He lifted the bow, and next to him Tauriel did the same. Their stances were identical, right foot behind the left, their bows hefted to shoulder height, strings drawn tight, both aiming.
"What do I get if I win?" Tauriel asked, half-breathless from slight exertion.
Kili narrowed his eyes at the target. "You get to win, of course."
She huffed out a laugh. "All right, on the count of three," she said. "One..." His fingers tightened on the arrow.
"Two..." He took a deep breath, the point of the arrow aligned neatly with the center of the ring.
"Three!" He let the breath out in a rush, his fingers releasing the arrow and his left foot coming back, shifting him a step backwards. Beside him, Tauriel did the same.
Both the arrows were quivering, both on the same level, both in the dead center of their respective targets.
"A draw," Kili said, turning to her with a grin. "Not bad, my lady. You are a formidable opponent."
She tossed him a lilting smile. "As are you."
She held out a slim arm, and he slid his bow up his arm before reaching out. They shook hands, both wearing identical grins.
"Your arm!" she exclaimed suddenly, snatching said arm and turning it over so that his forearm was exposed, crisscrossed with oozing red scratches. The newest one had cut the older ones even deeper, and as a result a thin line of blood splattered down his arm and onto the floor.
"Why did you not say anything?" she went on, coppery brows drawing together in a delicate frown. "You are bleeding."
"It's nothing," he said, shrugging. He was relieved at the relative normalcy of his tone; she was still holding his arm, and he felt it in triple intensity wherever her skin made contact with his—his wrist, his forearm, his elbow. It made it dizzyingly distracting and hard to think.
"It always happens when I don't wear a bracer," he said, making a slight fist. Another drop of blood rolled down his skin. "I'm quite used to it."
She was still frowning. "You must do something lest it scars, or gets infected," she said.
He shook his hair out of his eyes. "I'll just wrap it up," he said dismissively. "It'll scab over by tomorrow morning."
She shook her head, letting go of his arm. He didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
"Come," she said, her tone allowing no room for argument. He frowned at her retreating back.
"What are you doing?"
She turned, hands on her hips. "Making sure you take proper care of yourself," she said. "Follow me." With that she turned and strode out of the training room, leaving a bewildered Kili in her wake.

"There," she said, tying the last of his bandages with a flourish. "Now it's properly cleaned, and salved, and wrapped."
He observed his arm, feeling a dull ache spread from the area. "You didn't have to."
She cracked a smile. "I knew you would just run water over it and sleep," she said. "If I didn't take the necessary precautions, you would have left it untreated."
He leaned back against the counter in the infirmary that held all the shrubs and herbs and bandages, inwardly commending her perspicacity.
"You're right," he said with a sigh. "I would have."
She inspected her own arm, where there were a number of pale white scratches, like his own, but none of them were bleeding. They looked several weeks old.
"How come yours didn't—you know." He gestured elaborately with his injured arm.
She brushed her hair out of her eyes and gave him a tired smile. "Our skin is very difficult to puncture," she said. "We don't bleed easily, but we bruise very quickly." She splayed her fingers, showing him dark bruises on the skin there, just above the joints, where she had gripped the arrows.
"You could've avoided it," he said, nodding at her arm. "You had a bracer, didn't you?"
He blinked, frowning to himself. His voice sounded slightly slurred to his own ears. Maybe it was the medicine.
"You weren't using one," she said, and he could have sworn she was blushing. "I felt I didn't have to either."
"But you didn't have to," he said. Definitely slurred. He shook his head minutely, as if to clear it of flies.
"I think I did." She met his gaze steadily. "It was only fair."
He swallowed thickly. "You shoot well," he said. It hadn't been what he'd meant to say, and he frowned at himself. What on earth was wrong with him?
Her full lips spread into a smile. "Thank you. So do you. It has been a long time since I have felt the thrill of it."
He blinked slowly. "Thrill of what?"
"Of the hunt." Her eyes grew unfocused, a nostalgic expression rippling across her face. "We often used to venture into the forest by the light of the stars, every night."
The casual we irked him for some opaque reason. "You and the prince?"
She nodded, eyes still full of memories of the forest. "I wish I could show you how the stars shine beyond the forest. Their light is sacred to us, but more than something holy I find it awakening. It makes me feel alive," she sighed, twining a loose curl of hair around her finger.
Try as he might, he couldn't keep his eyes off her face. There may have been words, but they died at his lips, consumed by the burning silence.
"How much longer must I tarry here?" she asked, tipping her head back. "My king waits for the verdict, and yet..."
"Thorin is nothing if not thorough," said Kili. "This is a big issue; he'll take as much time as he needs. If I know him at all, then it'll be months before you can go back."
Her eyes shimmered. Her hair had fallen away from her shoulders and neck, exposing the vulnerable skin to his eyes. He narrowed them suddenly.
"What happened there?" he asked, nodding at her. Her hands flew up to her throat, fingers closing around the skin there. There was a dark red mark on the curve of her inner jaw, almost like a bruise. But it didn't look like a bruise. It looked like a... a bite mark.
Her eyes flashed, a warning sign. "It's nothing."
His gaze sharpened, moving along her face. She looked flustered, embarrassed almost, but there was no other blemish on her face or neck, save for a raw spot on her lower lip where it had been bitten, probably.
"Are you sure? It looks—"
"Its nothing," she repeated, more firmly this time. "And it's late." The words hung in the air between them. "I should sleep. And so should you." She swallowed, looking away and moving sharply away from the table as if it had burned her. She averted her eyes, her hand stil cupped around the mark on her neck.
"Thank you for today," she said softly. "It brought me great freedom."
Without waiting for an answer she turned quickly and hurried away, not looking back as she left the infirmary and vanished from sight.

The room was cold, the elaborate chandelier doing absolutely nothing to warm it up. There was a blazing fire in the hearth, but that didn't do much either. Kili was holding back shivers, the stone of the walls around him radiating the chill.
Thorin had called a meeting that day, saying it was important and that nobody was to miss it. So, naturally, Fili and Kili were there, along with twenty others, in the freezing meeting room, waiting for Thorin to arrive.
They didn't have to wait long; within a few minutes the doors slammed open with a massive clang and the king strode into the room, causing an instant hush to spread across the assembled. It was almost eerie, thought Kili as Thorin sat at the head of the table. The power that he wielded—the power to exert his presence over anyone, to make a whole room fall silent, to draw every eye to him through sheer force of will alone. Even without a crown and without a throne and without the Arkenstone Thorin looked the part.
Did he tell you he'd call this meeting? Fili's eyes asked him from across the table. His tawny brows were drawn together.
He said it was practically an emergency, Kili said back. I only got to know this morning. Why, did he tell you?
A small shake of the head. No, that's just it, he said. He didn't. Usually he never calls meetings without some sort of previous announcement.
Kili shrugged. Maybe there's some sort of latest development he's meaning to tell us. Otherwise it wouldn't be on such short notice.
A muscle jumped in Fili's jaw. I have a bad feeling about this.
Kili frowned. Why?
Fili was spared from replying when Thorin spoke, causing Kili to jump guiltily and turn belatedly to his uncle.
"I understand most of you will be wondering why I called you here with no prior arrangement," he said, nodding around at them. "But I'm afraid this is quite urgent."
Kili felt Fili's eyes on him but didn't look at him, instead focusing on Thorin. He felt a small thread of unease unspool in his chest, though he couldn't have said why.
"I have decided," said the king, "to shut the gates of the River Running."
Balin spoke up from where he sat next to Kili. "But, Thorin," he said, "the River flows directly to the gates. Without it..."
"Without it, how can we hope to accomplish trade with the elves?" Fili asked, frowning. "The river is the only way to get inside without crossing through the valley."
Thorin thrust his chin up. "The elves," he said shortly, "will have to find a way around that, then. It is winter; the river will freeze lest we stop it."
"You've never stopped it before," Kili said, looking around. "Why now?"
"Because this winter dawns colder than any we have seen," he said. "And because Dale has put forth a formal request for dammed water. I have no right to deny them."
What? "When did—" Fili began.
"This morning," Thorin cut in smoothly. "King Bard sent the missive just before breakfast. The River Running is Dale's property as much as it is mine. Holding the river back should give them what they need." He smiled slightly. He knew, then, that buying time would do only that—buy time. It would not stop their end, only stay it a few more months.
"But the elves," Balin said. "Will they not—"
"Where's the ambassador?" Kili interrupted, looking around suddenly. Tauriel was nowhere to be found. This directly concerned her—where was she?
Thorin's lips twisted. "I didn't call her."
Kili gaped. "But—this is—"
"Trade with the elves is still not official," snapped Thorin. "I have not yet decided whether I wish to entertain their request. I found their timing most inopportune, and moreover, she arrived unannounced. It is as if they wished for my refusal." He sat back with a scowl.
"But this involves her," said Fili. "Shouldn't you have—"
"How, pray tell," Thorin said through gritted teeth, "does this involve her? She is a spokesperson from the Elvenking. I am closing off the River Running. How do those two things coincide?"
Silence ensued. Thorin had backed them all into a very tight corner; the only way out was his way out. Kili seethed silently.
"As I thought," Thorin said coldly. "It closes today, at noon."
Nobody spoke. The only sound was the crackling of the fire.
"Does anyone have any objection?"
An assenting silence swept through the room. Thorin nodded frostily. "Good," he said. "That is all I wanted to speak to you about. It was an immediate matter of discussion, so I had to do it now. As a reply to the king of Dale, we cannot say no. The River will close now and open when I deem it fit. I declare this session adjourned." He waved a hand, and there was a brief moment of movement as the assembled dwarves left slowly, until only Balin, Dwalin, Fili and Kili were left. Thorin had just stalked out of the room without so much as a glance at any of them.
"Why didn't he call Tauriel?" Kili demanded. "She'll be angry, and this was reckless."
"He's not an idiot," grunted Dwalin. "He knows what he's doing."
"Maybe," said Fili. "But this seemed... I don't know. I don't like it."
"You don't have to," Dwalin shrugged. "Nobody gets a say in decisions like these."
"Did Bard really send a letter?" Kili asked Balin, who sighed. "He did. It wasn't really correspondence. More of a reminder. It wasn't even direct contact, so he crossed no lines."
Fili sighed. "It doesn't matter," he said. "Once the ambassador finds out, she'll have to tell her king, and then it'll turn into a huge argument."
"We don't know that," Balin said, though he looked troubled. "We can only hope."
"We'll have to wait and watch, I suppose," Dwalin said, standing. "Once the river closes today, once she finds out, once she tells her king... It's a game of chance."
Fili twisted a braid around his finger. "Not a game of chance," he said. "Not when we know who will emerge victorious."
He stood. "Dwalin is right. We'll have to wait and see."
He nodded at them and left the room. A second later Balin and Dwalin left too, leaving Kili in the meeting room, sitting at the table alone with the flickering firelight, with a heavy heart.

Chapter Text

Tauriel

The dark bruises on her fingers looked nearly purple in the firelight. She curled her hands into fists, relishing in the faint pain the movement brought, the dull ache spreading across her hand.
She was lying flat on her back on the bed, mulling over the events of the past few hours; shooting with Kili, bandaging his arm, speaking with him. How he had seemed so carefree, so happy, how he had seemed to see a layer deeper than she intended for him to.
How he had noticed the mark on her neck.
Her lip snagged on her teeth as the fingers of her free hand reached up to brush over the bite mark, closing her eyes. It no longer hurt, but it wasn't fading from her skin. No matter how long she worried at it or how much she tried to get rid of it, it simply refused to fade.
Just as the memories refused to fade.
She tried to force them away during the day, so they crept up on her in the night, slipping into her dreams, plaguing her with the remembrance of his hands, his lips, his voice. She would wake up in the middle of the night, sitting bolt upright, sweat clinging to her skin. She would look around wildly, sure that he was there, for surely he had come to her, to finish what he had started?
She dismissed the thoughts, chastising herself for thinking of them. It wasn't becoming to entertain such notions; she was an envoy from another kingdom, she was there to take her people's heirlooms to their rightful place. She wasn't there to fantasize about the king. No matter how well he kissed.
The ball had come as an unexpected turn; Balin had invited her, and she'd managed to extricate a dress from her wardrobe, but she hadn't expected to see Thorin there. Nor had she expected to run into him alone, or have her dignity wither away entirely and spill terribly true things from her mouth.
She sighed, rubbing the bruises. The pain brought her mind back to earth, cleared her head of the fog that clouded it. Shooting with the prince had let her soul free in a way she hadn't anticipated, but it had been a nice surprise. Everything always fell away when she slipped into battle. It could perhaps be called peace, though how war brought her peace was a mystery even to her.
She turned over, lost in thought. The few days after she had healed Thorin had been a blur of fear and shame and anger, all directed at herself. How could she have been so careless, so susceptible to his seduction, so tempted to give herself to him?
She bit down hard on her lip, briefly forgetting that there were a number of abrasions on the skin there; one of the fresher cuts opened beneath her gnawing teeth and began to bleed, the coppery tang of blood filling her mouth. She should never have come to this accursed Mountain. She would have been better off in the halls of the elves, where she could hunt with Legolas and feast under the stars and breathe in the forest.
She tried to think of home, the land that had held her for centuries, where she belonged. The rushing waterfalls, the echoing hollow chambers, the high willowy pillars made of soft wood. It worked, for a while; she floated for a few seconds in trancelike bliss, suspended neither here nor there, her body in the Mountain but her mind soaring away on the breeze, carrying her home.
A knock on the door cut through her memories, making her frown and sit up. She slid from the bed and made her way to the door, hoping it wasn't something important.
The vain hope withered and died shortly after it was born when she saw Balin on the other side, and wearing a consternated expression. He was twisting his fingers around, shifting from foot to foot.
"My lady," he said hastily. "I hope I am not disturbing you?"
She narrowed her eyes, her gaze picking out every detail: the slightly accelerated breathing, though it wasn't from physical exertion, the nervous shifting, the agitated tone.
"Not at all," she replied, and folded her arms. "Is this about the king?"
She caught the ghost of a smile. "Nothing escapes you, does it?"
She smiled back. "It is about the king, isn't it." It wasn't a question, and Balin nodded, the dismayed look finding its way back to his face.
"There was a meeting, this morning," he said hesitantly. "The King said it was an emergency."
She felt the beginnings of dread begin to settle in her stomach. "And?"
"And..." He sighed, closing his eyes for a brief moment, then opening them. "He closed the floodgates of the River Running."
She gazed at him blankly for a moment, then understood.
"How will my people—," she began.
"Exactly what we asked him," cut in Balin, shaking his head. "He said you would have to find a way around it until he decides to reopen them."
She felt her brows draw together and incredulity spread across her face. "Why did he do it?"
"Dale needs water for the winter," he said helplessly. "The King sent a missive."
She scowled. "I thought your King said he would have no more to do with Dale."
"And he still doesn't," Balin reassured her. "But the river is their property as well. He has no right to deny their king."
"But he will deny mine?" She shook her head. "He knew," she said. "He knew, and he still did it. I know he did."
Balin's expression told her that he too had guessed as much. She drew herself up to her full height, shaking her hair back defiantly. She may have been there for the very opposite of trade, but if what Balin said was true, then leaving would be impossible. It was her duty as ambassador to argue with him about this. She was even willing to shove aside what had happened between them previously, too intent on demanding that he reconsider.
"Take me to the king," she said coldly.
He hesitated. "Now, lass, I don't think—"
"I said, take me to the king." She thrust her chin up. "I must needs speak with him of this matter. Should he close the gates, we cannot hope for unity." She narrowed her eyes at him.
"Why did he not call me?"
Balin fidgeted. "He said it did not concern you."
She huffed out a breath of derisive laughter. "Oh, really? Very well, then. Take me to him and we will see whether it concerns me then."
Balin was frowning into his snow-white beard. "He won't take kindly to it."
"I don't care."
"He isn't—I would take you to him, truly," he said. "It's only—at the moment he is... somewhat preoccupied."
"It matters not," she said in as lofty a manner as she could muster. "I refuse to stand by while he takes decisions that directly involve me without me. If you do not take me to him then I will search this entire Mountain until I find him. And I promise you I will find him."
"And I don't doubt it," Balin assured her. "But he is... he won't want to be disturbed."
"I said I don't care." She folded her arms adamantly. "I'm not afraid of your king."
He raised a brow. "If I were you, I would be." Before she could ask him what he meant, he stepped back, nodding to her. "Come, I will take you to him."
They set off, Tauriel with her shoulders set. What on earth had he been thinking, going ahead and doing something like that without even asking her? And where could he possibly be that he couldn't even entertain her? If Balin's nervous whistling and jumpy steps were anything to go by, then it was bad.
Her curiosity only intensified the deeper under the Mountain they went. The air was beginning to get heavier, denser, hotter. Even she was beginning to pant slightly, sweat slicking her skin and adding a faint sheen to her forehead.
"Where is he?" she asked, slightly breathless. Balin didn't reply, turning left at an intersection. She slipped ever so slightly and looked down, seeing dampness on the stone beneath her.
She frowned, following Balin deeper and deeper within the framework of halls and chambers and corridors of Erebor until they came to a stop at a high, arched wooden door.
Balin looked at her expectantly and she gazed back at him in confusion.
"I can come no further," he said with a little bow. "I'm afraid I must leave you here, the king is inside. Reason with him as you will, I will await the verdict." He winked, then gestured for her to go through the door before setting off along the corridor from which they had come, rounding the corner and disappearing from her sight.
She swallowed past her dry throat and put a hand on the hard wood of the door. It was polished to a high shine, but age had dulled it to a gleaming softness. She felt a sudden flash of nerves, then chided herself. There was nothing for her to be nervous about; what could happen?
She took in a breath, then pushed the door open and walked inside.

It was the most beautiful room she had ever seen.
Large, hollow and cavernous, the ceiling arced upwards, dome-like and hewn from powdery black stone that trapped the heat. The walls were made from the same stone, and was inlaid with gems, chips of aquamarine and turquoise and amethyst sunken into the surface. They glimmered serenely, the rippling water below causing undulating shadows and reflections to spangle their surface.
Everywhere the eye could see were pools of water, thick, heady water, likely fed from a hot spring directly below the Mountain. As a result it was of the purest form, clear as crystal and with the same iridescence. The air was heavy with steam, curling around her and cradling her in warmth.
She glanced around, her fury not having died in the slightest. If the king wanted to make decisions without her in matters that directly involved her, then she would make sure he heard her now, if not then. She walked forward, her footfalls echoing in the chamber. Drawing herself up to her full height, she folded her arms across her chest and glared around the room.
"Here to reprimand me, no doubt," said an amused voice behind her, and she dropped her hands and whirled around in surprise.
He seemed to have materialized from thin air; he had not been there a moment earlier. He was regarding her almost hungrily, with a heavy, hooded gaze, a small smile playing about his mouth. He was shirtless and barefoot, and she tried not to allow her gaze to linger on the red lines on his back, or the half-moon shaped bruises on his shoulders, or the faint line on his lip—
"You had no right," she said furiously, taking a step towards him. "No right to do what you did without telling me!"
He only raised a brow. The steam from the water had condensed on his skin, clinging to the hollows of his hips and chest, outlining the muscles in sleek, wet lines. Her mouth went dry, and she felt a slow heat uncoil inside her, even as she balled her hands into fists.
"I had every right," he said softly, cocking his head to the side. His finger was casually running across his lower lip as he looked at her. Perhaps it was only the dim light, but she could see his eyes darkening. In her flimsy tunic she felt suddenly exposed, very aware of how it was too tight at her chest and even tighter at her hips.
"Am I not the king?" he went on, in that soft deadly voice. His finger trailed across his mouth, and she wished he would stop; it was distracting, made her body tense.
"Am I not the ambassador from the realm you are dealing with?" she countered, taking another step forward. One more step and they would be aligned. Her breath caught, but she held her ground.
"So you are," he murmured.
"Why did you close the gates of the River Running?" she demanded. "It is not your land, not a part of your kingdom." She tilted up her chin defiantly. "It is a means of trade between our realms. To close it off was a move that suggested your possible disinterest in the prospect."
He smiled slowly. It was a sinister smile, dark and consuming and seductive and inviting. "You are learning," he said. "Learning to play this game of deceit and shadows."
She narrowed her eyes. "And you are so adept in the matter?"
"Oh, yes," he said, and his dark smile turned darker. "Very much so," he purred, and she suppressed a shiver. His voice was so rich and deep, and so masculine...
Her legs moved of their own accord, carrying her that one last step. She inhaled deeply, breathing in the potent scent of him, the shivery heat rolling off his skin, her insides tensing.
"My king will not be pleased," she said, and her voice was too breathy, too panicked. She could feel it every time he breathed, the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest against hers.
"Hmm," he said, his eyes blackening further. "But nor am I."
"Why?" It tumbled from her lips, a rushed sound. His nearness was intoxicating, made it hard to think.
"Why indeed," he said, and his lips parted slightly, coaxing, inviting. She forced herself upright with an effort, biting back the urge to fall to her knees and yield.
"You put in jeopardy the bonds that tie our people," she spat, putting all her venom into the glare she shot him. "Without consulting me—"
"I didn't need to consult you," he said, and she had never, not until now, quite realized how sharp the line of his face was, the arching brow, the sweeping jaw, the patrician nose. He was all angles and lines, no softness, except at his lips, his supple, soft, pliant lips that were yet so harsh, and unyielding...
"But you cannot make these decisions on your own," she snapped. "In this matter I as an envoy have the right to tell you what—"
"To tell me what to do?" he asked, and his already impossibly deep voice dropped another octave, causing shivers to creep up from her toes till her neck. His eyes gleamed, predatory in the dim light.
"Is that what you were going to say?" he said, his teeth slightly bared, and he took a menacing step forward. Her eyes darted around and she stepped back, even though she'd told herself not to. He took another step towards her and she scrambled backwards, feeling her eyes widen.
"No," she gasped. "No, I—"
Her back hit a wall, and suddenly he was bearing down on her, all that muscled weight pinning her to the surface. Black had eclipsed blue, and his eyes were completely dark now, his lips set into a feral sneer.
"In these halls I am the king," he growled. "You answer to me, and to me only. You obey me and no one else. You do what I wish, when I wish, how I wish. If you do not do as I please..." He paused, allowed his words to sink in. "Then you will regret it."
And then his arms came around her, his hands pressing into the stone on either side of her, caging her in his heat. She pressed herself back against the wall, feeling her eyes widen. He leaned forward slowly, tantalizingly, his lips finding the delicate skin of her neck. She gasped.
"I should teach you a lesson," he murmured against her throat, lips moving on her skin and his hot breath causing liquid heat to pool inside her. Her head fell back, a small moan escaping her. She felt him laugh against her neck.
She arched her back as she felt him suck her skin into his mouth, the sharp, delicious sting of his teeth causing another moan to fall from her lips. Her hands reached out automatically, gripping his shoulders to anchor herself to something as his lips moved up to trail along her jaw. Her palms slid along the smooth skin of his chest, marveling at the muscle like steel beneath. He was beautiful, so perfectly proportioned, his shoulders of a breadth an elf could never possess, raised scars ridging his pale skin.
His lips moved up, brushing across her cheeks, nipping along the line of her jaw, hovering over her lips, just close enough to touch.
"Why is it this smart mouth only works for me, hmm?" he asked, and she felt his lips brush lightly against hers, making her hands tighten on his shoulders. She shut her eyes.
"If you were mine," he growled, and everything south of her waistline clenched deliciously, "you wouldn't be able to sit down for a week."
Heat unspooled in her core. Then make me yours.
She writhed, her body pinned by his, and her moan was rough and full of desire. She sunk her teeth into her lower lip, her hand flying up to press against her lips and cutting the sound off quickly, mortified.
A second later his fingers tangled with hers, moving her hand away from her mouth. Her breath was coming in short bursts as he slowly took her other hand and laced their fingers together, then pinned her wrists to the wall with his own, baring her rapidly rising and falling chest.
He caught the swell of her bottom lip between his teeth and she whimpered. "I want to hear you," he said, the low cadence of his voice thrumming through her body.
The sound freed a broken sound of pure longing from her throat, and she heard herself say, "Oh, please, Thorin, I can't..." She gasped for breath, her voice ragged with need.
"What do you want?" he whispered against her lips, and she felt her control slipping with every movement, every word, every touch, turning her into a shameless, wanton mess.
"Kiss me," she said.
His hands tightened on her wrists as his mouth slanted over hers suddenly in a deep, savage kiss, with such force that she was pressed even further against the wall. He freed her wrists as she opened for him, allowing him to plunder her mouth, take what he wanted without compromise.
He tasted so good, hot and male and unbearable, making her head spin. She moved forward in the circle of his arms, pressing herself against him and allowing her hands to roam over the bare expanse of his chest, her fingers sliding down and curling into the waistband of his trousers, hooking into the fabric. Her hands pressed into the hollow indentations of his hips, brushing over the soft skin there.
He uttered a rough, low groan into her mouth, then pulled away suddenly, his hands covering hers where they rested at his waist. She swallowed hard as he slowly untangled their fingers, allowing her hands to fall back to her sides. His expression was intense and unreadable.
His fingers came up, grasping the strings of her tunic where they laced across the front. He held her gaze unwaveringly as he tugged at the laces and unraveled them slowly.
One. By. One.
The bodice fell open, falling away along with the tunic, hanging off her body in folds. He pushed the garment off her shoulders, allowing it to pool at her feet. She caught her breath as it hit the floor, very aware that she now only wore a tight corset and loose silk pants, aware that no male had ever seen this much of her body before. She closed her eyes, feeling her cheeks heat.
A breath later she felt his lips on hers, soft and teasing, and his hands tightening on her waist sent sharp arousal whipping through her. She made a soft sound against his lips, losing herself in the kiss, allowing everything to fade away except for the feel of his teeth and tongue unraveling her slowly with every caress.
He pulled away just as the kiss began to heat, his hands sliding up her waist, over her shoulders, and down her neck, his fingers finding the front of the corset. He paused, as if sensing her sudden apprehension. He glanced at her, as if to ask silently.
She nodded.
He moved his hands with a sudden jerk, his hands tightening on the fabric as he tore the corset down the middle. There was a loud sound of cloth ripping, echoing around the chamber as he flung the ruined halves of the garment away. She gasped at the suddenness of it, the air cool on her bare skin—skin no one beside herself had seen in centuries.
His gaze turned ravenous as he beheld her, his eyes traveling slowly over her, lingering and heavy. She swallowed, her arms moving up automatically to cover herself, but Thorin's hands gently eased them down to her sides, and she blushed, turning her face away.
"Beautiful," he whispered, his fingers gently brushing over her bare skin, his hands coming to rest at her waist, just at the flare of her hips. He placed his lips just below the dip of her collarbone, and sensation spiraled from the spot, traveling downwards and causing a dull ache to spread between her legs. She reached for him, her hands sliding up his chest, running her fingers over his skin, her hands mapping him, as if to memorize him and to burn this memory into her brain forever.
His hands moved to her hips as he trailed a slow, hot line of kisses down her body, kneeling before her as his lips moved down, down and down—
She stopped breathing, her hands clenched on his shoulders as he went on his knees before her. His eyes were such a vivid blue, like discs of cornflower ringed with dusk. She felt her body sieze up as his hands found the waistline of her silk pants and slowly pushed them off, prising off her boots as well.
She closed her eyes and tipped her head back as his lips ran along her leg, his hands sliding down to her ankles and moving upwards, coaxing her legs apart. She tightened her grip on his shoulders as she felt his mouth slide down her hips and stop on the apex of her thighs.
She gasped as she felt his mouth on her, his teeth, his tongue as he delved deeper, his hands gripping her thighs as he tasted her deep and slow. His tongue caressed her skin, freeing a soft whimper from her mouth, followed by a mortifyingly loud moan of pleasure as his teeth replaced his tongue. She was aware of his fingers gripping her thighs, and her heart as it hammered, and aware of the heat that was pooling between her legs, where Thorin was sucking and biting and making her moans echo around the chamber.
Her hips flexed instinctively, grinding herself harder into his teeth. Her fingers slid into his hair as the resulting echo of pleasure made her cry out, a flash of white splintering her vision. She swallowed, tipping her head back as his tongue pushed inside her, tasting her, claiming her. She cried out again when his teeth soon followed, pressure building between her legs. Her muscles were clenching deliciously, slowly, as he bit down, the pleasure-pain radiating outwards and releasing another cry she couldn't contain. Coherence had deserted her entirely, and she was crying his name, her hands clenching in his hair, her insides tightening, straining for release, her chest hitching up and down with every movement of that wicked mouth on her.
Her breaths turned quick and hard as he continued the slow, sensuous, torturous process, and his hands slid down as his tongue pushed up, and then she shattered.
She screamed, her back arching and her hands fisting into his hair. Pure white tore through her vision, blanching her sight and filling her whole body with liquid fire. She couldn't remember her own name, but she remembered Thorin's as she cried it, her body racked with shudders.
She took deep breaths as she returned to herself, trembling slightly. Her fingers were still tangled in his hair, and she was aware of his head leaning against her stomach. She swallowed, gasping for breath.
She stumbled, her legs giving way beneath her. As she fell forward, Thorin stood, an arm snaking around her waist, holding her up, and the other sliding up her body to grasp her jaw, tilting her face up. His mouth crashed onto hers, hard and rough, and she could taste herself on his teeth as they clashed with hers. Her fingers dug into his shoulders as their bodies pressed together, mouths seeking and exploring and tasting. She sighed as he broke the kiss, then his arms wrapped around her, a delicious, warm weight. Everything was sightless, soundless and blurred as she felt him carrying her, her hair hanging down like a scarlet banner.
When she came back to herself, she opened her eyes, feeling warmth surrounding her and steam curling around her body. It took her a moment to realize that Thorin had carried her into one of the numerous pools of hot water in the chamber. He was standing above her, face slightly flushed and lips glistening—she blushed—and she looked up just in time to see him kick his discarded trousers away.
Her mouth went dry as she beheld the bare expanse of him, the hard muscle under scarred skin, the hollows of his hips, the broad shoulders somehow tapering to a narrow waist, powerful, muscled legs.
He was the epitome of male beauty, the most gorgeous thing she had ever laid eyes on. And he was hers tonight, all hers. She moved back as he lowered himself into the water, and she only had time to take a breath before he was upon her.
There was no finesse, no softness. His tongue thrust forcefully into her mouth, parting her lips with his, kissing her roughly. She opened her mouth to his thorough plundering, murmuring against his mouth as his hands caught her hips and he drew her towards him in the water. Their bodies were flush with each other, her bare breasts flattening against his hard, muscled chest as he slipped a hand into her hair, gripping hard. He tilted her head to the side, allowing him better access to her mouth and devouring her whole. Heat was uncurling inside her, an unspoken need beating through her blood.
She wrapped her legs around his waist, pressing herself even closer, his arms wrapping around her and holding her close. He lowered his head to bite and lick at her throat, and she arched her back in his arms, tipping her head back, a wordless cry slipping past her lips.
He slid his arm from her back, the other tight around her waist as he leaned back for a moment. He locked his gaze onto hers, and there was no hesitation in his expression, no apprehension or fear or reluctance. He moved a hand between their bodies, and she tightened her fingers on his shoulders.
"You're sure?" he murmured, lips traveling excruciatingly down her jaw. She answered without caring, without thinking, simply obeying the pleas of her body, the desire she had harbored for so long, had tried to force down every day, only to see it in full force the next time she saw him. In that one second she knew she had never wanted anything more in all her life.
"Yes," she whispered.
She felt his hand move, slipping between them; he hovered there for half a moment, then slowly, carefully slid into her.
She let out a cry as a sharp, sweet pinch radiated through her body, causing her to clench hard around him. Tears pricked at her eyes as she felt her muscles stretch almost beyond bearing to accommodate him inside her.
"You're so tight," he murmured, a hand cupping the bend of her hip. His breath was harsh against her neck. "Don't clench," he bit out.
He brushed his lips softly against hers, his hands running up her sides. She clenched again, unable to help it, and winced, another cry echoing around the room.
"Shh," he whispered, nuzzling into her neck as she swallowed hard. "Breathe," he said, his voice a low, soothing hum. "Just breathe."
She filled her lungs, expelling the air with a soft moan, and he shifted slightly, causing her to tighten fractionally around him. She sunk her teeth into her lip, her eyes burning.
"Relax," he breathed. "Relax."
She forced herself to obey, letting her limbs loosen slightly. Her hands were digging into his skin, and she unclenched them from his shoulders, wrapping her arms around him tightly. As she allowed some of the tension to leach from her body, the sharp stab of pain melted away slowly, replaced by a faint ache. He leaned forward and kissed her softly, sweetly, gently. His fingers drew slow circles on her bare back, sending a wave of pleasure through her and softening her muscles slightly. It was enough; he moved forward slightly, filling her completely.
She moaned, arching her back. The ache in her abdomen faded, consumed by burning pleasure and a feeling of desperate fullness. She felt his lips on the side of her neck, gently biting the skin there as he began to move within her.
Fire raced up and down her veins as the barriers between them vanished; he moved against her evenly, deeply, slowly enough to make her see stars. It was utterly consuming and thorough, Thorin's light, skilled hands moving across her skin and coaxing every last drop of pleasure from her body.
She tilted her hips up to meet his with every thrust, the vast ocean of pleasure threatening to overwhelm her every time their hips met. She felt herself tighten, clenching as he moved in her, his lips sliding up her throat and brushing across the shell of her ear, murmuring softly to her in Khuzdul, his voice low and rough.
His hands tightened on her hips, and the ocean crashed over her, drowning her in ecstasy. Waves and waves of sensation rolled over her, racking her body with shudders, a long, low moan coming from her mouth. Pleasure sluiced through her as her release found her, and she keened softly, flinging her head back. Whorls of light spiraled in her vision, erupting before her eyes and dissolving her in the feeling of Thorin and his hands and lips and fingers. She moaned his name in a voice she couldn't recognize as her own, rough and hoarse as it was.
He had stilled, and she leaned her head against his shoulder, her hair falling down her shoulders as onto her back. He pressed a palm against her shoulder blade, and she uttered another soft sound as he slowly, carefully pulled out of her.
She let out a long breath, feeling suddenly empty, hollow, lacking. His arms came around her again, enveloping her in his heat. She leaned into his embrace, her own arms locking around his back. They clung to each other in the water, and she basked in the afterglow, allowing herself to relax into him.
After what felt like eons he leaned back, a hand going under her chin and tipping her face up. His eyes roved over her face, concern evident in his eyes. She murmured something and turned her face into his palm, pressing her cheek to his skin.
"Are you all right?" he asked, and she managed a small nod.
"I didn't hurt you?"
"No," she said softly. "A little, in the beginning, but..."
He appeared to understand, nodding. His hand still cupped her face.
"You have never done this before." It was more of a statement than a question.
She blinked at him, at the smoldering intensity in his blue eyes. Slowly she shook her head.
He exhaled, leaning his forehead against hers. She felt his smile. "I hope it was worth the wait?" His voice was a low, seductive rumble, vibrating through his chest and through hers, making her toes curl in the water.
She huffed out a small breath of laughter. "Oh, yes."
Everything seemed so far away, so distant, intangible, trivial. She could hardly remember the shooting competition with Kili, nor what had followed. She couldn't remember; it seemed like lifetimes ago.
She shook her head of the memories as to rid herself of an errant fly, unwinding her legs from around his waist. His arms wrapped her, and he swung her easily into them, sweeping her into his arms as he carried her out of the water.
"You are sufficiently recovered, I assume," he said casually, and she made an incoherent noise of surprise, twisting in his arms to look up at him. He set her easily to her feet, then stooped and tossed her a bundle of fabric. She unraveled it dubiously to find a robe. She raised a brow at him, and he smiled a bit, pulling on a loose tunic over his head, seemingly uncaring about the fact that his skin was still wet. She slipped into the robe as he walked to the door. When she made no move to go after him he turned to her.
"Unless you would rather stay here," he said slightly testily, "I suggest you come with me."
She started, quickly moving to the door and stepping into the corridor just as he closed the door behind her.

It was dark in the corridor, and while there were few guards Tauriel couldn't help but wonder if it was written all over her face, what she and Thorin had been doing. She wondered if she looked any different now that she was no longer pure. She definitely felt different. It was as if some long-since hunger had finally been sated; she hadn't let herself admit exactly how much she had wanted him, how deprived she had felt that night Fili had interrupted them, how much she wanted him to come back and finish it, seal it, make it real. There was a faint sting between her legs, a reminder that she had let him take her innocence; somethings elves recalled as a moment more spiritual than pleasurable. Clearly, judging from the careful, thorough way Thorin had pleasured her more than once, dwarves thought it entirely different.
She didn't mind it, somehow.
His room was exactly how she remembered it, which she did vividly; lavish, with a large desk of shining dull oak by the fire, which was dying, bathing the desk in a ruddy glow. A skylight, slanting and thick, starlight and moonshine leaking into the room. There were smaller rooms branching off of the main one, and a whole wall was devoted to instruments of war, blades spread in deadly silver fans across rich burgundy velvet draped across the stone surface. The crown of the King of Erebor was gleaming on the desk, gold and obsidian. A warrior's room, and a king's.
She had wanted—desperately—to be in this room, like this. The air was swathed with his rich, musky scent, which was clinging to her as well, and it surrounded her. She inhaled, allowing it to fill her whole body, seep under her skin and filter down to her bones.
The bed stood against the far wall, neatly made and untouched.
His bed. His bed. Where he slept. She wet her lips, her heart racing.
She turned slowly, facing him. She could almost feel the air between them, charged and buzzing and alive. There was suddenly too much of it, too much space separating them.
Their eyes locked.
They surged forward at the same time, their bodies colliding and nearly overbalancing in their haste to get closer. His hands pulled at the sash that held the gown closed, tearing at it until it unraveled, then pushing it off her, flinging it away. Her mouth opened beneath his, hot and hungry, as her fingers bunched in the material of his tunic, ripping it off his body.
They stumbled backwards, tangled in each other as they moved towards the bed. Reaching it, Thorin broke the kiss, pushing her backwards onto the mattress. She leaned up as he moved over her, pinning her in place with his body as his lips found hers again.
Her hands slid into his luxuriant mane, twining the braids around her fingers and tugging. His responding moan made her whole body tighten deliciously, and she moved her legs up, wrapping them around his waist. They somehow twined around each other as they kissed, wound together like intricate thread until she didn't know where she ended and he began, until they were fused together entirely, one being, one entity, one identity.
He ripped his mouth away from hers, nipping a fervent path down her jaw. Her fingers dug into his shoulders, and she gasped for breath, her head falling back and exposing her throat to his marauding lips. She felt drunk on this, on this all-encompassing feeling of his body covering hers, drunk on pleasure and pain and Thorin.
When he pushed into her slowly her frayed nerves lit with the feeling of him, sensation tearing through her like wildfire. Her hands wrapped around his biceps, feeling the hard muscle beneath his supple skin, her nails digging in. Her eyes fell shut as her body adjusted, pinpricks of sensation firing along her skin.
This time it was easier; her body adjusted quickly, adapting to him, the pain quickly melding into pleasure as he claimed her again. It took flight slowly, a star going supernova, blinding her in the rush of sensation it brought. And when the world ceased to be around her and erupted into a storm of white light, his name was an anchor that held her there, tethered her to him as she cried it, her voice rough and hoarse.
His breath rushed out in a gasp as his own release finally found him, her name half a prayer and half a groan on his lips as his back bowed, liquid heat exploding inside her body. Thorin's hands tightened convulsively on her body, and his teeth sank into the juncture between her neck and shoulder as he groaned, causing a broken whimper to fly past her mouth at the pleasure-pain. He gasped, catching himself just before he could collapse on top of her and crush her under his weight, lowering himself next to her.
He carefully pulled out of her, slow enough to coax a moan from her as his length dragged along her sore muscles on the way out. He caught her hips and drew her in for one last, soft kiss before spinning her around and pulling her towards him, her back curving against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her, the warm blankets settling over them both, their legs entwined. He radiated heat like a furnace, thawing her from the inside out.
An overwhelming wave of exhaustion rolled over her. Suddenly she could scarcely keep her eyes open, surrounded by Thorin's warmth and arms and feeling his lips just touching her neck, and with a slightly pronounced twinge between her legs. She moved closer in the circle of his arms, feeling the cold metal clasp of one of his braids resting on the curve of her shoulder.
She was changed now; with Kili it had been soft caresses and tender eyes, but this... this was different, intimate and powerful, rough and agonizingly pleasurable, filling her with sensation. Now she knew why people spoke of passion like fire; she had felt as if the heat of what they shared had set them ablaze, lighting them like sparks blowing on a dry wind.
"Go to sleep, Tauriel," Thorin whispered, and she closed her eyes and rested her head back against him, allowing the darkness to gather her in its arms and carry her away.

She was aware of heat and softness, of scented darkness and skin on skin when she woke. It was still dark, and there was a presence behind her, one that radiated heat. It took her a moment to realize that it was Thorin, and another moment to realize why she had woken.
He was moving, his arms twisting around her body and pulling her flush against him. She still wasn't quite awake, darkness shrouding her vision, as his hands moved down to grip her hips with bruising strength. Her eyes were closed, and she hovered in the delicate balance between dream and reality, even as she felt him pull her closer still.
Her hands moved of their own accord, resting atop his where they were wrapped around her. He whispered something in Khuzdul, his rough, deep voice made even rougher and deeper by the clinging tendrils of sleep as he slowly moved up, a muscled leg hooking over her waist. She frowned, eyes still closed, wondering what he was doing—
Her lungs filled in a gasp, so rapidly that it hurt, as, without warning, he eased into her, the now-familiar sharp, sweet pain of the stretch shooting through her. He filled her slowly, freeing a purr from her throat when he moved forward till he could go no further. It was tighter this time, with her legs so close together, but she didn't mind; her whole body felt like a live wire, thrumming with sensation.
Her head fell back as he began to move, slowly, languidly, deeply, and her mind was still heavy with sleep, dulling the pain. He tilted her hips upwards slightly, and the shift in position caused him to reach a spot inside her that magnified the sensation tenfold, making her eyes fly open and his name drag itself from her throat on a moan.
He began moving faster, harder, and with each thrust he went deeper and deeper, until she felt stretched beyond bearing, filled completely. When he pulled her against him and she tightened slightly around him, drawing him forward even more, she nearly screamed aloud. He moved her hips up again, and the feeling of his hands and his teeth grazing her bare shoulder and the absolute pleasure of it really did make her scream, a long, drawn-out sound that didn't sound like her.
She gritted her teeth to hold back another cry, but then he scraped against that sensitive area inside her and despite her attempts to stop it, another scream exploded from her lips, long and broken. Pain had never felt so good, so delicious.
She shut her eyes as her heartbeat sped up, her chest sawing up and down. Her insides were clenching around him, she could feel her release drawing near—
Her eyes opened again suddenly when he slowed, his hands loosening their hold on her as he stopped moving entirely, causing her release to slide away. She gasped for breath.
Before she could even begin to wonder what he was trying to do he began again, thrusting into her slowly. Her fingers were clawing at his arms, her back arching desperately into him in a mute plea to go faster, to take her then and there, to make her moan his name—
She gasped in surprise when one of his hands fisted into her hair, the other gripping her waist as he shifted their positions, flipping her neatly under him so that he was hovering above her, her back to him as he continued the excruciatingly slow onslaught.
"Please," she moaned, her voice slurred with sleep and desire. She would break apart in shards if he went on at this pace; her body was craving release. "Please—"
His breath was hot on her bare back. "You want me to go faster?" he whispered, his voice near-subsonic. She gripped the sheets with her fingers, her shallow breaths coming hard and fast.
"Yes," she gasped.
He slowed even more, making her sob out a breath. "Yes," he growled, "what?"
She cried out as he stopped moving altogether, her muscles tightening around him alarmingly. She swallowed, her voice coming out as a breathy whisper when she spoke.
"My king," she moaned, writhing beneath him. "Yes, my king."
It was as if a dam burst open; his grip on her tightened suddenly, and he pushed into her so fast she saw stars before her eyes. He leaned over her, and she felt slow waves of heat travel through her body, intensified even more by the sound of his voice, purring filthy things into her ear as his lips grazed her skin.
She came apart under his hands, so quickly that all the breath was stolen from her lungs. Her whole body was wracked with shudders, her release crashing over her as everything went white around her. She felt herself close up around him inside her, so brutally that he gasped, his hands clutching at her waist as he reached his zenith, and his groan was the most perfectly male sound she had ever heard.
He carefully pulled out, rolling under her as he did so that she was draped across him, her loose limbs spread across his body. They were both panting.
He murmured, kissing her neck softly. Her toes curled, and she closed her eyes as he peppered her throat with gentle nips and licks, softening her rigid muscles, making her relax into his embrace. His hands loosely encircled her waist, pulling her towards him until they lay side by side, their legs tangled together.
She closed her eyes, allowing everything to fall away, and the last thing she heard before she slid away into dreams was the clock on the mantel striking one.

Light.
It was the first thing she was conscious of, bright, harsh stabbing rays of light piercing through her eyelids and lighting the insides of her eyes to bright pink.
She opened them slowly, groggily, her mind blissfully blank. As her tired eyes adjusted to the light, she slowly located the source, blinking in the illumination.
A skylight. Slanting into the ceiling and letting in a slice of weak winter sunlight. Through it she could make out a white sky, and snow was falling, dusting the glass with cottony flakes. She frowned suddenly. There was no skylight in her room. Then where...
It was only then that she realized she was cocooned in warmth, surrounded by soft heat. There was someone behind her, someone whose skin was hot as a furnace, skin that was pressing against hers. Everywhere.
Thorin.
She stilled. Thorin was behind her, his arms circling her, a hand pressed possessively to her abdomen, just below her breasts. Her heart began to pound, and her eyes flicked around, panic gripping at her. The memory of the previous night crashed into her mind, brutal in its intensity; Balin had come to her, telling her that the king had closed off the one route trade could commence from; she had demanded to be taken to him, uncaring whether he wanted to see her or not; Balin had led her to the hot springs under the Mountain, where she had confronted Thorin; she had accused him of not wishing to continue trade, and then... and then...
She exhaled hard, pressing a hand to her lips. She was dreaming. She had to be. This was just one of those terrible dreams she had, and soon she would wake up and it would all be fine.
As her mind grew more aware of what was around her, she felt a dull, yet pronounced twinge between her legs, radiating through her body. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, her mind whirling in chaos. No, no, it can't be, we didn't, I didn't...
She shut her eyes, allowing despair to clutch at her. She had let him do it; she had let him take her innocence—a moment regarded as nigh divine, an intimate and powerful connection of two beings, two souls. She had shied away from love for centuries, afraid that she would give her body to the wrong person, so how had she so easily succumbed to this physical desire, given her virtue to one who did not even hold her heart?
She had never felt such passion before, not even amongst her kin. There had been brief interludes, of course, faces on which her eyes lingered, but in the end they moved on. But never had she looked and not been able to look away, wish, in the recesses of her body, to keep looking, see all of him, let him see all of her. Dream about his hands, his lips, hear his voice, rich and low in her ears. Oh, she had wanted him. It was impossible to deny.
But allowing him to defile her? Allowing him to possess her?
She chewed on her lip, her heart still slamming in her chest. Guilt was trickling down her spine, turning her heart leaden. She had come as an envoy from her king—she was there to steal from Thorin, not sleep with him. No matter how much she had wanted it, no matter how much she had enjoyed it, it was wrong.
She didn't know whether to get up or not; surely Thorin would wake up? Just as the thought passed through her head, she felt his body shift behind hers, and she heard his voice in her ear.
"How long have you been awake?" he asked, his voice rumbling in his chest. She shivered but didn't reply.
He laughed, his arms twining around her as he did. She squirmed away from his touch, but he was too strong, and he pulled her even closer, their bodies moving together.
"In denial, are we?" She gasped as she felt his lips on the back of her neck, and her toes curled. He murmured as his lips moved along her back to her shoulder. She let her eyes fall shut, and wrenched herself away from him. His arms leashed her ever tighter, and she cried out as his fingers dug into her waist, already bruised from his grip the previous night.
"Hush," he commanded. Against her will her body stilled, obeying what was unmistakably an order. She bit her lip hard, feeling guilt like a vise choking her.
His hands ghosted along the bruises, featherlight touches that soothed the pain. She shut her eyes, wondering how all this had happened—she knew restraint, and yet it had deserted her the previous night.
"Let me go," she whispered. Her voice sounded small and weak to her own ears.
"And why, pray tell, should I do so?" His grip didn't tighten, but he didn't unhand her either. She placed her hands atop his and shoved downwards, spinning so that she faced him.
"What happened?" she asked, her lower lip trembling. No, said a firm voice in her head. You will not let him see you cry.
His eyes narrowed. "I think you know what happened better than I."
She took in a shaky breath. "I don't know why—"
"No." His sharp voice cut through her stutters, silencing her instantly. "You said the same thing the last time—that you didn't know why. What is it, exactly, that you didn't know?" He seemed outwardly calm, but she knew how volatile he could be. "Were you not aware of what you were doing? Were you unaware of why you were doing it?" He folded his arms, frowning at her. "Do enlighten me."
She swallowed hard, looking away from him. There was a warm aura around him, lingering tendrils of sleep still clinging to his skin, gilding him in soft light.
"I just don't understand," she said finally, "how I..."
"Lost control?" There was no pity in his voice. Her eyes skipped to his again.
"How I let you take it," she whispered.
His eyes were like diamonds cutting her open, leaving her to bleed alone, no emotion in them at all. "You said you wanted it."
From the moment I saw you. She said nothing.
He sighed, moving. She tensed, but he only sat up, displaying his tanned, scarred skin to her eyes, which she averted immediately. He stood up, moving to another chamber branching off from the main one, not bothering to clothe himself. She sat up, pulling she sheets around her body and drawing her knees up. She winced; her insides felt bruised.
She heard the clinking of glass, but couldn't see what he was doing. She allowed her mind to race, feeling her heartbeat respond in kind. What have I done?
He emerged, and thankfully he had dressed somewhat, albeit only in a pair of trousers, holding a smoking goblet, which he wordlessly offered to her.
She gazed back at him, frowning. He grimaced slightly with impatience, gesturing for her to take it. She did, carefully avoiding touching him as she did.
"What is this?"
He leaned back against the wall, raising a dark brow. "A necessary precaution. In case you..." He shrugged, and she shook her head, at a loss. "In case I what?"
He sighed, passing a hand over his face. His lips twitched into a small smile. "In case you conceive," he clarified, folding his arms across his chest.
Heat suffused her cheeks and she looked away, still clutching the blankets around herself. Whether it was shame or embarrassment or humiliation, she didn't know.
"I suggest you drink it quickly," he said, faint impatience coloring his voice. "Otherwise it may not have the desired effect."
The goblet trembled slightly in her hand. She quickly raised it to her lips and drank, swallowing the golden liquid inside. It was strong and faintly acerbic, trailing a burning path down her throat. She nearly choked, eyes stinging. She coughed and pressed a hand to her lips, breathing deeply to avoid choking.
A moment later he plucked the goblet from her numb fingers and set it smoothly on the table by the bed, then sat down, frowning. They simply looked at each other for a few moments.
"What now?" Thorin asked, not without amusement. "Now that we have obliged each other, do we return to being formal acquaintances?"
Her lips twisted. "Obliged each other?" The derisive words slipped out without her permission. She looked away, face burning in what could only be shame. "I never..."
His hand came up, fingers going under her chin and tilting her face towards his, forcing her to look directly at him. She fought the urge to glance away.
"Never what? Wanted anyone like this before?" His eyes had softened, and so had his voice. A slow shiver crawled up her spine.
She shook her head, and suddenly she couldn't look away, her eyes drawn irresistibly to his, drowning in those enigmatic pools of rich, vivid blue. So lost was she in his gaze that she didn't even feel it when he slowly framed her face between his warm palms and leaned in, and then those eyes were all she could see, vibrant blue filling her vision—
He was kissing her softly, gently, sweetly, lips moving against hers unhurriedly. It was slow, thorough, and exquisite, lightening her body until she felt weightless.
"I—," she said breathlessly between kisses, "I never thought you would want me that way, I—"
He cut her off with another kiss, his thumb stroking gently over her cheek. His lips caressed hers reverently, as if to memorize the feel of her, the taste of her. He drew back, just enough for their lips to barely touch.
"Always," he murmured, and there was desire there, in his eyes, in his voice. She leaned in this time, capturing his lips with hers, freeing a sensuous purr from his throat. Belatedly she realized that her hands were still holding the sheets around her body, and what was she doing, why wasn't she tearing it apart, feeling that hard, muscled body against her own, tasting him again—
She tore herself away from him, gasping. His eyes were unfocused, shimmering like distilled sin, beckoning her closer. She scrambled backwards, pressing the sheet to herself protectively, her mind spinning around in dizzying circles.
"We can't." The words tumbled from her lips. "We shouldn't."
He was still sitting, lips swollen from her attentions. He shook his head; he was beginning to look angry.
"I do not understand," he said. "You kiss me as if you are drowning, then you push me away as though you are burning. Last night—"
"I don't want to talk about last night," she choked out. "Please."
"Because we made love? It cannot be so uncommon that you treat it in such a manner."
Her cheeks burned as he said it. "No," she said. "It isn't only—"
"Then what—"
"Because I have never—not in all my life—been with a male," she said, her voice like a shard of glass. "I have never lain with another for nigh on a thousand years. Last night, you," her voice jumped, "you... you took my virtue. My innocence. I had waited... centuries, to find someone to give my heart to, and along with my heart I would give my whole being to them. And—"
She broke off, turning away bitterly. "It is something sacred to our people, an act of true love. It consummates a soul-bond between two individuals. But now I—"
"Do not speak of it as if you had no part in it," he said, and there was frost in his voice. "If you had told me to stop I would have. I asked you and you said—"
"I know what I said," she said sharply. She took a shuddering breath, pulling the sheets up more. "I let you, and it's my fault. More than it is yours."
"And again," he said, brows drawing together, "you speak of it as if it was something terrible, something you wish you could take back. Something you cannot go back from."
Against her will her eyes began to sting. "Isn't it?"
"Is that how elves think of it?" He turned towards her, frowning. "We do not see it as the sealing of a bond. We simply see it as it is; it may be a connection, but we regard that connection as purely physical. Simply because I possessed you last night does not give me the right to possess you forever."
Her head swam. "But I thought..."
"You thought wrong," he said shortly.
Silence.
She took a deep breath, mastering herself. She stared down at her hands clenched on the sheets, and bit her lip. Finally, after what felt like an age, she lifted her face and looked at the king.
"I would like to leave now," she said softly.
His eyes hardened, but he inclined his head. Formal. Distant. "Very well," he said. His tone betrayed nothing. He stood, going over to the door. He stooped, and she saw him pick something up. He walked back to her and stiffly offered her what he was holding. It was the robe he had given her the previous night. She took it, and waited.
He simply leaned against the wall, a brow raised. "Well? Aren't you going to wear it?"
She cleared her throat. "I will. But—"
He appeared to realize why she was hesitating, and sighed. "I would not worry," he said. "I think I have seen all there is to see already."
Her cheeks flushed, and her anger overrode her embarrassment. She shot him a glare, then swung her legs over the side of the bed, letting the sheets pool at her feet before standing and yanking the robe on. To his credit, his gaze didn't leave her face, staying stubbornly on her eyes as the air chilled her bare skin for half a moment before the robe covered it.
They looked at each other a long moment.
Tauriel cleared her throat. "Your Majesty," she said, relieved to notice her voice didn't shake or tremble. She sounded remote and distant and cold.
He nodded to her, saying nothing, and they walked to the door. She felt a sort of finality as they did, as if she knew in her heart that this first time would be their last. As if that flame between them had burned so bright that it died the moment it was sated. As if she knew it hadn't meant to last.
She felt her lower lip tremble as he opened the door, and she stepped out, eyes welling. She turned to look at him one last time, and she saw her own feelings mirrored in his eyes for one fleeting moment.
"Tauriel," he said softly, and there were promises in his voice, promises of sleepless nights and fire and passion, promises of pleasure and sin, promises of him, to be his.
But maybe his was something she no longer wanted to be.
"Thorin," she whispered, and a single tear escaped her eye and slid down her cheek. She shook her head.
His eyes, vivid and blue and full of what could only be regret, were the last thing she saw before the door fell shut between them.

The water had long since gone cold, but she didn't care. Her soaked hair hung down her back like a weight, but she didn't care about that, either. The tears had dried on her cheeks, tracks of salt trailing down her face, fringing her lashes, rendering her vision slightly blurred.
She was sitting in the bath, the water coming till her shoulders. It was well after breakfast, but she made no move to get up. She didn't want to get up ever again.
It was torture, to sit there alone with nothing but the thoughts, the memories, to keep her company. When she had come to the Lonely Mountain she had not foreseen this. Never this. Of course she wouldn't have foreseen it. Nobody could have.
She shifted slightly, the movement making a small dart of pain emanate from the apex of her thighs. She winced, shifting again. Her whole body was aching, and to make matters worse, it wasn't an entirely uncomfortable pain.
She had gasped aloud upon looking at herself in the mirror; there were dark, finger-shaped bruises on her hips and ribs, standing out vividly on her pale skin. A deep cut on her lip was livid and stinging, and her wrists were bruised as well. There were small marks peppered along her throat and upper chest, the indentations of what had obviously been teeth darkening it in places.
There were crescents of red under her fingernails from where she had scored bloody gashes across his chest in a delirium of passion, and her throat was raw. And to top it off, her hair was an utter mess.
She still couldn't quite believe it. A small part of her was still expecting to wake up, realize that it was a dream, move on. But that small bit of her was rapidly being put down by reality. It had happened, it had really happened. It was done.
His scent was now laced with hers, a clear indication that he had claimed her. As hers would linger with him now. It would fade, of course, with time, but would the memories?
She thought of Kili suddenly, and his dark earnest eyes, how they softened when he laughed and seemed to sparkle like gems. Her heart ached. Nothing would ever be the same again.
I can come back from this, she told herself. I will.
He had regarded it as something casual, something passionate and wild, but in the end he had ravished her for the sake of pleasure alone. Not for any sort of emotional advance. She had submitted, but there had been no feeling behind it, no rational thought; just lambent desire that had exploded into an inferno the moment it was fueled.
She didn't love him.
She never would.
Of that she was sure. If anything should have been able to tell her that, it was this, and now she knew that her heart felt nothing. He had shown her what passion could be, had elicited pleasure from somewhere deep inside her, a part of her that had never had cause to see the light. But in the end she knew she would look for what was inside and not outside.
She rose from the water, rivulets of cold running down her body. She dried herself, drained the water and wrapped herself in a warm robe, deliberately not looking into the mirror as she left the bathroom and wearily advanced to her bed. The silken shift Thorin had given her was lying on the ground, reflecting the light of the fire. The sash was slightly torn, she noticed.
She fell backwards onto the bed, taking in and expelling a shuddering breath. Despite her hours and hours of sleep in Thorin's room, her head hit the pillow and then she was fast asleep, her breath evening and lashes fluttering in dreams. She slept deeply, her mind flitting away and carrying her home, a nostalgic sigh escaping her as she dreamed.
Deep within the Mountain, the morning bells began to ring.

Chapter Text

Fili

There was a small balcony in the library. It was quite cramped, and there was no room to sit, and barely enough to stand. It was tucked away between two shelves, an unassuming little thing. As far as he knew, nobody else but him knew of its existence.
Which was why he always went there.
For one thing, it offered a modicum of privacy. The air here blew off the mountainside, and as a result was cool and clear. It hung a hundred feet in the air, suspended from a small outcropping of rock on the jutting side of the Mountain.
For another thing, it offered an unobstructed view of Dale.
The city was spread out before him, sprawling and made entirely of shingled roofs, smoky chimneys and stone courtyards. He could even see the king's house, slightly bigger than the rest as it was. If he squinted, he thought he could even see small lights glowing here and there in an occupied room. Sometimes he saw moving figures in the courtyard in the middle of the palace, one more often than the others. He couldn't make anything out, but it could be anyone; after all, four people lived in that house.
He heard Kili's teasing voice in his head, saying, If I were being rude, then I'd call it stalking.
Fili knew it probably was, by all laws of semantics, stalking. It wasn't right, not proper, for him to be doing what he was doing. For him to be so concerned about the city. No, not the city. About her. It was bad.
But he just couldn't stop thinking about her. If there was one thing he liked, it was testing himself, challenging himself. Asking himself questions. Giving himself food for thought. And she had made him question himself until he was tied up in knots. She saw things that were invisible to everyone else, said things that made him think and think with such casualness, as if it were perfectly ordinary to think in a way that was, by all standards, extraordinary to him. She was intelligent, and he put nothing else higher than intelligence.
He bit his lip. It was getting harder and harder to be careful; Kili had caught him—a moment which he now ranked as one of the top most embarrassing moments of his life—so it wouldn't be long before Thorin caught him, too.
My intentions are strictly honorable, he thought stubbornly. I'm only concerned for her welfare. She has a hard life, being a princess, an elder sister and a daughter all at once. But maybe what truly drew him to her was something much simpler than her mind. What he'd felt when she turned her nose up at him and told him she didn't need anyone was empathy. Didn't he know how it was to be an heir, a sibling, and a nephew? Didn't he understand on a deeper level what she was going through?
He caught his breath as he saw a dark shape rise into the air from the courtyard and flap towards the Mountain. He held out an arm and the raven settled onto it, clacking its beak. It preened its glossy feathers a moment, then let out a deafening caw.
He scowled. "Shh," he hissed. "Do you want to get me in trouble?"
It squawked, blinking at him. Then it bobbed its head in an unmistakable sign. You worry for nothing.
He shook his arm slightly, and the raven swayed, nearly falling off. It righted itself with another derisive squawk.
"Nothing?" he asked, a tad desperately. "She's all right?"
It bobbed its head again, flapping its wings. He sighed. "Good. Go now, and same time tomorrow as well."
It gazed at him expectantly. He felt his lips curl up into a half-smile, then reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of meat. He flung it over the side of the balcony, throwing it far.
He felt the talons on his arm contract sharply, likely drawing blood—then the raven launched itself into the air and dove after the falling piece of meat. It disappeared from view as it dived, wings tucked against its streamlined body, then rose into his line of sight, the meat caught between its beak. It twittered happily, then flapped off to the other side of the Mountain.
Fili drew up his sleeve, inspecting his arm. Six dark lines—bruises—marred his upper forearm. He made a face, shaking his sleeve down. It would heal over by the next day.
"Ridiculous thing," he muttered fondly to himself. Then he turned and left the balcony.
He looked right, then left, then quickly shut the door behind him, watching it blend neatly with the surrounding wall. Whoever had built it had obviously meant for it to be unused, but he didn't mind. As long as it looked out over the valley.
He was leaving the library when he met with an unexpected obstacle. Kili was sitting at his usual table, an impressive number of books spread out before him. He was reading with his cheek pillowed on his hand, lips slightly parted.
Not wanting to disturb him (and knowing how much Kili hated to be interrupted while reading), Fili made to slide away without being noticed. He was just about to turn the corner when he heard Kili say, "Very subtle, Fili. You could've just walked by like any normal person would have."
Fili turned with a scowl. "Any normal person wouldn't know how you react to being interrupted."
Kili looked up at him, cheek still pillowed by his palm. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that last time I said something to you when you were reading you chucked a lamp at my head."
Kili snorted. "That was once."
"You're right. Before that you threw a goblet."
"It was—"
"And the time before that it was a vase."
"Fine, I don't like to be disturbed." He grinned. "But I'm not in the mood to throw anything at you today."
Fili sat down across from his brother. "What's brought about this change in heart?"
Kili shrugged, gazing into space. He was biting the inside of his lip, like he usually did when he was preoccupied. His mind quickly drew the invisible lines, linking the most possible events together.
"Something happened between you and your elven lady," he deduced finally. Kili turned surprised brown eyes to him and he knew he was right. "Aha. What happened?"
Was Kili—blushing? He narrowed his eyes.
"Nothing," muttered Kili. "It's none of your business."
Fili rolled his eyes. "Of course it isn't. That's why I want to know."
Kili flushed again. "Oh, sod off," he said. "Don't you have a princess to spy on?"
Fili ignored the jab. "Go on, tell me. I won't bite."
Kili shrugged. "Nothing, just—we shot together, is all. We had a bit of a competition."
Fili's eyes skipped to the bandages around Kili's arm. Oh, he thought.
"Who won?"
Kili smiled. "It was a draw. She shoots so well, I'd never seen anything like it before. She's got this way of moving, you know? Like she's made of water or starlight."
Fili normally would have been teasing him about the last part, would've been grinning and telling him how infatuated he sounded. Kili would have batted him away and they'd have shared a good laugh.
But now...
He'd seen, lately, how tense things had become between the elven ambassador and Thorin. Ever since she'd healed him and he'd walked in and seen the bloody handprint on his uncle's chest—her handprint, he was sure of it—and how her nightgown had been torn at the neck, and that mark he could see on her jaw, and the way she was gasping for breath... all the evidence pointed to something he didn't want to be true.
And the way he'd looked at her the other morning, the way she'd looked at him, how tense it'd been... He was afraid for her, even though he didn't know her; he knew how Thorin was. Once he set his eyes on something, he would get it. No matter what. And if his eyes had been on her more often than not lately...
"You need to be careful," Fili said haltingly. "She isn't staying here forever, and she's..."
"An elf? Come on, that's being a hypocrite." Kili scowled.
"Not that she's an elf. It's that she's..." She's caught Thorin's eye. And he's caught hers. And something's happening between them, and it's bad.
"She's going to leave soon," he said instead. "I just don't want you to give yourself to her when you may never see her again."
Kili leaned back with a sigh. "Thorin'll take a good long while to make his decision," he said casually, waving a hand. "I daresay she'll be here at least a year."
Fili swallowed. "That's still not too much time."
"Oh, come off it," snapped Kili. "It's not like I've asked her to marry me or something, I've never even kissed the woman. Honestly, we just went to the training room and practiced together."
Fili shrugged. "Maybe. But still."
Kili muttered somethings derisive under his breath about overprotective older brothers and picked up his book. "Now go away before I throw this chair at you."
Fili snorted, but stood, thwacking Kili on the head before he left. Another storm of muttering reached his ears as he left the library and closed the door behind him.

There was nobody at lunch.
Fili was more than a little irritated; he didn't like eating alone, despite not speaking at meals, but he expected at least his brother to be there. But there was nobody there. Not a soul. Fili still ate, deciding not to care about the long, empty table. After a while he relaxed a bit, allowing his mind to wander.
Until Tauriel walked in.
He blinked, surprised. She was the last person he'd expected to turn up. And yet she was there, quietly sitting down across from him and folding her hands on the table. She didn't move to eat at all, simply stared at the wood. He studied her out of the corner of his eye.
Pale and wan, there were dark circles under her eyes and a certain lack of luster to her hair. The neck of her tunic did little to hide the scattered marks on her throat and collarbone, and there were bruises on her fingers. Her lips were cut in more than one place, and she was holding herself with a certain hesitance, as if she were bruised not only on her fingers and neck. She looked tired as he had never seen an elf look before.
He swallowed. There were a hundred different reasons his mind presented to him, why she could look like this. Only a handful were plausible. Only two out of that handful were likely. And only one of the two was what had happened, and he was beginning to guess.
"My lady," he said in a questioning tone, and she jumped, looking at him. He cleared his throat. "Do eat something. You look quite tired."
She bit her lip, then quickly stopped as her teeth grazed the numerous lacerations on them. "I—it's nothing." She quickly pulled a plate towards her and quietly began to eat.
"Do you know where Thorin is?" he asked cautiously. He hoped against hope that what he'd decided was what had happened was wrong.
She swallowed, her cheeks flushing when he said his name. "In his room, I expect."
"Did you speak to him of the river?" He kept his tone polite, slowly working his way to the real question. Her lashes fluttered.
"Yes," she said quietly, and he caught his breath. "Did he—"
"We did not come to an agreement," she said. She almost sounded afraid. "It—" She broke off. Her hand went unconsciously to the numerous marks on her throat. In a flash, his theory was confirmed. Oh.
"Tauriel," he said, and she looked up in surprise, as if she didn't expect him to call her by her name. Of course she didn't expect him to; he was a prince and she was a royal ambassador, he wasn't to call her by her given name. It wasn't proper, but he needed to know, to warn her—
"What happened?" He made his tone as calm, as soothing as possible whilst also making sure it sounded like she couldn't abstain.
"I—nothing." She wasn't looking at him. "Nothing happened—"
"My lady, please." It sounded imploring. "I'm not entirely oblivious to what is right in front of me. You know I saw more than I was intended to that night you healed the king."
She flinched. He had never seen an elf flinch before. "Please," she whispered. "Don't—"
"I'm not going to do anything to you," he said, employing the tone he adopted whenever calming a particularly hysterical pony or ram. "I know my uncle. I'm simply worried."
She swallowed. "It—it was... I went to him, to ask him to reopen the floodgates." She turned away. "I—he..."
He remembered the first time he'd seen her, with dark, finger-shaped bruises all over her face, knowing it was Thorin who'd marked her, knew how much he enjoyed being in power, knowing that the bruises he'd given her would stay on her for days. How he'd seen her with that red mark on her neck and her bloody handprint on his chest and knowing it was his teeth that had left that mark on her, just as he now knew that all those scattered little bites on her throat were made by Thorin, too. Just as the bruises on her body probably were as well.
A sudden nameless fear gripped him. He shook his head, feeling his eyes widen and his face blanch. "He... he didn't..."
She swallowed again. "He didn't," she whispered. Then she looked away, her eyes shimmering with unshed tears. Her hands were gripping the wood of the table with such force he thought her nails would break. Finally she raised her head and looked at him.
"I let him."
His breath caught. "You—what?"
Her lower lip was trembling. "I went to negotiate with him," she whispered. "He told me that he was the king and that I was to obey him no matter what. He... I... I couldn't—"
Couldn't resist.
So he'd been right. He'd seen how she looked at him when she thought nobody was watching. The way he would see her pulse fluttering, how her pupils dilated. How he looked at her, predatory, consuming looks that made fear settle in his stomach. He knew how Thorin was, with women. How he could entice them, seduce them without even trying. Tauriel wasn't the first who had fallen prey to him, but...
"I don't know why I—" There were tears in her eyes. "I thought I knew better," she said finally.
"But he didn't... without your..." He shook his head again.
"No," she murmured. "It is as I said. I let him. I did not lie."
He swallowed. He'd suspected, but not to this extent. To think that Thorin had... and she had allowed him to...
"I'm sorry," he said suddenly. "I didn't mean to pry. You didn't have to tell me anything—"
"No," she said in that same quiet, firm voice. "It's all right. You would have guessed either way." She gave him a watery smile.
He shrugged, still reeling inwardly. "Perhaps."
"You see a great deal," she murmured. "I know you knew, when you came to his room that day." She didn't have to elaborate for him to know what she spoke of. "I know you saw... saw what we'd done." Her lips twisted.
He bit his lip. A sudden wave of sadness crashed over him. Kili.
"What about him?"
It took him a moment to realize he'd spoken out loud.
"Oh—nothing," he said quickly. "He told me you both shot together the other day."
He caught the barest hint of a smile. "We did. He is... very alive, your brother," she said haltingly, but with an unmissable softness.
Oh. Fili swallowed. This was quite complicated. "That he is."
She looked as if she were about to say something when the doors opened. Fili's heart skipped a beat, thinking it was Kili, but then it skipped another few beats when he saw Thorin stride into the room. Instinctively Fili's eyes cut to Tauriel.
Her face was completely blank and bloodless, her expression still and placid. Thorin caught sight of her and nearly stopped in his tracks, but appeared to force himself to keep walking. He sat down at the head of the table. It was clear that she had come here knowing he would not, and he had come here knowing she would not. Fili caught his breath.
Neither of them moved to acknowledge one another. Tauriel had her nose in the air, as usual. He admired her ability to mask her emotion. Her fingers were laced together so tightly the tips of her skin were white.
Thorin was equally as opaque. He said nothing, nor did his expression change even once. He didn't eat, but simply sat as if deep in thought. Fili slowly felt the tension ease, ebbing away. He wondered idly where Kili was. Probably with his nose in a book, he thought resentfully. Of course he had to be absent and leave Fili to deal with these things alone.
As if on cue the door opened, admitting a very rumpled-looking Kili. He sat down next to Fili, apparently oblivious to the situation. Fili silently cursed his lack of perspicacity.
After what felt to Fili like the single most awkward lunch in the history of awkward lunches, Tauriel stood, seemingly having had enough of the silence and tension. She moved stiffly towards the door, then just before she disappeared through it, she turned her head, as if she was unable to help it, her eyes falling onto Thorin.
His gaze flicked up to her for one brief, small moment, so quickly that it was almost imperceptible. Then he looked away, and Fili saw Tauriel's shoulders fall ever so slightly, and thought he saw tears on her cheeks before the door slammed.
He chanced a glance at Thorin, and his breath caught. He'd never seen Thorin look so... hollow. Bled dry. Empty. He looked like a man who'd been starving and had been given one small morsel before having had it snatched away. Like someone who'd been dying of thirst and had been allowed to drink only a drop.
Fili looked at Kili, who was, as usual, completely oblivious. Really, Fili thought scathingly, how dense could one be? Wasn't it obvious that something big had happened? It was plenty clear to his eyes.
Having had enough, he stood abruptly, muttering something about having left a book read halfway, then hurrying away, knowing where he would find her. To offer solace, he thought. He had no idea what elves thought of... physical intimacy, but if he had even a vague notion about the prospect, he would hazard a guess at their thinking of it as cherished rather than casual.
She was at the parapet, her hair rippling in the breeze. Her face was turned towards Dale, and he could see glimmering tracks tracing their way down her face. Her chest was heaving with her heavy breaths.
"I want to say I wish I could take it back," she said, and her voice was strong and carried despite the tears on her cheeks. She didn't look at him.
"Don't you want to?" he asked.
She let out a breath. "No," she whispered. "I'd never... not before him."
Oh. "Don't elves..."
"We do. It is an act of love, of bonding between two souls. It is meant to inspire love and elicit the deepest emotional bond between two beings."
He reeled momentarily. "But do you..." love him? He didn't think it was possible.
She exhaled again, her shoulders tensed. "No. No, I do not. I didn't, even when we—" she swallowed. "I felt nothing in my mind. In my body, perhaps, but not my heart."
He wondered why she had taken him into her confidence; he was a stranger. And he was Thorin's nephew. And they had never even spoken before this. Perhaps once, fleetingly. But for her to tell him this openly was... a gesture. Of what, he wasn't sure yet.
"You're not... hurt?" he asked, and she turned surprised green eyes to him. "I—no." She furrowed her coppery brows and he offered her a bit of a smile.
"Thorin wasn't known to be the most gentle lover." He tensed immediately after he said it, unsure of how she would react to the word lover, but she only smiled again, devoid of mirth or warmth.
"'Wasn't'?" she murmured. "Do you not mean 'isn't'?
He shrugged. "Back when he was Crown Prince, he was expected to court a noblewoman, some wealthy dwarrowdam or merchant's daughter or whoever it is you're meant to marry."
He sighed. "He wasn't too good with romance. He never wanted anyone forever, only... for a brief period of time."
She raised a brow at him and he cleared his throat. "Every night it was a different woman. He tried, I suppose, but marriage simply didn't appeal to him. He said he grew bored eventually, and they let it rest. Then the king died, then his son, then it was too late to find a queen."
He coughed again, and she tilted her head, her hair catching the buttery light and glowing a mellow wine red.
"You needn't worry," she said in her high, musical voice. "He was quite gentle."
Fili squirmed a bit and she smiled.
"I rather thought you would be comfortable discussing such matters," she said, and there was a faint sliver of teasing in her voice. "You are a dwarf, after all."
"I'm afraid I'm the very worst person to speak to of this," he said. "Kili always tells me my mannerisms echo those of the previous century."
Her smile widened. "I would say three centuries."
He cracked a smile. "Ah, well. I can hardly do anything about it."
"And yet you are the Crown Prince." She was frowning now. "Will you not find a queen?"
His mind irresistibly dragged him towards thoughts of Sigrid. "I don't know."
He tried not to look at Dale, but she caught it nonetheless. "Crown Prince you may be, and yet you look to Dale not as a victory but as a mistake."
He felt his jaw clench. "On whose part?"
"You know that better than I."
There was silence for a few moments.
"There is something there, in Dale, that draws you to it like a moth to a flame," she said quietly. She studied him, and he felt very vulnerable under her scrutiny.
"Not something," she concluded, "someone. Her eyes gleamed shrewdly and he swallowed. Alarm bells were ringing in his mind, and he moved back a step.
Her eyes narrowed fractionally, and her hands tightened slightly on the rail. She saw more than he wished for her to, and she knew it. Just as he saw more than she wished to, and he knew it.
He thought suddenly and randomly of Sigrid, accompanied by an alarming bout of yearning. He struggled to eliminate it, subdued it, but was not entirely successful. His eyes flicked to the lights of Dale.
"Go," Tauriel said softly. "I will make an excuse for you."
His eyes darted to her. "I can't. I can't ask you to—"
"You did not ask me. I asked you. Now go. Should you hurry you will be back by evening's arrival."
He balked, and she sighed with a humorless half-smile. "Sometimes," she said softly, "you must obey your heart rather than your mind."
He swallowed, and she folded her arms. "Time to choose, Princeling," she said, and there was fire in her eyes. He could suddenly see what had drawn Kili and even Thorin to her; she was like a spirit of fire, exuding recklessness, grace and elegance in an odd concoction that set her apart from the rest of the world. She raised a brow at him, a smirk tilting her full lips.
"Which will it be?" she asked.

Dale was blanketed in a fine sheen of snow. It powdered the shingle of the roofs and dusted the stone paved roads. Kili always compared it to a gingerbread house, and Fili thought it was a rather apt analogy. With the caramel-colored stones glowing in the weak afternoon sunshine and the brightly colored sashes and decorations hanging from the balconies and the snow drifting around it all really made it look like a gingerbread house.
He had no idea where to look for her; he'd sent the raven to the city before him, and it hadn't yet returned. He'd been looking for the damn thing for the last fifteen minutes.
He edged closer to the king's house, which had no gate, no guards, no elaborate edifice adorning it; just a plain wooden door and pillars on either side. It was homely and warm-looking, and he thought of Erebor's massive gates and the imposingly huge stone statues flanking them, and suppressed a shiver.
He jumped as a black shape came flapping out of nowhere, cawing loudly. Backing into a dark alcove, he allowed the bird to flap in after him. He automatically held out an arm and it settled itself onto him, quieting. He squinted at it.
"Well?"
It cawed again. He narrowed his eyes, trying to deduce what it was saying. "She... scared you away?"
It squawked, flapping its wings. "You tried to watch her and she scared you away. You'd tried once before and she... dropped a star? What in Durin's name are you blathering about?" He blinked, flummoxed.
It cheeped. "All right," he said. "Go back to the Mountain now, I'll see you tomorrow. And for Mahal's sake, stop driveling nonsense. Go on, away with you." He shook his arm and it flew off making sure to buffet his face with its wings before it vanished.
Swearing colorfully under his breath, he massaged his arm. The raven was the only thing he could do, albeit being the silliest creature on the planet. It couldn't even watch someone properly.
He ducked out of the alcove, still muttering obscenities. He stomped back up the street, encountering no one. Maybe this was a stupid idea. Maybe there was no point in coming back here. Maybe he should just forget about Sigrid and—
He collided with something very solid and stumbled backwards, reeling. He'd been so submerged into his thoughts that he hadn't been looking where he was going.
"I—I beg your pardon," said a flustered voice. "I didn't have my eyes on the street—"
He swallowed, wondering if this was fate, chance or Mahal deciding that his luck was so abysmal that He'd graced him with a bit of fortune.
"Sorry," he told Sigrid. "Nor was I."
Her eyes were wide. "What are you doing here?"
I was looking for you. "I—"
"What were you thinking, coming here in broad daylight?" she hissed. "I thought you had brains, but apparently I was mistaken."
Without further ado, she grabbed his arm and steered him forcefully into another shadowy alcove lining the street, this one larger than the last. Once she'd shoved him inside, she put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
"I'm sorry," he said automatically. "I didn't mean—"
"Spare me." She was observing him with a narrow gaze. "Why did you come here?"
He swallowed. Forthcoming was the only card he had left to play.
"I came here looking for you."
Her lashes fluttered. "Why?"
He shrugged. "The same reason as last time."
Her lips tilted upwards in the ghost of a smile. "Should I expect you here often, then?"
It startled a laugh out of him. "I should think so."
She leaned against the stone wall of the alcove and folded her arms across her chest. She might have been blushing, but it was too dim to properly make out.
"What's wrong?" she asked. "Is it because of the missive my father sent the king? He has no right to deny us, he himself knows that."
"It's not that." Why had he come here? He searched himself, but even he didn't know. Perhaps he just wanted to see a familiar face that wasn't Thorin or Kili.
"I just—I don't know why I came here." He rubbed a hand across his eyes.
Her face softened ever so slightly. "I understand that you've been locked away in the Mountain for so long. Even you need a breath of fresh air once in a while."
"It's not that, either." He sighed. "I'm hopeless, aren't I?"
"Come now, don't be like that," she said, sounding amused. "I mean, you are hopeless, but I suppose all of us are in some way or the other, aren't we?"
He huffed out a laugh. "Maybe."
"If my brother or father finds us here, I won't live to see the morrow," she said, glancing out at the street with apprehension.
"Why not—oh," he said gruffly after a second. "Because of me."
"What? Oh. Yes, I suppose—but not only that. I was meant to make dinner tonight. Bain'll have to manage without me." She sighed with a tired smile. "Family duties call."
"I can't say I understand," he said before he could stop it. It was true, though; domestic duties to him were an alien prospect.
"No, I don't suppose you do. It's a bit unfortunate," she said. "Having to be a prince all day and not being able to be a son—a nephew," she corrected, catching herself. "You don't spend time with your uncle, then?" Before he could open his mouth she cut across him.
"You know what, refrain from answering that." She smiled. It looked like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, soft rays turning to brutal gold and gilding the sky in soft light.
Before he could help it he smiled back. Their eyes met and held and the moment stretched on for forever and ever, the whole world narrowing down to just that one moment.
Sigrid looked away first, her cheeks flushing unmistakably even in the dimness. Her lip caught in her teeth and she swallowed. He felt his own cheeks grow warm.
"I presumed too much, coming here, I think," he said, swallowing. Her eyes darted to his again.
"Not at all," she said. "I—it isn't as if I do not enjoy your company." She blushed a deep red after she said it. "I apologize if I made it seem that way."
He moved forward, almost against his volition, both his hands coming to rest on top of hers. Her eyes gazed into his, intense and burning, but she didn't remove his hands from hers.
"You didn't," he said. "I know how it must be for you, balancing so many identities; you have to be princess Sigrid of Dale for one bit of the day, then Sigrid the responsible older sister for another bit, then Sigrid the obedient daughter for another. When are you truly yourself and not what others need you to be, what others want to see?"
He caught himself, wondering when he'd gotten so presumptuous as to address both himself and her at once. He wondered if he'd said too much.
But no—the burning look in her eyes had faded, replaced by another expression he couldn't identify, softening. Her shoulders seemed to relax, and he hadn't even noticed that they were tensed. Her hands gripped his back, her slim fingers threading through his.
"So there is another, then," she whispered. "It's not only me."
He shook his head, moving closer slightly. "It's never only you," he said. "Your family stands behind you, and your city."
There was a quiet fire in her eyes, banked and lambent rather than churning and blazing like Tauriel's was. This fire was more inviting, promising warmth and laughter and not danger and exoticism.
"And where do you stand?" she asked quietly.
"I stand beside you, should you allow it."
Her breath caught, and there was a vast ocean of vulnerability in her eyes suddenly. Her expression was stripped bare, fully visible. Slowly, she smiled. If her earlier smile had been the sun from behind a cloud, this was a star going supernova. She seemed to fill with light, and radiate it and emit it, eliciting warmth somewhere in his chest, where once, all had been dark.
"I'll allow it," she said.

I'm not sure what exactly I had been looking for, going there, but I know that I found it, he had told Kili. He felt the same way now. Something seemed to have eased from his chest, a burden he didn't even know he'd been carrying. As he sat in his room, gazing at the fire he looked inside himself, introspecting, as his mother would have said with a wink. Mahal, he missed her; more and more every day. She would have encouraged him to seek Sigrid out, he was sure. She had told to follow their hearts, and while Kili had taken that advice in all accounts, Fili had always been the warier brother, less willing to experiment and more willing to be cautious.
"One of you must take after your father, at least," Dis had said. "I see so much of him in you."
He'd never known his father, but the comparison had pleased him nonetheless. The fire crackled merrily, making him jump slightly. He still didn't know how he felt about Sigrid; he knew she held him at arm's length, and that her family didn't trust him, but he still wished for her company.
Idly he wondered what Thorin would do if he found out.
Then he even more idly realized he didn't care.
When did I grow so reckless? he thought. Usually he would be in paroxysms of reluctance, but his faint truculence surprised him more than anyone else. He knew it was dangerous for him to be meeting her, but who was he to deny how much he'd enjoyed what little conversation they shared? It was hardly his fault, he thought stubbornly.
As for Kili... he knew that he fancied Tauriel, and would have been encouraging of it, but now, when so much had happened... he knew he ought to warn Kili, but how could he disclose Tauriel's secrets for her? It was her truth to tell, not his. And it was clear to him after speaking with her that she would not go to Thorin again. Whatever had happened between them was brief, as far as he could tell. Torrid, but brief. And it would not happen again. Of that he was sure.
He sighed, running his fingers through his tangled hair. When had all this become so complicated? Why couldn't things be simpler? There was too much to deal with at once, all piled one on top of the other. If one thing fell, everything would go to hell—it was all pretty much hell anyhow, but semantics, he thought indifferently.
But he knew that even though it may be impossible, even though he may not be able to do it, he had to save Dale. He would see their fates restored, no matter what the cost. Even if that cost was his life. He had to.
Thorin hadn't noticed him leave or come back, he thought as he lay on his bed trying to sleep. So Tauriel had made that excuse for him. He owed her now, no matter how small the debt. He wondered if he'd be able to go again the next day. Probably not, but... he would try. Even if he only got a moment there, to speak with her, to be with her.
Because to him, that one moment would mean everything.

Chapter Text

Thorin

He exhaled, freeing a long trail of smoke from his lips that painted the air in front of him gray. It spiraled through the air, spreading more of the heady, smoky scent around the room, which was already clouded slightly. Closing his eyes, he leaned back, placing the pipe at his lips and inhaling deeply, feeling the smoke as it curled hotly in his lungs. He held it a moment, feeling the not-so-unpleasant burn of it, then parted his lips, letting it escape slowly. It curled in his mouth, tendrils of gray-white hovering around his lips.
He never usually smoked, preferring not to fill his lungs with it. But that day he found himself sitting in front of the fire with his legs crossed, watching the flames crackle away, with his pipe in his hand. The burn of the smoke in his throat was calming somehow, as was the acerbic taste of it in his mouth.
A sure sign that he was preoccupied, he thought to himself as he freed another breath, surrounding himself with the thick, headily smelling incense. Before all of it was even out of his system he drew in another deep, long draft, a pleasant, buzzing drowsiness filling his head following its descent into his lungs.
He was supposed to be sitting at his desk, doing his work, as required, as usual, as he did every day. But for the better part of the day he had been sitting here, watching the fire, simply thinking, unmoving. He was beginning to feel a bit stiff, but he hadn't moved.
He sighed, a plume of smoke pouring from his mouth. It burned coming out just as much it had going in, but he hardly felt it. He hadn't been able to feel anything all for the past day and a half. He had expected to feel angry, perhaps. Bitter, maybe. Splenetic.
But all he felt was numb.
A blank numbness, spreading behind his eyes and blotting everything else out. In a way it was a good thing; that way dwelling on the thoughts that plagued him wouldn't make him want to smash his fist into a wall. That way seeing her earlier that day had been easier that he'd anticipated, though he hadn't anticipated her being there at all.
He loosed a breath, watching as the smoke hung in the air in front of him, filling the room with its potent odor. It was strong, but not strong enough to mask the other scent that now covered everything, the scent of pine needles and fresh air.
A log in the fire cracked, a burst of sparks announcing it. He watched the fire as it slowly devoured the wood that sustained it, eating away at the ends. The heat of its flame mingled with the heat of the smoke in the air, making it almost uncomfortably hot. It would usually have him propping the skylight open, letting the cold, clear Mountain air leach inside. But he made no move to get up, only taking in another long inhale of smoke and ignoring the wave of dizziness that it brought. He hadn't eaten anything for the past day and a half, and hadn't slept, either. It probably wasn't good for him, but he didn't care.
He expelled the smoke, his vision blurring slightly as it mingled in the air, tickling his lips, hot and light. The only sound in the room was the fire crackling, and his occasional sighs as he blew smoke from his mouth. The fire flickered, another log cracking. It sounded like a cannon blast in the silence.
Ever so slowly, his eyes drifted closed, carried on by the dizziness induced by the smoke hanging all over the air, the crackling lull of the fire and the way his vision was hazing through, blurring everything into a sightless smear. He didn't even realize it when he fell asleep, the pipe falling from his nerveless fingers and onto the floor, going out in a puff of smoke as his consciousness faded away.

Someone was banging on the door.
Very loudly. Very obnoxiously loudly.
He peeled his eyes open, blinking blearily as he returned to himself, getting his bearings. There was a hard surface under him, which wasn't the most comfortable place to sleep. His back was aching from having been sitting in one position for so long, and the fire had gone out, still smoking slightly. He swallowed past his dry throat, tasting bitterness like ash at the back of his throat.
He sat up, gripping the edges of the chair as he did. He looked up, seeing the black sky through the skylight, and the stars scattered across the velvety blackness. Then his eyes skipped over to the clock and he sighed, passing a hand across his face.
So he'd missed dinner. And quite a bit more than that as well.
He put his face in his hands, just breathing. A spike of pain shot through his head, pulsing behind his eyes. Slowly he realized that the banging on the door was coming from inside his head, which felt as if it was buzzing.
He let his head fall back and hit the back of the chair with a thunk. He was too tired even to move to the bed. He closed his eyes, feeling his fatigue wash over him, and was just about to succumb to it when the pounding in his head increased. He frowned, and lifted his head, and blinked when he realized that this time there really was someone at the door.
He lurched to his feet, muttering some of Dwalin's choice curses under his breath as he stomped to the door. What did these people want from him at two in the bloody morning—
He flung the door open, uncaring that he probably looked ravaged and frazzled and possibly slightly drunk. He had to blink several times before Balin swam into focus.
"What," he growled, hands gripping the doorframe.
"I should be asking you that." He peered up into Thorin's face, frowning.
"I don't have patience for this, Balin, not now. If it's important, say it, otherwise, leave it." He swayed slightly on his feet.
"I knew you would be awake," Balin said unabashedly. "I came to remind you there's a very important meeting tomorrow that you cannot miss. In case you were planning to, that is."
"I don't plan to—" He sighed. "Fine. I'll come."
Balin looked up at him, and there was disappointment in his eyes. "You've been smoking."
"What of it," he muttered tonelessly, but he couldn't meet Balin's eye.
"You never usually—"
"Just leave it alone, Balin." He looked away, his throat working.
"I worry," Balin said simply. "I worry for you."
"And your worry is misplaced." He was aware that his tone was short, and borderline rude. He knew he should be speaking to Balin with more respect, more caution. But he felt short-tempered and irritable and angry. As if everything that had been numb was finally surfacing, finally showing through the cracks in his armor.
"And yet I cannot help but wonder," said Balin, "what exactly happened that night."
Thorin's eyes flicked up to his. "Which night?"
His white brows drew together. "The night you were healed by the elven ambassador."
He swallowed, forcing down the memories. "She healed me, that is all there is to know."
"Is it? There is something missing, something you do not wish to tell me. She came to see you two nights ago. To negotiate with you about the River. Did you come to an agreement?"
He swallowed. Flashes penetrated the darkness, and he saw smooth, creamy pale skin, eyes green as acid hazed through with dark shadows of desire, hair like tendrils of fire that curled around his body as she threw her head back with his name on her lips like a prayer—
"No," he forced out. "We did not."
"All the better, I suppose," Balin said. "The meeting tomorrow can take care of that."
"Fine," he said. He didn't care, he didn't care about any of it. "I'll come, I told you. Now leave. My patience has worn thin."
Balin sighed. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," he murmured. "Very well, I will see you at the meeting. Good night, your Majesty."
Thorin would have asked him what he meant, but instead he said nothing, turning on his heel and closing the door behind him.
He stalked to the bed, but came to an abrupt halt when he saw the sheets, rumpled and mussed, the covers thrown back to expose the tangled coverlet. He backed away from it, moving instead towards the chair by the fire. He would rather sleep there than be forced to remember all that had happened. Anywhere was better than there.
He felt he had hardly slept an hour when he woke again, bright sunlight spearing through the glass, slanting directly onto his face. He opened his eyes, and they immediately cut to the mantel. His rigid shoulders relaxed slightly when he saw that it was only an hour past dawn. He took a deep breath, choking slightly; the air still smelled like smoke.
Bathing had turned into something of a chore these past few days; there were small cuts and scratches all over his body that conveyed their presence every time they made contact with the hot water, and he was bruised in more than one place. Usually he didn't mind—battle left him with worse scars—but these were more painful, more... raw.
He twisted to glance at his back, surveying the extent of the damage her nails had inflicted. Livid red scratches, half-crusted over. Dark blue bruises on his shoulders, matching the marks that wrapped his upper arms. Raised, thick red lines gouged across his chest, bite marks all over his lips...
I've left my marks on you, Thorin Oakenshield.
He sighed, scrubbing his face with his hands. He still smelled her scent mingling with his own, an unmistakable assertion that they had done the unforgivable. There was a small starburst of guilt somewhere in his chest, a quiet yet firm guilt that had haunted him since he had woken up with her limbs entwined with his and the smell of her panic and shock and horror when she realized what she had done—or what had been done to her?
Was it because he had marred her, despoiled her, violated her?
No, said a voice in his head. No, she let you, she said she wanted it, she allowed you to.
But the small seed of guilt still lived; he had been able to tell that she had never lain with anyone before, saw it as her kin taught her to see it, like something of sanctity and purity, openly speaking of something deep and powerful, conveying love.
Love, not lust.
He had wanted her, from the moment he'd seen her first. Everything about her seemed to give off an aura of wildness, of blazing spirit and freedom. The combination had never ceased to draw him to her, and while it had been that had driven him to do what he had done, now that it was done, he didn't know how to feel.
We all want what we can't have, was what Dis always said. It's risk that seduces you, and security that spurns you.
And yet he felt that he had crossed some invisible line the other day, and even though she had vocalized her assent and had even reciprocated, he felt that he had taken something from her, something that was never meant to belong to him. Something she had not meant to give him.
Something she would never give him again.
It wouldn't ever happen again, he thought as he shut the door of his room behind him. Something in him knew that. It had been a brief... interlude. It shouldn't have happened at all. And while he didn't think he regretted it, he imagined she might not have felt the same.
It wasn't as if he had never done this before—quite the contrary, actually—but there was the fact that she was an elven ambassador, and that she was there for strictly diplomatic reasons. It wasn't proper. Not decent. Not expected of him, or of her.
She had been so inexperienced that night, so hesitant. He had never lain with someone like that, had never been anyone's first. There had been something endearing, almost, about how nervous she had been, how she had been so shy and embarrassed.
And then, of course, what had come after. The shock, the humiliation, the anger. Sometimes even he wondered what on earth had possessed him to do it, to drown himself in her and use her like a drug that would numb everything else but the brutal pleasure of it.
He let out a harsh breath, trying to shake off the memories. He was king, he couldn't. He shouldn't have done it, shouldn't have let it happen.
Indulgence could be a deadly thing.
He was tired, down to the bone, despite the surprising full night's worth of sleep he had gotten two nights ago. He had actually slept, better than he had in years. It had been deep and dreamless, and should have been relaxing. But when he'd woken up and seen her there, tangled in his arms with her scent seeping into his all he had felt was guilt.
Not regret—he would never regret it, he was sure of it; it had almost been a nuisance, how much she had affected him. But now that he'd had a taste—and a thorough one at that—the prospect wasn't as enticing.
Maybe Dis was right. Maybe it had been the fact that it was forbidden that incited both of them. And there was that meeting later that day—some nonsense about the floodgates. He snorted to himself. It was so easy to rankle elves.
It wasn't as if he'd done it on purpose; Dale really did need water. It had come at an opportune time, though—he was still holding the idea of reopening his gates at arm's length, and wasn't sure if he wanted to resume trade. They were perfectly well-off without the elves' meddling.
And of course he suspected that she was there for something else, not trade; why else would the king of the Woodland realm decide to send her there despite Thorin's rather obvious hostility towards outsiders? It was as if he didn't care whether she came to harm or not.
Which then again brought back the idea of Tauriel being in Erebor for another reason.
He dismissed the idea, though it still irked him. I've grown too wary, he thought with a sigh. Perhaps the best thing to do was simply forget about it.
But it still nagged him, lingering at the corner of his mind like a shadow that wouldn't be dissipated. A small, firm inner voice that told him he was being deceived. He could trust no one, not even his nephews. He swallowed.
Let the games begin, he thought amusedly, and left the room.

There was a lively fire flickering in the grate, but it did next to nothing to warm the room up. It never usually did; the meeting room where he most often held court was always chilly, the stone walls simply making it even colder. He didn't mind it, uncaring whether the room was cold or not, but some days like this one, when winter was at its pinnacle, it did get quite uncomfortable.
The room was entirely devoid of color, even the numerous dwarves sitting around the table dressed in slate gray or charcoal black or dull white, making the whole place seem even colder.
The only color in the room was the vivid red of Tauriel's hair, rippling and shining like a splash of blood against the forest-green of her tunic and the earth brown of her boots. She looked as she usually did, with her face tilted up and a look of cold stillness on her face.
Kili was next to her, and looked almost nervous, his hands twisting under the table and his eyes flicking across the table as if he couldn't focus on anything, and his brother was across from him, hands folded on the table, back straight and face blank.
The instant Thorin walked in, Fili's eyes flicked to Tauriel, then back to him. His expression didn't change, but there was certain tightness about his mouth that belied his stony mask as his eyes roved between them.
Silence rippled across the room the moment he sat down, an immediate hush spreading along the table and making the room so quiet that all he could hear was the fire crackling slightly in the grate.
When he ran an assessing eye over the assembled, he spared her but a glance, and a brief one at that. But it was enough for him to see the small, scattered love bites all over her neck and under her jaw, and the beginnings of bruises high on her throat, which he knew continued all the way down till her hips—and then slightly lower.
She didn't catch his eye, but he saw her cheeks flush darkly, and her throat moved as she swallowed. Her jaw clenched, and she thrust her chin up defiantly, as if uncaring whether anyone saw the marks. He could see by the set of her shoulders that her hands were balled into fists. He knew she had every right to feel the way she did—bitter, humiliated, angry—but she had no right to direct that bitterness and anger at him. She had said yes, and she would pay the price.
"The gates of the River Running have been closed by order of both the kings of Dale and Erebor," Thorin began without preamble. "And while we have no ties with their realm, the river does not belong to Erebor, nor does it belong to Dale, but both. As a result, it is their right as much as it is ours."
He raised a brow and looked around, deliberately avoiding looking to his left. "If anyone has an objection, I would suggest voicing it now lest your say goes unheard."
"I don't think anyone can object, can they?" asked Bofur, who was leaning back in his chair with frivolous abandon. "Claims like that aren't to be denied."
"No objections, I take it, then," Thorin said shortly. "As for the—"
"Wait," said a cold, clear voice. "I object."
He stared straight ahead, not looking at who had spoken. On the other hand, every other head in the room swiveled around and turned towards her.
"What could an elven ambassador possibly have to object about my closing off the river?" He still wasn't looking at her.
"The Long Lake has been closed since the ruination of Esgaroth," she said in her high, musical voice. "It is no longer a path our realms may utilize for trade. The only other way we may maintain a link is through the River Running."
He kept his face entirety blank, still gazing at the opposite wall. "Perhaps you should have thought of that beforehand, seeing as Dale's king has an equal claim upon the river."
"You have never closed it off before," she said in a carefully controlled voice. "Of course it never occurred to me, nor did it occur to my king. It is odd that you chose to close the floodgates the very year my king has opened his."
He tilted his head towards her, but still didn't look at her, narrowing his eyes. "Are you implying that I closed the gates because of your king and not Dale's?"
"Perhaps both."
He turned his head and looked at her directly, locking his eyes onto hers. They flashed green for a second before she straightened and looked back at him. There was nothing in her face that betrayed any emotion.
"Your realm and your king," he said softly, "were never a part of this decision."
"But they should have been," she said, just as softly. "As the king of the realm we wish to see unity with, should you not have spared a thought for what may have happened to our already flimsy relations?"
He blinked once. "It was not I who sent an envoy unannounced to a kingdom whose gates have been sealed for years."
She let out a small, derisive laugh. "Cards on the table so soon, your Majesty?"
"Did you perhaps expect me to fling my doors open the instant you arrived? Did your king think I could be swayed to act so thoughtlessly?"
She still wore that twisted smile. "He did not. He acted for the good of both our realm and yours."
His temper flared. "If I wanted to reopen my gates then I would have done it long ago, and without your king's intervention."
"And then your kingdom would have fallen," she said. "It is links with other realms and ties with other kings that keeps a city's internal structure from staling."
He ground his teeth together. "Be that as it may," he bit out, "why did he send you here? Why did he not choose some other realm to use as a grappling iron?"
She hesitated. It was very slight, almost imperceptible. But he caught it, and felt his eyes narrow as she spoke again.
"It was your kingdom with which our bonds were strongest," she said. "To reignite the brightest flame will yield more desirable result, will it not?"
"And your king has already opened his gates?" He frowned at her.
"He awaits the fruit of our negotiation," she said. She folded her hands on the table serenely. "Should the outcome be positive then trade can commence. However, now that the floodgates of the river have been closed I wonder if we ever will see unity."
"Why did your king not send you here sooner?" he asked, scowling. "Should he have suggested this earlier then complications of such magnitude would not have arisen." He folded his arms, sitting back. "I closed my gates, and not even a year later so did he. Within months Esgaroth was gone, and Dale has been struggling since. It may have been my hand that began the end, but should it not have been for your king following suit, perhaps the fates of the people in Dale and Esgaroth would be a much different one."
Her eyes flashed. "What are you suggesting, your Majesty?"
"Suggesting?" His lips twisted. "I am not suggesting anything, simply stating that it was not my hand alone that brought about the downfall of the two other realms in this valley. Your king responded in kind, and as a result they fell."
She pressed her lips together. "That is not my concern, with all due respect," she said haughtily. "I am simply asking you to reopen the gates of the river—"
"You ask me to deny the rights of one I have no jurisdiction over?"
She looked stunned; he had interrupted her, had spoken over her, something that wasn't taken kindly to—something that went directly against the court decorum that was strictly to be abided by. And he as King was to, rather than exhibit it, was to prohibit it.
"You will oblige the king of the realm you have desolated, but you will not oblige the king of the realm that has offered to help you?" she said at last.
He gritted his teeth. "It is as I said," he ground out. "The missive is not to be denied—it was not a request. They asked me because the gates lie before the doors of my kingdom. Had they not, then they would not have asked at all."
She shook her hair back, tossing her head defiantly. "And how long will it be until they reopen? Spring, summer? It matters not; it will be too late."
"And you are unwilling to stay here for even a moment longer than necessary," he said.
"Obviously."
He raised a brow, and she clenched her jaw, her hands gripping the table. "Your Majesty." She all but spat the words. "I have no desire to remain here forever."
"And I have no desire to keep you here forever," he shot back, and the arches of her cheekbones flushed red. "Have you told your king of this?"
She gave a stiff nod. "Last night I sent a letter."
"Fine. Once we receive his reply we can act accordingly. But—"
"We must come to a consensus," she cut in, sounding outraged. "If we delay this any longer, I fear we may never reach an agreement."
He sighed. "I cannot reopen the gates."
"And I cannot let—" She slammed her mouth shut, paleness spreading across her face, blanching it. He raised an almost taunting brow, and she swallowed.
"I cannot let that come between the progress we have made," she said haltingly. He knew it wasn't what she'd meant to say. "If the gates close then trade cannot continue. Then my presence here will be in vain, as will be the weeks of debate and planning we have done. I can say no more than that; I rest my case." She sat back, folding her arms.
"Very well," he said, turning away from her. "Perhaps you could go to Dale and attempt to persuade their king to act in accordance with your claim."
She put her slender shoulders back rebelliously. "Perhaps I will."
He held back a sigh with great difficulty. "Does anybody else have a formal complaint against the measure?"
There was an affirming silence, and he leaned back, irritated. It wouldn't take much to irritate him now, what with Tauriel's infuriating coolness and surety, and the fact that the whole room had been watching with their eyes roving back and forth between them as if the whole affair was mildly entertaining. The whole lot of them were pathetic.
"We can reopen the Long Lake," said a soft, firm voice. "It isn't as if you can't use it like how the Woodland realm and Esgaroth did."
Thorin frowned at his youngest nephew. "It is not a part of Erebor, and thus I have no claim over it."
"Nobody else uses the Lake," Kili shrugged. "And it narrows right to the gates."
"But the gateway of the Lake doesn't belong to the King under the Mountain," Fili cut in, leaning across the table. "We can't use it, even though it narrows into the Running River directly in front of Erebor." He bit his Cupid's bow lips. "It isn't possible."
Kili sighed. "It was worth a try."
"There's a roundabout route, going all the way north, over the Gray Mountains and the Withered Heath and down to the Lonely Mountain," Fili said, twining a golden braid around his finger. "But it'd take weeks to go from here to there and back."
"No," Tauriel said, setting her jaw. "There is only one way, and there only ever will be."
"It can hardly be helped," Balin said, frowning at them. "Dale needs water for the upcoming winter, and often most of the lake freezes over."
"Which is why they asked me to close the gates," Thorin said, tired of going around in circles. "I'm afraid we must wait for the gates to reopen—"
"If I may, your Majesty," Tauriel interrupted, her voice like honey poured over shards of glass. "If I'm not mistaken you said I could go to Dale to attempt to speak with the king."
Thorin hesitated, and she plowed on. "I would like to go there and reason with him, should you allow me to leave for a brief period."
He seethed inwardly. Elves and their mind games and their riddles.
"And you would deliberate with the king?"
"If that is what it takes." She looked directly at him, and there was no trace of the pale, scared woman whose lips had trembled and whose eyes had shone with tears in his room—this was the Tauriel he'd first seen, with her back straight and her face impassive and calm and unruffled, with eyes that could burn through stone.
She had backed him into a corner, and he'd let her—she had made sure of that. He took another small moment to curse elves in his mind before swallowing, then saying, "Very well. You may go to Dale, provided you return the same day."
Fili's lips were pulled into a faint smile as he glanced at her. His face smoothened a moment later, but his eyes were still sparkling.
Tauriel inclined her head, and the movement afforded him a glance at the curve of her jaw, where the mark his teeth had left there weeks ago was still livid on her skin. His eyes flicked up to hers again when she caught his glance, and her cheeks flushed. She looked away pointedly, away towards the opposite wall.
He wondered idly if the marks on his own lips were visible. They certainly smarted enough to feel visible.
"No other grievances, I take it," said Thorin, who was by now beginning to feel truly irritated. When nobody spoke, he leaned back, folding his arms.
"Very well, then. I declare this session adjourned." He waved a hand, and an immediate hubbub began, the crowd of dwarves thinning until the room emptied.
Tauriel was still sitting at her place, albeit more casually, with one slim arm thrown across the back of her chair and her legs crossed. She tipped her head back, and the marks were thrown into sharp relief. She didn't seem to care.
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" he murmured, not standing.
Her expression didn't change. "Unfortunately not," she said carefully. "Though I do not think the same could be said of you. A king has a myriad of duties and a plethora of disputes to resolve, does he not?"
"He does."
She said nothing, only looked at him with that unreadable expression. Her chest was rising and falling with her breaths, and the pulse in her throat fluttered.
"Why did you do it?" Her voice jumped slightly.
"Do what?" His eyes deliberately swept up the length of her body, lingering on the scattered marks on her throat, and her lips twisted.
"Close the floodgates," she snapped. "Not—not that."
"Why do you think I closed them?" Answering a question with a question was a practice that elves adopted, usually. He found it a rather useful tactic; it kept the subject clear of what he wanted it to be clear of.
"Perhaps King Bard sent a missive, and Dale needs water," she said, waving a hand. "But why did you comply? It is their property as well, yes, but I would have expected at least some sort of stubborn refusal on your part."
He folded his arms, scowling at her. "And what makes you think you can speak to me like that?"
She flushed, but held his gaze. "I have said worse."
"So you have," he murmured. "But I am yet to decide what to do with you for it."
She tensed slightly. "I think you have done enough already."
"Have I?" He let it hang in the air between them. She set her jaw.
"You do not scare me," she whispered. "Perhaps you did once, but now..."
He felt his lips pull into a smirk. "Is that all it took?"
She glared at him, putting her palms flat on the table. "Your people may treat it as something casual and throwaway," she hissed. "But we do not. Rest assured it will not happen again."
"And I was not planning for it to," he said. "The contrasting opinions of our cultures saw to that, I think. As did the lack of..." He gestured vaguely.
"Feeling? Emotion?" She raised a brow.
"Both." He sighed.
She looked away quickly, and he went on. "I would have thought, what with more than a thousand years of living, there would be a potential lover of some sort waiting in the forest." He raised his eyebrows. "What of the prince?"
She turned to him sharply. "Legolas and I have only ever been friends. He is my foster brother, being the king's son. I was—am—his ward."
She stood. "It is as I said earlier," she said coldly. "It won't happen again. And it is also as you said earlier. What was it you said? Ah, yes—formal acquaintances." She thrust her chin up. "I will take my leave now. Good day, your Majesty."
With that, she turned on her heel and stalked from the room, the doors slamming behind her as she left, leaving a billowing silence in her wake.

"What is a king?" Thrain asked, lifting his son into his lap and gently placing the crown of Erebor's King into his small hands. Thorin held it, eyes wide. It was heavy, and made of dark gold, chased with obsidian. He held it with both hands, mindful that his father was above him, not wanting to drop it.
"A king is one who stands by his people," said Thrain. "He is not above them, but is one of them. He is a guardian, chosen by Mahal to take care of his kingdom. The Maker chose us, ghivashith. We must stand by our oath."
He placed the heavy crown onto Thorin's small head, and it slid down, nearly covering his eyes. The metal was cold against his skin, and he gripped his father's hands as the weight of it nearly displaced him from his lap.
"When you wear this crown you must realize that it does not lift you up. It brings you down, opens your eyes to the perils of the people, enables you to hear their voices and see their grievances. You will be king one day, inûdoy. And you will be the greatest of all. But you must promise me something."
"Anything, Adad," said Thorin, looking up into his father's serious face. The too-large crown on his head slipped, tilting backwards.
"You must promise me one thing, and one thing only. Promise me you will never... you will never... you will never..."

Thorin woke with a start, sitting up so quickly that his head spun alarmingly, forcing him to lie back down, his breaths heavy. It was pitch dark, and even the bed of coals in the grate had died completely. He sat up slowly, leaning against the bed frame and drawing his knees up to his chest, putting his head down and just breathing.
He rarely dreamed when he slept, perhaps because he was always so tired that his mind refused to work any more. But whenever he did dream, it was always his father. Never his grandfather, or his brother or sister, or his mother.
And what he saw were memories. There were so few, so few that weren't tainted by the madness that had crept into their family, so few that were tied to nostalgia and not grief. He had been young, when his father died, too young. There was nearly a century separating those years from now, and the memories were dulling at the edges, almost fading. He scrabbled at them, trying to preserve them, remember them, but often he came up empty handed. He could no longer remember the exact shade of his eyes, nor could he remember those rare smiles—did the left corner of his mouth go up first, or was it the right?
"Promise me you will never..."
Never what? What had he said? What had he made him promise?
He lifted his head, feeling his eyes burning. He would never remember. It had faded. It would never come back. He had lost it. Just as he would lose all of it one day.
He knew that if he tried to sleep, he would see the ghosts—the ghosts he had tried so hard to exorcise. And there was only one way he could manage to sleep and not wake up with salty, sticky lashes and a freshly torn open wound in his chest.
He lurched to the desk, the ground feeling unsteady beneath him, and he could almost see Balin's disappointed face as he reached into it and removed a long, slim bottle of wine. It was strong, strong enough to give him a completely dreamless sleep, and also strong enough to give him a massive headache in the morning. He'd been saving it, in case he ever needed to use it—for medicinal purposes, obviously; it wasn't to be drunk under any circumstances but the direst. But it couldn't be helped; he had to do it.
His hands shook as he unstoppered it, and the stopper fell from his fingers, rolling away and coming to rest near the fireplace. He glanced at the time, noting that it was already close to three in the morning; he would have to drink only a third of the bottle if he was to wake up by the time breakfast started.
He eyed the goblet on the table, then decided there was no point in using it. By the time he finished one mouthful he'd be drowsy, and he would rather not spill any of it. He'd have to be careful not to fall asleep on the desk as well—he hadn't wanted to sleep on the bed, because it still smelled like pine needles and wilderness, but he had decided not to care.
He moved to the bed, sitting on the edge of the mattress and bracing a hand behind him. He was no stranger to drink, but he had never used it like other people did, like something that could help them forget. But he supposed there was a first time for everything.
He raised the bottle to his lips and drank.

The first thing he was conscious of was his splitting headache.
The second was how his tongue felt as if it were made of sandpaper.
The third thing was how heavy his whole body felt.
He groaned, opening his eyes. He blinked rapidly in the sudden light, his headache intensifying. He swallowed down his nausea and sat up carefully, looking around. He saw the nearly half-empty bottle on the table by the bed, and frowned at it, wondering what it was doing there.
Slowly the events of the previous night came back to him and he winced, putting a hand to his head. It had worked, to some extent—he definitely hadn't dreamed anything, and didn't remember even if he had—but the side effects were quite strong. He could scarcely see through the blur in his gaze.
He carefully stood up, taking the bottle and moving to the desk. Stooping, he picked up the stopper from where it lay near the hearth and closed the bottle, then put it back into his desk.
He leaned against the wood, squeezing his eyes shut, teeth gritted. It felt as if someone were trying to split his head open with an ax.
He was nearly sick thrice while taking a bath, and had to sit still with his head in his hands and his eyes closed before the feeling passed. Then as he was leaving the room, a wave of dizziness passed over him, so acute he swayed on his feet and nearly fell.
It was worth it, he kept telling himself. And it will pass by the time it's lunch.
He was determined not to regret what he'd done, so he drew himself up as best as he could, put his shoulders back and stomped to breakfast, each step making the ache behind his eyes pulse. By the time he got to breakfast he felt marginally better, but his mood darkened further when he saw Tauriel sitting at her usual place, and when he noted the absence of his nephews.
Kili was most likely to be asleep, and Fili was most likely to be off studying or reading in his room, as he usually did most mornings. As a result, Tauriel was the only person there at the table besides himself.
The silence wasn't tense, nor was it thick. It was simply... there. There were no words, but there wasn't much else, either. He didn't eat, just occasionally sipping water to bring the taste back to his mouth and to settle his stomach.
He was still determined to believe it was worth it.
Finally Tauriel sat back, looking at him suspiciously. She was much more loose around him now, as if after what had happened she no longer felt constrained around him. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not; it made silences much easier, more comfortable, but it made meetings and conversation more irritating—she no longer appeared to care what he thought. Nor did she seem nervous around him anymore. With all that entailed, of course, such as her hidden reservoir of cheek, which was now surfacing slowly bit by bit.
"I leave for Dale today," she said without inflection. He said nothing.
She smirked, flicking a strand of red hair out of her eyes. "It was very magnanimous of you to grant me leave," she said, daintily crossing her slim legs. "And quite altogether unexpected; your gates, they do not open often, do they?"
He wondered idly what Thranduil would think if he throttled his ambassador before they came to an agreement.
"No, they do not," he said. "But I have found that, as of late, it is rare that they be closed at all. I suppose it all began when I opened them for you—in more ways than one."
He raised his brows at her, then very deliberately dropped his gaze downwards. When he swept his eyes up again, the arches of her high cheekbones were flushed.
"A favor for a favor, isn't it?" He tossed her a wicked smile. "I open my gates for you and you open your legs for me. Quite a bargain."
She stood up, eyes flashing with rage. "You—how dare you—"
"Tut tut," he said, leaning back and folding his arms. "That is no way for an ambassador to speak to a king, is it?"
He cut his eyes to the chair she had sent skittering backwards when she had stood. "Sit," he said, and his voice cut through the room like the crack of a whip.
She flinched slightly, but moved backwards, shoving the chair back to its original position. She remained standing, her eyes blazing and her face flushed.
"I said sit." His voice was a near-growl, and she bared her teeth ferociously before dropping into the chair, red tresses flying.
"I would very much appreciate it," she said in a barely controlled voice, "if you did not speak of what happened with such... derogation." Her lips twisted. "In fact, I would appreciate it even more if you did not speak of it at all."
He kept his face entirely blank. "I daresay it was a rather important moment for you, wasn't it? Seeing as you had never—"
"Please," she cut in, her voice cracking. "Enough." She looked away.
He knew that he should feel bad for her. That he should have been feeling terrible, because he had taken and taken from her and he hadn't given her anything in return but another burden to bear. And a burden of magnitude such as this...
But he couldn't bring himself to feel pity for her. He had asked. He had asked her if she was sure and she had replied immediately, with a sureness as he had never seen in her eyes as she whispered her assent.
"If—if I may," she choked out, "I would like to leave, to... to prepare for my visit to Dale. By your leave, may I go?" She tilted her chin up, possibly to hide the snarl on her face.
He didn't even look at her. "Go."
There was a red and green flash, then she stalked away from him, leaving the room and making sure the doors slammed as loudly as possible after she did.

Chapter Text

Sigrid

She could see her reflection in the mirror as she sat in front of it, her eyes greeted by the familiar yet alien sight of a pale, pinched face, dominated by wide gray-green eyes smudged all around by unfamiliar dark circles. The testament of yet another night of restless sleep. Her chestnut-colored hair lay in a tangled cloud around her shoulders, wayward curls springing free and coiling at her temples.
Methodically she raised a hairbrush to her head and started combing, not even feeling the sharp tug of the brush as she dragged it through her tangled hair. She was staring sightlessly at the mirror, looking at her reflection but not really seeing it as she combed.
It was early in the morning, and dawn hadn't quite broken fully yet. The deep blue sky was shot through with streaks of blood-red, and she could see a golden glow far out towards the horizon that spoke of the promise of sunrise.
Nobody was awake yet, but she hadn't been able to sleep after she had woken up half a hour ago, sweat clinging to her temples and her heart in her mouth. It was the same dream—again. She tried to remember it, but it was in vain; her mind drew a perfect blank. Just as it did every time she tried to remember it.
She set the brush down, gathering her hair into a loose chignon at the back of her head. The moment she dropped her hands, a few rebellious curls escaped, and she sighed, not bothering to try and tuck them back in place. She wasn't self-conscious, and never had been. But there was something infinitely frustrating about not being able to do the smallest things—keeping her hair in place, wearing a more flattering dress, not having to pinch her cheeks every morning before going for breakfast because she was so pale.
She did so presently, bringing the color back to her face. She'd look pale as death if she didn't, and then the dark circles under her eyes would be all the more apparent. She didn't want any concerned looks at breakfast, nor did she want anyone to know that she had barely slept.
She pressed her lips together, blinking at herself in the mirror. Her face wasn't as pale anymore, but her eyes looked tired. She made a face at her reflection and stood, going to the balcony and opening it, stepping outside.
The snow immediately surrounded her in its freezing white flakes, its icy fingers tracing across her skin, making her shiver. She held her ground, wrapping her arms around herself to keep herself warm. Her breath misted in front of her, puffing out in white clouds as she gazed out into the early morning. It was a storm, but a light one; she couldn't see the Mountain, but she could see the street and the surrounding buildings.
She could also see the dark shape that was sitting on a niche in the house directly opposite from her balcony.
Slipping on the ice that coated the balcony she stepped forward cautiously, squinting into the snow that swirled in the air. Her teeth started chattering as she leaned forward, being careful not to slip. As her vision adjusted, she narrowed her eyes.
The raven cawed derisively, flapping its massive wings and buffeting the snow that fell around it. The air around it seemed to bend as it did, white streaks painting the air as it moved, flapping frantically.
Suddenly it took flight, cutting effortlessly through the storm and flying directly in front of her, it's black talons encircling the frozen railing of her balcony. It tucked its wings in and gazed at her reproachfully, blinking its obsidian eyes.
"Hello again, I suppose," she said, shivering. "Have you come here to gloat?"
It let out a sharp cackle and she moved back slightly. "Why do you keep coming here and bothering me?"
It—quite obviously—said nothing. She scowled, for some opaque reason enormously irritated with the bird all of a sudden.
"Go away," she said, unwrapping her arms from around herself and waving them. "Go on, leave me alone."
It did nothing of the sort, simply staring at her. She took a menacing step forward, trying to look as fierce as possible whilst shivering in her thin dress, her chignon coming loose. Her air blew in the wind, lifting off her shoulders and blowing into her eyes. She batted the strands away.
"Shoo," she said angrily. "Are you from the Mountain? Are you from the king?"
It flapped its wings, and her brows drew together. "You're the king's bird?"
It cawed, lifting its wings and flapping, taking flight suddenly. It abruptly lifted into the air and flew away, disappearing into the gloom of the snow.
She stared into the air, swallowing. It had flown towards the Mountain, there was no mistaking it. So did that mean it was the king's? She bit her lip, then winced; she was nearly numb all over from the cold, and her hands looked completely bloodless.
The balcony was iced over, and she slipped slightly as she quickly turned back and closed the door, still shivering. The room was warm, and she gratefully allowed it to seep into her freezing skin, letting it thaw her. She scraped her hair back into a bun, letting her mind race.
The raven was from the Mountain, that was for sure. But why had it been following her for so many days? Was it perhaps monitoring her every move? Was it there to watch her? Perhaps find out what was happening in Dale, so that it would be easier to take it apart, later?
She leaned against the mantel, feeling the heat of the fire flickering within dry her dress where the snow had dampened it. She stared into the flames, looking at it but not really seeing it at all, but seeing massive stone gates flanked by statues so tall they seemed to touch the sky, and a tall throne surmounted by a glittering jewel, and a dark gold crown and darker blue eyes and an even darker smile—
She turned away from the fire, her mind racing. She had to be on her guard, that was for certain. If what she thought was true, then anything could happen. If the raven was truly what she thought, then she would have to watch her step and tread very carefully, lest she risked breaking the already too-flimsy bridge her father had built to keep Dale afloat, and plunge them all into the cold black river that Thorin had unleashed.
She shook her head, almost as if to dislodge the bad thoughts. She wouldn't dwell on what she was unsure of in the first place—even if her caution far outstripped her flippancy.
Yule was in two days, and the town was more alive than it had been all year, with songs filtering in from the streets and bells ringing merrily every hour. Even now, with snow falling and the wind blowing fiercely, she could hear the faint strains of music trickling in through the walls.
She left the room, smoothing down the skirt of her plain blue muslin dress as she did. It may have been cold outside, but inside the house it was warm and bright, and since yesterday the whole house had been smelling pleasantly of baking bread and sugar and gingerbread, courtesy of Tilda, who loved baking—despite the mess she always made of the kitchen. Bain had nearly been in tears when he'd seen the state of the place the previous day.
She went downstairs, and the house was empty; everyone was still asleep, and now with winter at its peak the nights lasted longer, tempting everyone to stay in bed a few extra hours. She arrived at the deserted kitchen, smiling to herself when she saw the spotless counters and the freshly scrubbed tiles and everything neatly put away. So Bain had been here last night; he probably wouldn't have been able to sleep if he hadn't cleaned it up.
Sigrid drew out the loaf of gingerbread Tilda had baked the previous day, methodically and neatly slicing it, then placing a slice onto a plate and wrapping the rest up. She perched on the counter and was just about to eat the first bite when a sweet chime echoed through the house, deep and merry. She slowly set the plate down next to her, frowning in the general direction of the door. Who would be calling at so early an hour? It was barely six.
She cautiously drew up to the door, hearing the wind howling outside. She bit her lip, putting her ear to the wood of the door, bracing her hands on the surface, listening for any sounds that could betray who was outside.
Nothing.
She put a hand on the knob, swallowing. She carefully, soundlessly unlatched the door, then pulled, opening it and letting in a rush of snow and biting cold wind. She shivered in her thin cotton dress, squinting into the storm.
A tall, imposing figure stood outlined in golden light from the glow spilling from one of the stars hung above the door. Wrapped in an old gray cloak and holding a long wooden staff that was swirled elaborately at the end, his already long figure was made even longer by the presence of a pointed gray hat that bent crookedly.
Something in her mind clicked, and in that one fleeting second she knew that this was the wizard who had come to see her father all those weeks ago at the crack of dawn. Her eidetic memory placed him instantly, sorting his name from the rows in her mind.
Gandalf the Gray.
And he looked it; he was gray from head to toe—his hat, his hair, his eyes, his beard, his cloak, his boots (she was willing to bet his socks were gray as well—that is, if he was wearing socks at all. Did wizards wear socks? She didn't know) were all slate gray.
"Er... Do come in," she said awkwardly. "It's awfully cold out."
He leaned forward slightly, his face coming into the light. Old, slightly weathered, wrinkles raying from the corners of his mouth and eyes, both from age and laughter. Piercing gray eyes that seemed both world-weary and lively all at once, and a frowning slash of a mouth.
"Thank you," he said, equally as awkward as she had been, stepping inside. He cast a quick look around, not observing, but looking for something—or someone. He turned to her just as she closed the door, barring the storm.
"Your father," said the wizard. "Is he not...?"
"I'm afraid he is not yet awake," she said as formally as she could. "It is quite early, and he had a late night."
"Of course, of course," he said, waving a long-fingered hand. "No, let the poor man sleep," he said upon seeing her gesture to ask if she should wake him. "I daresay he needs it."
She pressed her lips together, saying nothing. What was the wizard doing here? Was there perhaps something he wished to tell her father? Was it important? Did it have to do with—
"... I hope you don't mind," said the wizard's voice, and she broke out of her reverie, blinking, to see him holding a short clay pipe in his hand, already filling it with tobacco.
"Oh," she said. "No, it's quite all right."
He hummed something unintelligible, placing the pipe in his mouth and passing a hand across the end. She saw a spark, and then a small flame bloomed to life in his fingers, lighting the pipe. She watched, somewhat fascinated—she had heard tell of the wonders of magic, of course, but had never really seen it.
A moment later the slightly choking, heady scent of burning tobacco filled the room as the wizard puffed on the pipe. She flushed and looked towards the kitchen, thinking sadly of her uneaten slice of gingerbread, still on the counter.
"You are the eldest—Sigrid, isn't it?" asked the wizard good-naturedly, and she looked back at him with a nod, with that feeling one gets when approached by an obscure yet particularly insistent family member at gatherings.
Before she could even open her mouth he said, "I didn't introduce myself earlier, my name is Gandalf, Gandalf the Gray."
"My father spoke of you," she said cautiously. "You came here a few weeks ago."
"So I did, though I did not stay for very long. The work of a wizard is one which never ceases to be," he sighed.
"What did the Mountain King say?" she asked carefully, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it from him, to see if there really was no hope at all left for them.
"What I expected him to say," Gandalf said with another sigh. "And you know the answer as well, I assume. It is fruitless to reason with one as sure as Thorin. He was always particularly obstinate, even for a dwarf." He chuckled. "It makes him both a fine King and a difficult one."
She held back a derisive snort with difficulty. "So he refused."
"Steadfastly so."
She didn't hide her disappointed sigh. "I see."
He watched her unreadably. "Do not lose hope," he said. "Dale's time is not yet over."
"But one day it will be," she said, crossing her ankles demurely. "One day Dale will come to an end."
Smoke curled around him, making his eyes look strangely as if they were glowing. "Everything comes to an end," he said. "But that does not mean that it should happen now."
Her brows furrowed. "What is it you know?"
He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. "Oh, I don't know anything," he said, eyes twinkling. "I can only guess."
She pursed her lips. "Then what have you guessed?"
"The same thing you have guessed."
She blinked. "But I don't—"
"Sigrid." It was her father, standing on the stairs. He was dressed, she realized vaguely, and his face was particularly grim. He inclined his head to Gandalf, who nodded back, eyes still sparkling. Sigrid bit her lip, looking down.
He descended the stairs, drawing up to them, putting a hand on Sigrid's shoulder. She tensed minutely. "Good morning, Da."
"You didn't wake me," was all he said.
She flushed. "I didn't want to; it's quite early."
"And yet you are awake." His hand squeezed her shoulder. "And good thing, too, else who would have opened the door?" He smiled down at her and she felt her lips tilt up in return. She blushed, looking down again.
"Did you pass through Mirkwood on the way here?" asked her father, withdrawing his hand and moving around to sit next to her and across from the wizard, who was still smoking his pipe.
"I did," Gandalf said.
They waited.
The wizard said nothing, instead carefully blowing a long, wobbly smoke ring from his lips. It floated through the air, flitting around the room and darting about like a curious child before circling again and coming to rest above his head.
Her father cleared his throat. "What happened in Mirkwood?"
Gandalf sat back. "The elves are nothing if not devout about secrecy," he said. "I could hardly glean anything of their intentions. However, I still believe they sent their ambassador for another purpose."
"That's what we thought as well," Sigrid cut in. "Why would they suddenly want trade when they have no need of it?"
"That is what I asked Thranduil," Gandalf said. "He told me I would not understand the decisions he took and for what reason he took them." He sighed. "In more ways than one he is as stubborn as Thorin."
Bard frowned. "What of their gates? Are they opened?"
Gandalf blew another smoke ring. "It is only when Erebor's gates open that the Woodland Halls' doors will respond in kind."
Sigrid cut her eyes to her father, and they shared a disappointed glance. The plot thickens, she thought wryly.
"We are yet to communicate with them, though I doubt they will wish to entertain us," said her father with a shrug, "if all they wish for is Erebor's wealth."
"Hmm," said the wizard. "Thranduil never saw eye to eye with Thorin—so to speak," he added, and Sigrid hid her smile. "Their enmity was one that always daunted and dampened their relations. Thranduil also never hid the fact that he disapproved of Thorin's rule. The way he held the Mountain, the way he handled the kingship."
He sat back. "Perhaps he aims to displace Thorin from the throne."
Bard frowned again. "Despite being the Elvenking, I doubt he has the right to decide that."
"Indeed," sighed Gandalf. "He does not."
"And besides," said Sigrid, "what would he do if he did remove King Thorin from the throne? He cannot possibly want the Mountain, can he?"
"No," her father murmured. "He is content with his halls of wood, and elves do not belong encased in stone under the earth."
"Then it must be something else," Sigrid said. "We don't know."
"I fear we never will," murmured Gandalf.
There was silence for a few moments, broken only by the occasional soft sigh as Gandalf puffed on his pipe. Sigrid was deep in thought, twisting a strand of hair around her finger as her mind raced.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Gandalf was saying. "Is it true that Thorin closed the floodgates?"
"Yes, but only because we asked him to," her father said. "We need water—"
"The ambassador sent a letter," Gandalf interrupted. "To Legolas—the prince of Mirkwood," he said upon seeing Sigrid's confused frown, "telling him that the gates of the Running River have been closed, and now trade with the dwarves is not possible, for that is the only way they may link their realms."
Sigrid and her father shared alarmed looks. "But," Sigrid said looking back at the wizard, "what of the Long Lake...?"
"It is not Thorin's to use," Gandalf said. "And he knows that."
"Would that I could say I care not," Bard said, frowning. "But if we open the floodgates again—"
"We won't have water," Sigrid said, exasperated. "Winter is especially harsh this year, the Long Lake is near frozen."
"Hmm," said Gandalf. "But Thranduil is determined to keep his ambassador in Erebor until their gates open. If the river is not open, then he will simply detain her there until they reopen."
Sigrid gaped. "Does he not care for how long she stays there?"
"He does not," sighed Gandalf. "They are an ancient, patient people, and he knows her resilience will not fade with time."
"He will not call her back even if the gates reopen only in midsummer?" Her father asked wryly. "It is still not even Yule."
"No, he is constant in this decision," Gandalf said. "She will remain in Erebor until they are decided."
They lapsed into silence, and Gandalf blew another smoke ring, which cartwheeled through the air and into the kitchen, disappearing behind the counter.
With a start Sigrid remembered the plate she had left on the counter and stood hastily, smoothing her dress out and tucking her hair behind her ear.
"Erm... shall I bring breakfast?" she ventured cautiously.
Her father stood, pushing his chair back into place. "I'll help."
Gandalf bobbed his head, gazing passively into space. Bard hesitated before going into the kitchen, and Sigrid moved inside, scooping the plate she had left up and taking a small bite. She sighed as the sweet, gingery taste of the bread melted in her mouth.
"Will you stay in Dale awhile?" she heard her father ask. "It won't be any trouble," he added, as if he knew Gandalf would protest.
"Hmm," the wizard's voice said. "I think I will stay here for a few days, though I will not, I think, go to the Mountain this time. Mirkwood was not a particularly eventful visit, I must say." He sighed, and a smoke ring floated into the kitchen from his general direction. Sigrid frowned at it.
"Legolas tried to convince his father to bring the ambassador back," he went on. "He fears for her safety; he saw something, somewhere, and it convinced him that she is in danger. He voiced his concern to me when I went, and bade me see if she fares well."
"I'm sure she's all right," said her father. "What could happen to spark his concern?"
"I know not," said Gandalf. "And though there is unease festering within me I durst not venture into the Mountain. A dark shadow lies upon it."
"There always has been a dark shadow upon it," her father replied flatly, coming into the kitchen. "But nobody saw it until now."
There was no more talk as they methodically prepared breakfast, bringing out the plates and bread, setting everything out on the dining table. Gandalf had stood and was standing at the picture window in the foyer, gazing out into the snow, watching as it swirled around and streaked across the glass in white lines.
Bain joined them a few minutes later, saying nothing but just quietly helping. As she set out the knives, he put the bread down and leaned over, murmuring in her ear. "Tilda just woke up, she's coming in a few minutes."
She patted his shoulder in reply, and he offered her a tight smile before wiping his hands and returning to the kitchen. She sighed, putting her hands on her hips as she surveyed the set table. She blew a curl of hair out of her eyes and turned back into the kitchen.
"You came here with a horse, I presume?" Bard asked, drawing up to Gandalf where he was gazing out into the storm. He turned, bushy brows raised.
"Yes, she is tethered outside," he said.
Before her father could open his mouth Sigrid headed for the door. "I'll take her to the stables," she said. "No, no, you eat," she said as her father protested weakly, something about cold and snow and ice. "I'll only be a moment."
Plucking an apple or two from the fruit bowl on the table she headed outside, shivering when the snow swirled around her. She walked carefully, trying not to slip as she crunched her way onto the street, where a nut-brown horse was tethered hastily. Her black mane was whipping back and forth in the wind.
Sigrid approached cautiously, untying the horse, who nickered as she did. She shushed it soothingly, holding the apple out. It chomped it up, crunching on it loudly. Sigrid rubbed her snout, murmuring some soothing nonsense as she led the horse away towards the stables.
After feeding her another apple and making sure there was water in the trough and oats in the larder along with plenty of straw, she left, closing the door tightly behind her. It was still cold out, but the snow had stopped, leaving everything blanketed in white and with hoarfrost creeping up every available surface.
Her breath clouded as she walked up the path to the house, and just as she was going to step inside she heard an all too familiar squawk, accompanied by the sound of flapping wings. She turned slowly, praying it wasn't what she thought it was.
Her mood plummeted when she saw that it was, and she narrowed her eyes at the large black bird perched on the gate. She gripped her skirt in her fingers, moving into the shadows of the doorway. It clearly hadn't seen her yet, since it was turned away from her, displaying the glossy feathers of its back to her. It swayed on the gate, bobbing its head.
She carefully slid back into the house, soundless. It didn't turn, and she quickly closed the door firmly behind her, and locking it carefully for good measure.
When she arrived at the dining table, everyone was eating.
She dropped into a chair, hoping her concern didn't show; that bird seemed harmless, but it was much too persistent to only be curious. Someone had sent it there, and not just to Dale, but to their house, and to her in particular. It simply couldn't be swayed to leave her alone, no matter how many times she shooed it or sent it away. It always came back.
She absently buttered a slice of bread, noting that Gandalf wasn't eating, but had put away his pipe and was sitting back with his hands folded placidly on the table. Tilda was next to her, occasionally glancing at Gandalf with wide blue eyes.
There was a companiable silence as they ate, and Sigrid slowly relaxed, her shoulders loosening somewhat. But she couldn't help flicking her eyes to the window every few seconds, paranoid. She was more than just irritated with the bird now—she was afraid. And not of it, but of who it may have been from. What it was doing there, always tailing her.
The wizard was glancing at her shrewdly, as if he could sense her perturbations. She quickly looked back at her plate, feeling her cheeks flush.
"Are we going to have a meeting, then?" Bain asked, frowning.
"Perhaps," said her father. "We'll have to see if there's anything worth discussing."
"No news from the Woodland realm?" Bain asked, looking towards the wizard, who shook his head, twisting his hands together in an agitated fashion. "The elves are a closed sect, a sealed society. To penetrate it we will need a much stronger weapon than I."
Bain looked marginally overwhelmed, and lapsed into silence, only dropping a nod to Gandalf. Sigrid hid her smile in her goblet.
"What of the floodgates?" asked Bard, looking to the wizard.
"What of them?"
"If we keep them closed then the ambassador will be trapped. She will not be able to leave, nor will there be any deliberation without a route of trade."
"But what do we care for the elves' ambassador?" Bain asked, twirling his fork in his palm. "Why does it matter to us?"
"She means a great deal," Gandalf said. "She means that one day Erebor's gates will open, and so will Mirkwood's. She also means that there is something behind that guise."
"But what does that have to do with us?" he asked, face slightly flushed. "They'll resume trade, and what becomes of Dale?"
Gandalf raised a bushy eyebrow at him. "It has everything to do with you, Bain son of Bard. Do not doubt that you are a part of this ploy."
"Whose ploy?"
"Both Thorin's and Thranduil's." He sighed. "And the fate of this city is one that rests on the pillars of Mirkwood and Erebor. Should they collapse, so will you. To strengthen yourselves, you must first look to those realms."
"Look to them and do what?" Sigrid asked, frowning. "We can't possibly go to King Thranduil and tell him we suspect he sent an ambassador for ulterior motives."
Gandalf's eyes gleamed. "That," he twinkled, "is exactly what you must do."

"He's very... eccentric, isn't he?" Bain said.
She turned her face to him with a grin. "That he is."
He leaned back, putting his feet up on the table by the fire. It was just tipping into evening, and Gandalf and Bard were in the latter's office, as they had been since lunch. Sigrid and Bain were on the couch, gazing into the flames while Tilda sat on the ground in front of them, her back resting against their legs.
"He wears a lot of gray," Tilda supplied.
"Mmm." Sigrid flicked one of Tilda's braids. "I noticed."
"Is he obligated to?" Bain asked, frowning. "I mean, he is Gandalf the Gray and not Gandalf the, I don't know—Gandalf the Orange. If he was Gandalf the Orange, would he have to wear orange? Or could he wear red, or blue?"
"Why don't you ask him?" She scowled. "Maybe he chose gray, how would I know?"
"Why, though? Why can't he be Gandalf the Mauve?"
Tilda giggled as Sigrid thwacked Bain's shoulder. "Stop it."
"But gray is so boring," he said, unabashed. "I'd have chosen maybe... gold. Then I could wear sparkling robes and bewitch my eyes to look gold, and color my hair golden."
"You'd look like an oddity," she said. "I'm sure he chose gray because his eyes are gray."
"So I'd be Bain the Brown?" He made a face. "I'm pretty sure there's already a brown wizard."
She laughed. "Me too. Or you could be Bain the... Slightly Dark."
He snorted. "Or Bain the Chocolate-colored," he said as Tilda and Sigrid dissolved into giggles. "Maybe Bain the Nut-colored?"
They were all so busy laughing that they barely heard the booming chime as the doorbell rang, echoing through the house and imperiously bouncing back and forth.
"Now who could that be?" Bain asked, his smile fading.
"I'll get it," Sigrid said with a sigh, peeling herself from the couch. "Probably someone to ask for alms for Yule."
She ran her fingers through her tangled hair as she went to the door, rolling her shoulder to work out the stiffness from sitting for so long. She shook out her arm and unlatched the door, fully expecting to see a lone figure asking for money or food, or perhaps a group of carolers wishing them for the upcoming festival.
Which was why she gasped when she pulled the door open, her eyes widening.
The first person she saw was Fili. Her heart did a small summersault in her chest and she cursed herself inwardly, forcing it down. He was gazing at her in something akin to trepidation, biting his lip. The snow had caught in his hair, lightening the gold of it and turning it near-silver. His cheeks were candy-apple red from the cold, but the rest of his face was pale.
The next person she saw was the elf.
Tall and slim and lush, she was standing straight, her hands loose yet tense at her sides. A pale face, with piercing green-gold eyes and delicately pointed ears that protruded slightly from the fiery red hair that spilled around her angular face and nearly till her knees. Her face was closed and unreadable. There was no snow in her hair or on her green tunic and brown leather pants, as if the flakes couldn't touch her.
She was striking. She drew the eye, made you look at her with her unearthly beauty and feline grace. She commanded the gaze—and yet, said a small voice in her head, you saw Fili first...
"Sigrid, who is it?" Balin's voice asked, and he came jogging in from the foyer. "It isn't the postman, is it? Because I thought—" He drew up to her, and catching sight of who was at the door he stopped short.
"What do you want?" he asked shortly. Sigrid winced, biting her lip.
Fili looked startled, looking taken aback. A brief look of grudging admiration passed across the elf's face before her expression smoothened out again.
"Bain," Sigrid murmured, laying a hand on his arm.
He shook her off. "Well?" he demanded, folding his arms. "What are you doing here?"
Fili cleared his throat. "We've come to speak with the king," he said almost apologetically. "It is rather urgent."
"I'm sure you know of what we speak," said the elf. Her voice was high and musical, layers of notes and tones falling under and over each other and blending into a lovely trill.
"The floodgates," Sigrid said, cutting off what was likely a blistering response from Bain. He scowled at her.
"Yes," Fili said in that apologetic tone. He looked at her and she blushed, looking away pointedly. Bain caught it and narrowed his eyes.
"Who is it?" called her father's voice, and he approached from inside the house, Gandalf in tow, both frowning at them. Upon seeing Fili and the elf he raised his eyebrows.
"I was wondering when you would come," he said tiredly. Gandalf only smiled slightly, as if he had knew this would happen.
"Come in," their father sighed.
Sigrid and Bain moved aside silently, letting them pass. When the elf caught sight of Gandalf she looked surprised, the first open emotion Sigrid had seen on her face. Her winged, coppery eyebrows lifted, and her lips tilted down.
"Mithrandir," she said, inclining her head.
"Tauriel, Daughter of the Forest," he said in reply, nodding to her kindly. "I thought you would come here this day."
"I did not look to see you here," the elf—Tauriel—said. "It has been a long time since you have graced our halls in the forest."
"Fate is a flighty friend," he said. "Since you left I have found myself in the Woodland halls quite often."
"For that I am saddened," she said, eyes gleaming. "But fate has brought you here today, the very day I came."
"And what brought you here?" He was puffing on his pipe again, long fingers encircling the short stem. Her expression tightened fractionally.
"That would be the Mountain King, I assume," said Bard, frowning. His arms were crossed, and she saw a fleeting, striking resemblance between Bain and him suddenly.
"Yes," Fili said. "And the Woodland King as well." He flicked his eyes to Sigrid and she determinedly didn't look back at him, though she could feel the weight of his pale blue gaze. Bain was looking at them suspiciously, his face harshly blank.
"Very well, then," said her father. "I suppose all this warrants some debate and discussion."
He moved around the couch, putting a hand on Tilda's shoulder. Fili and Tauriel were gazing at him expectantly, obviously expecting him to take them to the council chamber or some other official room. Instead he looked around at them all, raising his eyebrows.
"Does anyone want gingerbread?" he asked.

It was quite clear from the start that neither Fili nor Tauriel were used to her father's methods of debate. When there was a council session, then he would do what he had to do, and officially. But when there was an informal meeting such as this, he said that he found no point in creating hostility by providing an environment that generated general discontent, like a council chamber. There, Fili and Tauriel would be on one side of the room whilst the rest of them would be on the other. That, he said, created enmity. This, he said, created harmony.
'This' was a remarkably loose arrangement—Sigrid was perched on an ottoman by the fire, a mug of tea in her hand. Bain was sprawled on the floor, legs stretched out and arms braced behind him, not far from her. Tilda was in their father's lap, and he was on the armchair opposite from Sigrid. Gandalf was pacing around the foyer, and Fili was next to Tauriel, and both of them were sitting rather stiffly on the couch, plates of gingerbread on their laps.
Fili was nibbling at his slice, but Tauriel hadn't touched hers yet. She was sitting straight and erect, her face tilted up, almost rebelliously.
"Right, then," Bard said, managing to look kingly and official despite balancing Tilda in his lap. "The floodgates are closed, executed by King Thorin and requested by me." He looked politely to Tauriel. "What is your objection?"
She straightened, her plate of bread wobbling dangerously. She steadied it with a single, slim finger and said, "If the gates are closed then the only remaining link between Erebor and the halls of my people will be eliminated."
"That's all very well," Bain said from the floor. Tauriel craned her neck to look at him. "But we need water for the winter because our side of the Long Lake froze over this year."
"Is there no other way?" she asked. "Could you perhaps take water from the other side of the lake?"
"They can't," Fili said, sitting up straight and brushing crumbs of bread off his lips. "It isn't their land, and moreover, that side of the lake is very far away."
"If the gates aren't closed we won't last a month," Sigrid said, sipping her tea. "We need water until the lake melts."
"Mid-spring, most likely," Tilda piped up, and Tauriel looked at her interestedly, clearly fascinated by how young she was. "That's when it usually melts."
"Can't the elves come to the Mountain any other way?" Sigrid asked carefully. "Is there no roundabout route?"
"There is," said Fili, leaning back. "But it'll take much too long. It won't be practical."
"The river is the only way," Tauriel said. "If its doors remain closed we cannot resume trade with the dwarves."
Bain was watching Tauriel with a faint shrewdness, probably born from the suspicion that she wasn't there to trade with the dwarves at all. He tilted his head, leaning back.
"And your gates," he said slowly, "they open only for Erebor?"
Her face stilled, and she looked down at him. He didn't bat an eyelash. "They do," she said.
His lip curled ever so slightly, but she caught it; her cheeks flushed faintly. Bain shrugged.
"Erebor's wealth far outstrips our own," he said. His tone—normal, casual, near-cheerful—may have fooled Tauriel and Fili, but Sigrid could clearly make out that it was false. A muscle in his jaw jumped, the sure and only sign of his anger. "What would be the point of opening your gates for those whose cannot repay what you give?" He sat back.
Gandalf had stopped his pacing and was frowning pensively at Bain, almost appraisingly. None of them were going to mention their suspicious about her motives, seeing as Fili had accompanied her, and moreover, it was quite unwise.
Fili was glaring at his plate (which he had cleaned), his hands clenched. He wasn't looking at any of them, his eyes cast down.
A sudden, unbidden and uncalled anger gripped her. Why did he care so much about their city? Why couldn't he just let them rot the way his uncle had? Why did he have to make her feel so guilty all the time?
Her fingers were holding the mug so forcefully that her knuckles were white. She loosened her grip, feeling her lips twist. So that's what it was, that choking feeling in her chest every time she spoke to him. It was guilt, of course it was—what else could it be, if he was so devoted to saving them when they hadn't asked, if he was so kind and soft and sweet even when she pushed him away, if he looked at them not with pity but with hope?
She realized belatedly that she had been so lost in thought that she had unknowingly been staring right at him. Just as she blushed and was about to tear her eyes away he swiftly looked up and caught her gaze directly.
She swallowed, unable to look away. His eyes were slightly wide, and he didn't blink, his expression changing rapidly, though she could discern none of them. She noticed that there were still a few crumbs in his beard, and she liked the fact that he either didn't know or didn't care. His lips moved, though she couldn't make out the words—
Her grip slackened and the mug of tea in her hands slipped, nearly falling. She righted it with a start, quickly looking away from Fili, inwardly berating herself as her cheeks burned. She hastily took a gulp of tea to hide it, barely tasting the sharp sweetness of it.
"How long are you willing to stay in Erebor?" asked Bard, frowning, and Sigrid quickly returned to the conversation.
"As long as I must," she said cautiously, side-eyeing Fili. "But I was never meant to stay for as long as I have been; we were to come to an agreement at least by Durin's Day."
Sigrid and Bain raised their eyebrows, glancing at each other; Durin's Day had fallen months before.
"I have overstayed my welcome, I think," she went on, flushing slightly and shifting on the couch. The movement made the neck of her tunic dip down slightly, exposing a smattering of dark bruises on her throat. Sigrid frowned, and Tauriel caught her glance, her fingers coming up immediately and pulling the garment back up, her eyes shuttering. Sigrid flushed, not wanting to seem as if she was prying, looking away.
"Not at all," Fili said smoothly, nodding to her. "We are willing to host you for as long as we need."
She swallowed, saying nothing. Probably to give herself something to do, she cautiously put a bit of gingerbread in her mouth, chewing almost hesitantly.
"So what do we do?" Tilda asked, frowning. "About the floodgates."
Bard hesitated. "The very earliest we can reopen the gates is early March."
Tauriel swallowed. It was clearly a daunting prospect, staying in Erebor for that many months, and being the only elf, and with a king as repressive as Thorin was—it was sure to be a challenge.
"Usually I would open them around May or June," he said, "but I am willing to make the sacrifice. I'm sure we can ration water by then, and some of the lake will have thawed, surely. Does that sound fair?" He looked kindly at Tauriel.
She looked surprised. "I—yes. Yes, it sounds quite fair. Early March?"
"Late February if I can manage it, though I wouldn't bet on it," he mused. "So yes, early March. Do we have an accord?"
"I should think so, yes," she said.
"Excellent." He stood up, picking Tilda up and setting her down. She clambered onto the couch he'd just vacated, tucking her legs under her. Bard moved into the kitchen, calling out and asking them to stay for tea. Sigrid sighed, standing and finishing off her mug, then moved to help her father.
"Not bad, eh?" Bain asked, joining her as the kettle boiled.
"Not bad at all," she replied. "I was expecting a standstill."
"Who wasn't?" he snorted. "Anyway, I'm off; never liked tea, and I have a book to finish. See you at dinner?"
She nodded absently, taking the kettle off the stove. "See you."
He left the kitchen, whistling and humming, seemingly uncaring whether anyone saw him leave. She sighed, moving away from the kitchen as well, clearing the plates on the coffee table, her mind elsewhere.
"Sigrid."
She jumped, nearly dropping the plates. She looked up, seeing a pair of light blue eyes, and her heart stuttered. She forced it to resume beating normally.
"Prince Fili," she said pointedly, and he flushed slightly. "Sigrid—"
"I'm afraid I must ask you to refrain from using my forename," she said rather stiffly. "It is not proper."
"I thought we were past that," he murmured.
She swallowed, straightening. She realized with alarm that Gandalf and Tauriel, deep in conversation, had drifted off to the dining room, leaving them alone in the foyer. She turned to him again.
"Past what, exactly?"
He shrugged, a half-smile tilting his lips. "The restraints of formality."
She struggled with herself, that horrible guilt sparking in her chest. Her pride warred with it, trying to eliminate it, ant not entirely succeeding. Who had asked him to be so kind to her? She certainly hadn't.
"Perhaps we were past it," she sighed. "I don't know."
He said nothing, just looking at her. She raised her brows at him. "Why did you come with Tauriel? She could have come here by herself, couldn't she? Dale lies not even two leagues from the doors of Erebor."
He pressed his lips together. "Thorin wanted one of us to go with her." In case she does the opposite of what he wants her to do, was left unsaid, though it hung in the air.
"I see," she said. "And why did your brother not come instead of you? As Crown Prince you have duties, don't you?"
He shrugged. "That eager to get rid of me?"
She smiled without meaning to. "Just nitpicking," she said.
He laughed, the dark gold braids in his mustache swaying gently as he did. There were still crumbs in his beard, but she didn't say anything about it. "Really?" he asked, cerulean eyes glittering. "I didn't realize."
She flushed, turning her nose up at him. "Very funny."
He smiled at her. "I must admit the arrangement for the meeting was quite..."
She picked up the last plate. "Casual?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of homely," he said. "Unpretentious. Comfortable."
She grinned at him, feeling herself relax. "That's how it always is with informal meetings," she said. "The freest tree bears the most luscious fruit, as Da always says. It's easier to come to an agreement this way."
"It is," he agreed. "I felt it was over before it had even begun."
She blushed as his eyes came to rest on hers. "It barely lasted half an hour," she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and trying not to seem as flustered as she felt. She nodded at him. "How was the bread?"
He blinked slowly. "Delicious."
She blushed again. Get a grip, an inner voice ordered. She felt her lips tilt into a smile.
"I'm sure," she murmured, and to her own alarm her hand reached out, her fingers brushing the crumbs from his chin, encountering the hair of his beard, which was as soft as it looked. She held her breath, aware that she was overstepping a line, one that she herself had drawn.
She swallowed, brushing the last of the crumbs from his face, and drew her hand back. His face was as flushed as hers felt, and she saw his throat move as he swallowed. His blond lashes fluttered as he blinked, and his lips parted slightly.
She quickly pulled her hand away, biting her lip. He moved, faster than she would have thought possible, his fingers tangling with hers. His skin was hot to the touch, and just as she remembered it—smooth, but calloused, a small scar on his inner palm that was slightly raised.
"You needn't," he said softly. "You needn't hesitate."
Her mind felt completely blank; she couldn't think at all. "Fili," she whispered.
He leaned towards her, their hands still entwined, his heat seeping into her, and the closer he came his eyes were all she could see, steel blue filling her vision—
"Sigrid," called her father's voice, and she gasped, tearing herself away from him. Her heart was pounding. "Could you come here a moment?"
She bit her lip, sure that Fili could see her blush. "I—I'm coming, Da," she called, hoping her voice wasn't as shaky as she thought it was. She scooped the plates up and hurried away, and as she left she was fairly sure she heard Fili swearing softly and with great frustration behind her in Khuzdul.

Chapter Text

Legolas

Dawn was breaking, and the blue sky blushed as the sun's rays kissed it, a deep red spreading across the horizon and bleeding through the heavens. He was standing on the massive balcony outside the throne room, where the whole eastern wall was open to the sky. He could see the endless green pines of the forest, and the faint shimmer of the Long Lake, and the lone, incongruous Mountain jutting from the earth just beyond it.
It was an anomaly, that peak—the only mountain for leagues and leagues, and it stood alone, the surrounding land flat and low. Its summit was shrouded in clouds, as it usually was most days, and what with it being the peak of winter, he could see a faint white smudge where snow was falling gently onto it.
The sun peeked out from behind the Mountain, glowing with such intensity he felt his eyes sear. It unfurled its dark red fingers of light, raying out and bringing forth the new day. There was a slight wind, and it teased his hair gently, rippling through the air and rustling the leaves on the trees. He took a deep breath, allowing the fresh scent of the forest to fill him from the inside.
Before the sun could fully emerge from behind the Mountain he turned, moving back into the maze of corridors and staircases that made up the halls of the Woodland realm. Turning into the familiar corridor of his room he allowed the door to fall shut behind him, then wearily moved towards the window. As he did, out of the corner of his eye he saw an unfamiliar white shape on the desk near the bed.
His feet moved towards it automatically, without thinking. His hand reached out, his fingers closing around the parchment with his name written across it in an achingly familiar hand. As if in a dream he unfurled the parchment and began to read, his eyes skipping across the words written there so quickly he could barely comprehend them.
As he reached the end his brows furrowed, and he read it again, unsure whether what he had formulated was correct. Once he had confirmed that it was, he leaned against the desk, his mind whirling. The letter was from Tauriel—and it had been written hastily, he noticed, by the way there were small splatters of ink on the sides, as if she had dipped the quill into the pot so rapidly that it had sprayed across the paper; the way her handwriting was slightly slanted and cramped, evidence of her impatience; how the letters became blurred towards the end because the nib of her quill had likely chipped off. Yes, she had written this letter hastily. Impatiently. Hurriedly. And no wonder.
He gazed at it, setting his jaw. He glanced towards the fire, fleetingly, but thought better of it—there was nothing in this letter he had to hide from the king. Nevertheless, he read it through one last time before striding from the room, slamming the door behind him and loping towards the throne room. As he approached he heard voices, and for half a moment he hesitated, knowing his father would not look kindly upon an intrusion into what was likely something important.
Is this not just as important, if not more so?
Nodding to himself, he leaped up the steps and onto the long, winding path that led to the throne. He glided along the pathway, the letter crushed in his fist. The voices grew louder as he advanced, and as he walked towards the throne the winds shifted slightly, blowing a familiar scent towards him—the smell of burnt sugar and wood smoke and magic.
He moved faster, ascending the steps to the throne room and emerging onto the wide landing. The king was standing there, serene yet imposing with his swirling robes and pointed crown. He turned his head to look at his son as he came to a halt, his face blank and unreadable.
Next to him was someone just as familiar to Legolas as his own father—someone tall and thin, clad in worn gray robes and holding a long, wooden staff. He was bereft of his pointed hat, but was holding the one thing he never seemed to let go of—his short clay pipe, which he was smoking with fervor.
Before Thranduil could say a word Gandalf said happily, "Legolas Greenleaf." He shook his pipe at him in what seemed like an appraising way.
Legolas bowed his head, respectful as ever before the wizard. "Gandalf," he said. "It has been many moons."
"So it has, so it has." He puffed his pipe, raising a bushy eyebrow.
"Legolas," Thranduil said frostily, "what is it?"
Legolas swallowed, unclenching his fist and baring the letter. "Tauriel," he said simply.
Thranduil's expression didn't change, but simply remained as it was, as if his face was carved from marble. His eyes drifted slowly down to the letter in his son's hand. One of his winged eyebrows lifted up at the corner slightly. He held a pale, slender hand out.
Legolas walked forward, past Gandalf and to the king, placing the letter in his outstretched hand. As he unfolded the parchment and began to read, Legolas stepped back and drew up to the wizard, who was still smoking with a shrewd look on his face.
"What has brought you here?" Legolas asked quietly.
"The road," came the reply.
"And for what purpose?"
He was spared from replying by the king, who looked up from the paper, his long fingers folding and crushing the already-crumpled letter in his palm. His mouth was compressed into a thin line, and his shoulders were tense.
"Did you know of this?" he snapped, looking at Gandalf. His eyes flashed bluer than ice.
"Know of what?" The wizard seemed remarkably calm in spite of the anger on Thranduil's face.
"That the Mountain King has closed the Running River. The one path that we may use to trade with their realm is now closed."
Gandalf raised a bushy brow. "No, I did not know of it."
The king sighed, his fingers freeing the crumpled paper. It fell, blowing across the floor and fetching up near the curved steps of the throne.
"He grows wary, I think," Gandalf supplied. "Thorin never did take kindly to intrusions of any kind. And your ambassador's arrival was one so unexpected that one could see it as an intrusion."
"I knew he would not refuse," snapped the king. "He knows my power."
"But do you know his?" Gandalf gazed at Thranduil, smoke curling around him.
There was a slight pause. "I do."
"Then do you not fear for your ward's safety in Erebor?"
Legolas' heart skipped a beat. He cut his eyes to his father quickly. His face was closed. "She is in no danger to spark my fear for her safety."
"Thorin is not an overtly liberal King," Gandalf said cautiously. "He would not have appreciated her unannounced visit."
"But he did not send her back," said Thranduil. "He accepted."
"At what cost?" Gandalf started pacing, pipe held aloft.
"None," said Thranduil, eyes sparking. "They open their gates and we open ours. Only with their cooperation can we hope for linkage."
"Why try to open their gates at all?" asked Gandalf, and Legolas tensed. "Why turn to Erebor?"
"Since my gates have closed," Thranduil said tightly, "I have come across complications I had not foreseen when I closed them."
"Such as what?"
"A system of relations must be maintained by a king to allow his realm to prosper," he said, but it sounded tired and faintly rehearsed. "Internal structures are strengthened by external ones. Without trade our wealth and power would dwindle. The Lonely Mountain was our strongest bond, the most competent realm. To resume trade would prove advantageous for both us and they."
Gandalf sighed. "And why choose now to open them?"
"It was only recently that I discovered the perils of choosing solitude."
"The wealth of your kingdom is one of legend. I'm sure there are other ways to protect that wealth. To look to the Mountain is an action that has brought with it many... rumors."
"Rumors are tales woven by liars," Thranduil said. "I take no stock in them."
"They are saying," Gandalf said, "that you have not sent your ambassador to the Mountain for trade."
"Than what have I sent her for, pray tell?" Thranduil asked delicately, looping his arms behind his back and standing straight. The crown on his brow cast leering shadows across his sharply planed face. "A change of scenery, perhaps?"
"For settling a debt," Gandalf said. "Something Thorin owes you which he has failed to provide. Something you do not have, but have sent her there to recover."
Legolas swallowed. "And off whose tongues do these rumors roll?"
Gandalf merely shrugged, puffing his pipe. "I have heard but many a retelling."
"I'm afraid you are sadly misinformed," Thranduil said loftily. "It is as I said; it is a liar's tale."
"But why the sudden change of heart?" Gandalf asked, frowning. "You remained with your gates closed for many a year. The King under the Mountain has something to do with this—"
"He does," Legolas said. "It is he who must decide whether to entertain our proposal."
"You know that is not of what I speak," Gandalf said irritably, waving his pipe. A lazy trail of smoke drifted off the end and hung in the air like a curl of mist. "I meant a possible debt he owes you, something he has that is rightfully yours."
"Even if there was such a thing," Legolas said, "we would have recovered it by now."
"Perhaps, perhaps not. But I feel there is more than trade behind your sending an ambassador."
"You would not understand the reason for which a king makes his decisions," Thranduil said dismissively. "You are entitled to think whatever you wish. But in the end, rumors are just rumors. Believe them if you will, I have nothing against it."
He swept forward, ascending the steps to the throne. He settled onto it, long legs crossed one over the other. He tilted his head, his starry hair spilling down his back and shoulders.
"The King under the Mountain has closed the gates of the Running River," he said.
"So says Tauriel," Legolas added.
"He is wary of her intentions, I think," Gandalf said. Legolas shifted, ever so slightly uncomfortable.
"Even he does not know why the gates of the Woodland realm opened so suddenly." Gandalf loosed a breath, smoke curling in the air. "He decided to accept, but he said that it was almost as if you wished for his refusal."
"And yet he did not refuse," said Thranduil, waving a hand. "And now he has blocked the one route that may link us."
"Tauriel said that Dale needs water for the winter," Legolas said. "He could not deny them."
"Hmm," was all Thranduil said. "A fortuitous occurrence."
"What do you mean?" asked Gandalf exasperatedly. "You cannot possibly think Thorin closed the doors because of you."
"That is exactly what I think," Thranduil said without inflection. "Dale may need water, but he wishes to spite us. To tell us silently that she is now under his roof and that he may command her however he wishes."
"She is at his mercy there," Gandalf said imploringly. "Do you not think she is in some danger?"
"I," Thranduil said with great deliberation, "am not afraid of the dwarf. He cannot do anything to her while her oath to me stands."
Legolas stepped forward. "Be that as it may, her letters are opaque. We can glean next to nothing of how she has been received—"
"Why do you fret so?" asked Thranduil, frowning. "She was not sent back, they are discussing trade, and she says she is well. I see no reason to worry."
"Do not underestimate Thorin Oakenshield," Gandalf murmured. "He has made a habit of defying expectations."
"And yet I could predict his every move with commendable precision," Thranduil said coldly. "He did exactly as I expected him to."
"Indeed?" said Gandalf shrewdly. "And if it were truly trade you wish to endorse, why would you need to do so?"
Legolas looked up at the king, whose face was a blank mask. "So you believe these rumors, then," he said softly, so softly Legolas, even with his elf ears, could hardly hear it. "You think I have sent Tauriel there to take something rather than the opposite."
"I'm afraid an inexplicable turn to the Lonely Mountain is beyond my comprehension."
"Very well," Thranduil sighed. "If you insist upon believing that, Mithrandir, continue to do so. It is as I said, it matters not. I would not expect you to understand."
Legolas chewed on his lip, a bad habit he had fallen prey to after spending nearly six hundred years with Tauriel, who always bit her lips until the supple skin grew torn and chapped. Whenever she was nervous or afraid or tense, she would bite her lip. It had eventually grown on Legolas as well, much to his annoyance.
"The Running River," said Legolas. "We cannot resume trade any other way."
"I'm afraid you will simply have to wait," Gandalf said, puffing his pipe again. "I'm sure she will be deliberating with Thorin about this as of now."
"What if he says he will not open them?" Legolas asked. "She cannot come back."
Thranduil's eyes burned ice-cold. "Then she will have to stay."
Legolas stepped forward, disbelieving. "You cannot desert her!"
"And I am not." He looked down at them coldly. "I daresay the gates will open again in the spring or the summer."
Gandalf and Legolas shared a fleeting look of disbelief. "Thranduil," Gandalf said exasperatedly, "you would keep her there so long?"
He did not even blink. "Should the situation call for it, yes. I will not bring her back here when she has just begun to wear down the walls of iron the dwarf has built around his realm. Only when the job is done will I ask her to return here."
Legolas balked. "But you cannot—"
"I can, and I will," he said with an air of cold finality. "Speak to me no more of this, I grow weary." He waved a pale hand, a clear dismissal. Legolas turned on his heel and stalked away from the throne room, Gandalf hurrying in his wake. Once they had put sufficient distance between themselves and the throne, Legolas turned to him.
"He cannot abandon her."
"I agree," said Gandalf tiredly. "It would be most... unwise." He put his pipe away, tucking it into one of the numerous folds of his cloak. "He cannot."
"But he will not listen, no matter how much I try to tell him," Legolas said, just as tiredly, if not more so. "It is rare that he listens to me at all."
He earned a small half-smile. "Does being the king's son warrant for so little?"
He sighed. "Often, yes."
Gandalf gazed into middle distance, frowning into his gray beard. "I do not see why he is not seeing reason. Thorin will not be gentle with her, I am sure."
Legolas felt a muscle in his cheek jump. "He was always ruthless."
"Aye. With himself, and those around him." He sighed. "Thorin is not what Thranduil thinks he is. Years of being encased inside the Mountain, with the Arkenstone whispering to him and with such horrors as he has endured, it has forced him to change. Adapt. And adaptation is not always good." He frowned, brows furrowing. "He has become everything I once hoped he would never be."
Legolas stepped forward. "And now Tauriel..."
"She stands directly in the center of the maelstrom," said Gandalf. "If she does not move quickly she will be swept away."
"She can," Legolas said. "She will. I know it."
"Let us hope," was all the wizard said.

He could see rich, cold marble and smooth walls, walls so high they were lost in darkness. Glowing from within, shaped and wrought by the hands of the dwarves. A long, slender passageway, open to the air and suspended a thousand feet from the ground. Stone steps carved intricately with runes and patterns.
And a throne.
Tall and broad and long, it glowed the same rich green as the rest of the kingdom, but was darker somehow, the marble it was made of hazed through with shadows. Gold patterns linked intimately along the back, forming a net, a web, a cradle for the massive white gem set into the throne.
There would never be anything in Middle-Earth quite like the Arkenstone. Surely it had been placed there by the gods themselves, for nothing of such divine beauty could possibly be hewn from the earth. Given to the dwarves of Durin, to keep safe. To guard, and watch over.
The king was sitting on the throne, his face hidden by the shadows of the stone. The gem that glittered above him cast a dazzling light upon him, framing him in a gauzy curtain of light. There was a crown on his brow, one that encircled his dark head and swept upwards, gold, black gold and obsidian. Cruel, cold blue eyes gazed out of the shadows, calculating and seductive and deadly.
He leaned forward, his face coming into the light. Cruelly handsome, with chiseled cheekbones and a sweeping jaw, and a noble, straight nose. Lips twisted into a mocking smile, and eyes that were as piercing as they were haunting.
The image shattered.
He saw glimmering crystal and rippling water, and the spiraling ceiling hewn from black stone was shimmering and wheeling above him. He saw pale, scarred skin, burning blue eyes, strong, sure hands and lips shaping words he couldn't hear. He felt burning heat and fire, and saw an outstretched hand beckoning, inviting, coaxing. He felt a flaming arrow pierce him, one that set him ablaze, consumed him from within.
And just as quickly as the flame blazed to life and, fueled, rose to a searing heat so strong it could burn everything in its path, it sputtered and died, leaving a vast darkness behind it, and he felt so lost and afraid, alone in the blackness that threatened to consume him.
Flashes penetrated the darkness, and he could see dark earnest eyes, a fleeting smile that was all warmth and happiness, and the metal clasp of a bead caught in soft dark hair, and the shaft of an arrow marked with dwarven runes, and the hilt of a dagger and a feeling of pure, unadulterated happiness and freedom—
The memories shifted.
He was standing in the throne room.
There were three figures standing before him, and another kneeling before the tallest of the three standing, hands bound and face tilted downwards. There was a sword at the figure's throat, the blade still and level. The point of the weapon pressed to the figure's throat, and beads of blood were gathering there, ruby red.
The smell of fear was everywhere, filling him, spilling through the room.
"... punishment," whispered a dark, deep voice. "Lies... deceit... betrayal..." The tallest figure standing pushed the blade deeper against the kneeling figure's throat, stepping forward menacingly. The figure shifted, and he saw the gleam of metal on its brow.
"How many lies?" whispered that rich, dark voice. "Look him in the eyes... Look him in the eyes and tell him..."
He heard a broken whisper. "I'm sorry..."
The voice started to laugh.
It was dark and deep and cruel, and tipped with insanity. The figure tipped its head back as the laughter rang around the room, echoing and echoing and echoing. Even after it stopped it still bounced around the room, ringing in his ears, filling him with liquid fear.
The figure moved, stepping forward, the blade shearing through the air and arcing towards the ground, describing a long, wide sweep as the sword sang straight and true—
There was a long, drawn-out scream, one so terrible and full of pain that he felt his heart break. It lasted only a second, but he knew that nobody could make a sound of such anguish, nobody should have cause to cry out with such grief, nobody who hadn't lost everything.
The throne room broke apart in shards, spilling him into the vast unknown. He caught brief images, flashes of color here and there, but could discern nothing. He felt instead, felt intense, brief emotions that were so acute that they left him reeling—choking fear, freezing hesitance, consuming passion, burning guilt, warming affection. He dissolved into the feelings, allowing them to seep into his body, but not really feeling it at all, but seeing it as if from a distance, observing but not experiencing.
But he saw. He saw four things clearer than crystal.
He saw a throne, and a jewel, and a king.
And he saw death.

His eyes opened.
He could see shifting shadows on the ceiling, cast by the undulating moonlight and starlight. He could hear the gentle rush of the waterfall as it cascaded down the stone passageways in the halls and corridors. He could feel the soft mattress of his bed beneath him, pressing against his back. He could smell the fresh scent of the forest and the linens of his sheets. And he could taste sharp metal in his mouth.
He sat up, fingers pressing to his lips. They came away red, and he realized he had bitten his lip so hard in his sleep that the skin had torn. He swallowed past the coppery, sweet taste of his own blood and gazed at the dying embers of the fire.
Elves did not need sleep, but he had lain on his bed and succumbed to the exhaustion that had been sweeping through him for so long. And for the first time in a long time, he had dreamed.
And now he wished he had not slept at all.
He put his face into his hands. What he had seen was unmistakable. What he had felt was unmistakable. He remembered the dream, brutally vivid in its intensity, shifting colors and flashing images and those burning emotions that had nearly choked him.
They weren't his emotions. They weren't his memories. They weren't his feelings.
They were Tauriel's.
He did not know how it had happened—it was not possible for him to see into her mind, or into her heart. And yet he was sure that what he had seen was just that. She was thousands of leagues away, and deep under the Mountain, so how had he been able to see what she did?
A shiver crawled up his spine, quickly subdued. He knew they were her memories; he knew the way she thought, the colors she used to paint in her mind's eye, the shape of her thoughts.
He had seen death.
Lurking in the corner, waiting for the right moment to pounce. Holding its arms out, biding its time. He had known her going to Erebor was dangerous, and he had tried to convince her to stay, knowing it was near-suicidal to volunteer to go to the halls of their enemies, the halls of someone who had the power to crush her in his iron fist. But she had been adamant, telling him his worry was misplaced, telling him she would be fine and that there was nothing to fret about.
"When heirlooms of our people are with their rightful owners once more, and when the gates of both our realms are open and prosperous, only then will I return to the forest," she had said. She was too proud, too sure that it would be but a harmless excursion. His father was of the same opinion, but it had been Legolas who had protested. It was dangerous, he had said, and should the mission not work, it would cost them dearly.
They had not listened. Tauriel had been sure, as had his father. She had left, and ever since then he had lived with a sick feeling of anticipation in his heart. He feared for her safety, and though her letters threw light upon the issue of discussion, it kept him in the dark about her, what was happening to her, how she was doing.
The dream made him more sure. She was in danger. Something would happen. Or something had already happened. Either way, she was not safe in the halls of the dwarves of Durin.
He stood up, blindly making his way to the door. He had to tell the king, tell him to bring her back, tell him that he had seen death waiting in the halls of Erebor—
He leaped up the steps to the throne room, and stopped short. The room was empty; the king was not on the throne, nor were the guards present. The lights were dim, casting eerie shadows around the high throne and the patterned wooden floors. There was a deafening silence ringing through the hall, broken only by the soft patter of his footsteps.
He turned again, mind ticking through the possibilities of where his father might be. Quickly making up his mind, he moved towards the lower levels, where the king's chambers were. Locating them quickly, he strode to the massive double doors etched with designs and symbols of serenity and benevolence. He considered simply walking in without announcing himself, but thought better of it and lessened the blow slightly, raising a fist to knock on the door.
Before his fist could make contact with the door it flew open, revealing the king in robes as white as moonlight. He regarded Legolas shrewdly, a thick brow raised. He was holding a goblet of wine in one hand, and he seemed to sense why he was there, judging from the gleam in his eye.
"Is something the matter?" he asked, raising the goblet to his lips. Legolas tilted his chin up, determined to emerge from this argument victorious.
"You must bring Tauriel back," he said tightly.
The king's brow climbed higher. "And why should I do so?"
"She is in danger."
"Is she?" He sighed.
"It is a—an intuition," he said haltingly. "I am certain of this."
"What did you see?" He narrowed his icy eyes and Legolas gazed directly back.
"I saw many things," he said. "And in all of them I saw death."
The king sighed. "She is there to be the catalyst for the reopening of Erebor's gates. How can death be waiting for her—"
"You sent her there to steal the gems of Lasgalen," Legolas hissed. "Should the Mountain King find out, he will not be forgiving."
"He will not find out," Thranduil said coldly. "He will never realize that she is there to take and not give."
"But what if he does?" murmured Legolas. "Tauriel will bear the brunt of the impact, of a blow meant for you."
Thranduil's eyes flashed, but he said nothing. Legolas went on. "I fear he is realizing that her true intention is not trade," he said. "You heard what Gandalf said. It is a popular rumor. It will not be long before the King under the Mountain hears them as well."
"What proof will he have?" Thranduil examined his flawless fingernails. "He will not have enough."
"He will not care," Legolas said. "He will condemn her—"
"You go too far," said the king sharply. "If she is careful then he will never know."
"Do you truly desire the gems more than you care for Tauriel?" demanded Legolas. "She is your ward, you favored her for centuries—"
"You know the gems of Lasgalen are not simple trinkets," snapped Thranduil. "I cannot leave them to lie in the halls of the dwarves when their true place is here."
"And you would endanger Tauriel to recover them?"
"She is in no danger. Your paranoia simply ensures that you see danger when you look to the Mountain. She will return unscathed, I am sure."
"You do not understand," said Legolas, slightly testily. "I saw—"
"You only saw what you wanted to see," cut in the King, scowling. "I will not bring her back until she has the gems, be it by negotiating or otherwise." Stealing.
"You care more for the gems than for her safety?" seethed Legolas.
Unreadable blue eyes gazed back at him. "She asked me to send her," he said softly. "Do not blame me for the decision made by Tauriel herself."
"But it was you who proposed the idea of sending someone to the Mountain to retake the heirlooms," Legolas said. "She only—"
"That is enough," Thranduil snapped. "It is fruitless on your part. I shall not change my mind. She remains in Erebor until the gems are with her."
He turned, the door closing behind him. Legolas stepped forward desperately, grasping at something, anything to make him understand, to make him see—
"Ada," he said softly. "Please."
The king stopped in his tracks, not turning. The door was open merely a crack, but it was enough to see that he had stopped abruptly. He had not called his father that for centuries. Not since his mother's death.
"I cannot call her back, Legolas," came the equally as soft reply. "Not now."
Bitterness filling him, Legolas turned soundlessly, saying nothing as he strode away from the door and out of sight.

"And he said no."
Legolas sighed. "Evidently."
"Hmm," said Gandalf.
They were both standing on the eastern balcony, pensively gazing towards the Mountain. It was evening, nearly night, and the sun and the moon were in the sky together, the sun dyeing the sky bloody while the moon dyed it silver. The colors merged seamlessly, melting together.
"What did you see?" asked Gandalf.
Legolas didn't look away from the Mountain. "I have already told you."
"Tell me again."
So he did. He told him about the king and his cold smile and his colder eyes. He told him about the intense, fiery passion he had sensed, the fear that came afterward, the brief moments of happiness stolen and cherished, the memories so quick and so vivid that he had both seen everything and seen nothing.
And lastly, the terrifying scene in the throne room. The mad laughter, the accusations, the screaming. He shivered as he said it.
Once he lapsed into silence, spent, Gandalf was frowning at the Mountain and the Long Lake. "And you are sure this is about Tauriel?"
"I am," said Legolas. "I know how she thinks, and this is it."
"You saw Thorin?"
"His was the only face I could see directly," said Legolas shrugging. "Everyone else was blurred, indistinct."
"You did not see Tauriel?" he asked.
"No," said Legolas. "I saw nobody but the king."
"Was it his voice?"
Legolas sighed, slightly impatient with the lengthy interrogation. "I do not know. I do not remember the cadence of his voice, but it may have been his, yes."
"What did he do?"
"I know not," Legolas said, finally losing patience. "He lifted the sword and brought it down but I did not see if it found its mark."
"And what was the mark?"
"I did not see it clearly enough to make out what—or who—it was," Legolas sighed.
"I see," said the wizard. There was silence for a few moments.
"I leave on the morrow," said Gandalf at last. Legolas turned to him, the wind blowing his hair across his eyes, cutting white lines into his vision.
"So soon?" was all he said.
"I'm afraid I must go. I must pay a visit to Dale."
"The Mountain?"
"No," said Gandalf after a slight pause. "Not this time, I think. The darkness is heavy upon its peak, and I think it best not to entangle myself within it."
"But Tauriel is there," said Legolas. "I grow more and more wary day by day. What I saw simply intensified that wariness." He turned his eyes to the wizard.
"Will you go to the Mountain and see if she fares well?" he asked.
Gandalf hesitated far too long. "Only to see if she is all right," said Legolas. "See if she is safe there."
Gandalf heaved a sigh. "Very well, then. For you I will go to Erebor to see if she is all right. Though I will not return here on my way back from Dale. I may see Radagast, or perhaps take the river's course through the forest."
"Thank you," said Legolas. "With every moonrise I feel that something is deteriorating within the Mountain, and she is at the center of it."
"You are not the only one who feels that way," said Gandalf. "Something festers inside the Mountain, an age-old hate that will only grow. There are secrets in that Mountain, ones that can never come to light."
Legolas thought of the reason Tauriel was in Erebor and swallowed, willing his face to stay blank. The wizard didn't look at him, but was gazing at the Mountain, unblinking.
"He abandoned Dale and yet they persist," said Gandalf. "He thrives on destruction. But it was not always so." He shook his head. "No, he was a good man, a good King." He paused, gray eyes tired suddenly. "Once," he said softly.
"And yet you sent Tauriel to him," he said, frowning. "I still do not see why—"
"Rumors are only stories," said Legolas heavily.
"Stories can be true."
"Not," Legolas bit out, "this one."
"Why would you fear for her if she was there simply for diplomatic ties?" he asked. "Why, in your vision, did Thorin accuse her of lying—"
"I do not know if it was her he accused."
"But I am sure, and so are you, that it was. You must tell me the truth, Legolas Greenleaf," he said, sounding very much like the testy old wizard who he knew so well. "Else it will not end how you might wish for it to."
He sighed again. "She is there to open their gates," he said. "That is all."
"Very well, omit if you wish," said Gandalf mulishly. "But be on your guard, lest Thorin discovers why she is really there."
Legolas said nothing, watching as the stars came out slowly, pinpricks of white light emerging from the dark sea of the sky. Their light smudged around them, glowing softly.
"What happens now?" asked Gandalf. "Thranduil remains constant."
"And he will not sway from his decision," shrugged Legolas. "I will no longer attempt to make him see reason, it is beyond me."
Gandalf nodded decisively. "Then she will remain in Erebor until the deal is made."
She will remain in Erebor until she takes the gems, thought Legolas. "Yes," he said instead. "She will."
"I think I will retire now," Gandalf sighed. "Too much elvish wine..."
Legolas huffed out a laugh. "Indeed?"
"Mmm," said Gandalf. "It tends to make one slightly heavy in all the wrong places."
Legolas' lip twitched. "I will see you before you leave."
"I daresay you will." With that, Gandalf swept off, humming to himself and leaving Legolas alone on the balcony with the starlight and moonshine.
He stood there, the wind whistling in his ears, watching the Misty Mountains in the distance swallow the sun. The moon glowed more brightly, and evening sprang into the sky. The Lonely Mountain was but a shadow among shadows, blending with the dark night. He had wanted to tell Gandalf why Tauriel was there, wanted to tell him that he thought it was so petty, how this desire for something as material as a necklace could risk her life. He did not want to believe that it was Tauriel at the end of the king's sword in his dream. He did not want it to be true. It couldn't be.
He could still feel faintly lingering aftershocks of the dream, tremors in his blood and bones. The images had been too fast for him to connect, but there was something dark and cold about what he had seen and felt, something that made him even more afraid.
He had seen death, but whose did he see? He had seen blood, but whose did he see? He had heard screams, but whose had he heard?
He turned away from the balcony, squeezing his eyes shut. It would do no good to dwell on this, not when he knew so little. If he did not know, he would guess, and what he would guess would only make it worse. He breathed deeply for a few minutes, allowing his heart to calm and his breath to even, then straightened, walking stiffly back into the halls.
He wandered aimlessly, willing his mind to stay blank. He found himself sitting on a ledge behind the waterfall that crashed down inside the cavernous realm, feeling the spray of the water as it peppered his throat and face in small droplets.
It was shadowy and dark, muted light slicing through the caves and slanting through the waterfall, exploding into colors and pooling on his lap in seven shades. His legs dangled off the ledge, and his had were braced behind him, his eyes closed and face tilted up to catch the spray of water as it crashed against the opposite wall.
He lulled himself into a trance, his mind hovering in the delicate balance between dream and reality, between sleep and wakefulness. The only sound was the roar of the waterfall as it fell, and the trickle of water as it flowed through the caverns.
He stayed there, unmoving, the whole night, and it was only after the sun rose that he opened his eyes and stood up, then left, moving off the ledge and away into the halls beyond.

The doors of the Woodland realm closed behind him, and he shouldered his bow, rolling his shoulders in the bark-like armor that covered them, hearing the rattling of the numerous remaining arrows in his quiver. He had wandered the shadows of the Greenwood—Legolas refused to call it Mirkwood—for the better part of that day, and he was tired down to the bone.
He closed the doors of his room behind him, and was about to hang his bow up when he saw the letter sitting on his desk.
He flung his bow onto the bed, hurrying to the desk and snatching the envelope. It had only been a day since Gandalf had left—had he already seen her, spoken to her?
He slit the envelope, unfolding the paper quickly, his eyes moving over the scrawled letters there fast, too fast. He reached the end, then caught his breath and read it again, slower. This time there was some modicum of comprehension; his breathing eased more with every reading.
So she had seen Gandalf in Dale. And they had spoken, and she was fine. He sighed, a little tension easing from is stiff shoulders. It was all right for now—she was fine.
He sat on the bed and read it again, and again and again, until he knew the words by heart. The floodgates would open in early March, in three months. He hoped she would come to a consensus with the king by then, and then she could come home as fast as she could.
He tossed the letter back onto the desk and stood, his tiredness suddenly forgotten. He left the room as fast as he could, snatching the letter as he did. He ran to the throne room, skidding up the steps and lurching into the landing.
"Is it from Tauriel?" Thranduil asked sharply, standing and coming down the steps. Legolas nodded, ever so slightly out of breath. He handed his father the letter, and waited as he read through it.
"It is as I said, isn't it," he said after he had finished reading. "There is nothing to worry for."
"My worry was not misplaced," Legolas said. "The Mountain King is dangerous."
Thranduil waved a hand, eyes roving over the letter. "Early March," he murmured. "Quite a while, isn't it?"
"She was to be back before Durin's Day," said Legolas. "It has been months since."
"Indeed it has," said the king. "We must hope that she convinces the dwarf to give up what does not belong to him by the time the gates reopen." He held out the letter between his forefinger and middle finger, and Legolas took it, stowing it into his pocket.
"What now?" he asked.
Thranduil's smile was a slash of white in the dim light, porcelain and steel and pearl. His eyes were chips of blue ice.
"Now," he said, "we wait."

Chapter Text

Fili

The gates closed slowly, metal grinding against stone as the great doors met with a clang, sealing the Mountain behind them. There was a cold wind, one that was cut off abruptly as the doors closed, whistling through the cracks made by the gates. It was snowing again—it had begun snowing when they had been leaving Dale, and it was a thankfully light storm.
Fili chanced a glance at Tauriel, who was twisting a strand of red hair around her finger and gazing into space, almost as if she were nervous. The fingers of her free hand were tapping an idle, random rhythm on her leg. There was no snow on her at all, none caught in her hair or on her tunic or even on her boots.
Fili, on the other hand, was covered in the small, cold flakes. His hair was damp, as were his clothes, and his boots were sodden with snow. He brushed a dusting of flakes off his hands, hearing a slight crunch as the snow was displaced, falling onto the ground and melting immediately into a small puddle of water. He sighed.
Tauriel turned to watch as the doors slid shut behind them. The slice of weak winter sunlight that they had allowed through them shrunk slowly as the doors closed, then vanished altogether. As the last echoes of the closed doors faded, she turned around again, and her face was unreadable.
"I never expected to see Gandalf in Dale," she said. "Does he often come here?"
Fili shrugged, peeling off his gloves. "Not often, but he had come here a few weeks ago."
She raised a brow. "To the Mountain?"
"Yes. He only spoke with Thorin, even Kili and I didn't see him."
"I see," she said. After a bit of a pause, she raised a winged brow at him. "What is her name?"
He caught his breath. "Whose?"
At that she smiled, just a little. "The princess of Dale."
He couldn't help the rush of heat that flooded his cheeks. "There are two, if you hadn't noticed."
Her smile widened. "As a matter of fact, I did. And a prince as well." She raised a quizzical eyebrow and he sighed.
"The prince is Bain, the youngest is Tilda and the eldest is Sigrid." He folded his arms. She only nodded, but her eyes were still twinkling. She let out a breath, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
"I could have gone alone," she said, echoing what Sigrid had told him earlier rather eerily. "I do not think there was any danger of me getting lost." She arched a brow, faint dryness coloring her voice.
He pressed his lips together. "I just accompanied you, is all."
"You did not need to." Her eyes narrowed.
He cleared his throat. "Thorin thought I did," was all he said, hopeful that she would understand. She didn't seem to; her brow rose higher.
"What do you mean?"
He sighed. Elves were such odd creatures—they spoke in riddles and answered questions with questions, and yet they didn't seem to understand the art of subtlety. It was maddening.
He cast around for the right words. "Thorin wanted me to come with you in case you would do something he disapproved of," he mumbled finally, giving up.
Her face closed. "I see," she said frostily. "I should have guessed."
He cleared his throat. "He can be—constraining, sometimes."
"Constraining is too kind a word, I think. I was surprised when he allowed me to go," she said, a small, twisted smile finding its way to her face.
"You made sure he did," he said. "It was very well done."
"Thank you." She smiled at him. "Although I doubt he feels the same."
"Obviously. You outfoxed him in front of everyone, and politely, too."
At that she laughed. "Then it appears I am slowly learning the way of the politician."
He huffed out a laugh. "I'd say you were an expert already."
She smiled. "Perhaps, though the meeting in Dale was anything but formal."
"I rather liked it."
"So did I," she said unexpectedly. "It was a more comfortable atmosphere than the stone courtrooms in your Mountain." She flicked a strand of red out of her eyes.
"It was," he agreed. "We came to an agreement faster than I would have thought possible."
"We did," she said. "The gates open in March, then."
"So they do." He flexed his fingers, popping his knuckles. He saw her bite her lip in his periphery.
"I was to be home months before this," she murmured.
Fili shrugged. "Thorin never intended for you to go home so soon. I suppose he wanted to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible."
She swallowed, her cheeks flushing darkly. It was very visible against her pale skin. "Oh? Then he did a very good job of it," she said.
Excellent work, Fili.
He sighed again, grimacing. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"I know," she said shortly, cutting across him. Her face tightened as he lapsed into silence. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "It appears I have still not quite surmounted that which happened."
Her fingers reached up, brushing across the still not yet faded bite marks all over her throat, almost as if she couldn't help it. She turned slightly away from him.
"I never thanked you," he said suddenly.
She half-turned, a hand still cupped around her neck. "For what?"
"For making an excuse for me that day I went to Dale," he said. "If you hadn't then Thorin would have found out for sure. He doesn't trust me as it is."
She blinked once. "It was nothing. A small favor."
"I still owe you," he said. "A small debt for a small favor."
She frowned, her hand dropping from her neck, revealing the scattered marks. "You need not give me anything in return," she said. "It is fine."
He offered her a small half-smile. "I'm afraid I must insist; it's a bit of a custom for dwarves."
She turned to him fully. "I can ask for anything in return?"
He shrugged. "If it is within my power, yes."
Her face was tight and unreadable. "Tell no one what happened," she said, her voice as tight as her expression. He frowned, but before he could open his mouth she cut across him.
"What happened between me and the King," she said haltingly. "Do not tell anyone." Her eyes were full of trepidation. "Especially," she said, "not Kili."
He felt his brows draw together. "I was not going to tell anyone," he said. "But I won't—"
"Do not ever mention it, even if we are alone," she interrupted. "Never speak of it."
He said nothing, and she drew herself up to her full height. "Please, just act as if it never happened," she said. "I do not ever wish to speak of it. That is my request."
He swallowed. "Very well," he said. "As you wish."
She turned away again. "Thank you," she said softly.
He dipped his head, saying nothing. Her throat was working, as if she was trying to swallow, but couldn't. She let out a rattling breath.
"I know that pretending it didn't happen will not lessen the blow," she said softly. "I do not wish to be reminded of my..." She didn't go on, her eyes shimmering.
She turned abruptly. "I must go now," she said mechanically. "I must send a letter to Legolas informing him of the conclusion we came to."
He blinked, thrown. "Oh," he said. "All right."
She strode away, her loping gait carrying her towards her room. He watched her go, not moving. Just before she disappeared into the maze of corridors, she half-turned towards him, affording him a glance of her planed profile, framed by the fiery hair that fell in loose waves down her shoulders and back.
"Thank you for accompanying me to Dale," she said softly, so softly he barely heard it. It echoed, the room ringing with the sound. "You helped me a great deal."
Without another word, she turned and disappeared into the corridors, the shadows beyond swallowing her form and leaving him alone in the massive entrance hall.

It was dark in the throne room, and it was snowing outside—the overcast sky allowed barely any sunlight through the clouds, and the misted windows behind the throne were nearly completely dark. It was cold as well, and there was a draft blowing, stealing up from the bowels of the Mountain and cooling the air. As if it needed to be cooled any more.
Fili squirmed slightly, and he forced himself to still with an effort. Thorin was observing him from under a glittering, half-hooded gaze, fingers steepled under his bearded chin and legs crossed, the Arkenstone above his head leering at Fili where he was standing. Thorin leaned back on the throne, dark brows raised. There was thinly veiled amusement playing in his eyes.
"Well?" he asked. "Are you going to tell me what happened, or shall I assume your visit was eventless?"
Fili coughed slightly. "No, it was quite... quite eventful."
Thorin's brow climbed higher. "Oh?" His spare upper lip curled slightly, and there was a trace of mockery in his tone. Fili shifted his weight, biting his lip.
He coughed again. "We asked him about the floodgates. He said he couldn't open them—" he hesitated. "Until late February or early March."
Thorin's mouth curled up at the corner, eyes shimmering like distilled sin. "I presumed as much," he said, his voice curling around the words with apparent relish. "Not before that?"
"No," said Fili. "He said that was the earliest he could do it."
"I imagine that did not sit too well with our... visitor, did it?" His lip curled further, and his voice dropped slightly.
Fili swallowed past his suddenly dry throat. A sudden rush of anger surged through him, alarming in its intensity. He thought of Tauriel's fluttering lashes, her wavering gaze, how afraid and lost she seemed. And Thorin was—almost nonchalant, calm, unruffled, untouched by something that had nearly destroyed her. He knew that Thorin was no stranger to what had happened, and it had most likely been nothing to him, but seeing Tauriel's face in his mind's eye, hearing her voice break...
"I'd never... Not before him," she had said. Didn't he feel anything, any repentance, after seeing what he had done to her? She had said that she let him, but what had come after...
"She was not too pleased," he said carefully, "but she accepted."
"Naturally," said Thorin. "There is no other way out, is there?"
Fili clasped his hands behind his back. "Gandalf was there as well."
"Was he?" Thorin's brow climbed ever higher. "Yet he did not come this way."
"No," said Fili. "I do not think he will."
"Hmm," was all Thorin said. "So three more months we must host her."
Fili swallowed a scathing retort. "We must come to a consensus by then."
"That is not a problem," said Thorin dismissively, waving a thick-fingered hand. "I knew what I wanted to do the moment she arrived."
Fili frowned. "You mean—"
"The day she arrived here I made my decision," he said, a supercilious brow still raised. "Whether to open my gates or not."
Fili gaped. "But—," he began.
"Why did I stall for two months?" He leaned back against the throne, smiling a little. There was no humor or warmth in the smile at all. "Why do you think I did?"
Fili forced his mouth shut with an effort. "Because you don't really know why she came here." The answer flowed so readily from his lips he wondered if he'd thought it all along.
Thorin's eyes darkened as his smile widened. "So you have put thought behind it as well," he said.
Fili swallowed. "I thought it—odd," he said hurriedly. "That she came here on such short notice—"
"Precisely." Thorin's swift voice cut through his stutters. "The Elvenking knew I would refuse should he have asked me previously."
"But," Fili said again, "why...?" He let it hang.
Thorin sighed, sitting back. "I do not know why she is here," he said. "But it is not for trade, of that I am sure."
Fili said nothing. He, affer all, thought the same thing. Instead, he asked, "What did you decide?"
"For what?"
"Whether to open your gates for the elves or not," he said.
Thorin's lip curled again, and it was an expression somewhere between a smirk and a sneer. "Should I not have suspected another reason for her arrival I would have sent her back the instant she arrived, and my gates would not have opened for them, or anyone else."
Fili felt his brows draw together. "But being a kingdom of such wealth—does it not mean strengthening ties with other realms and—"
"That," Thorin cut in, "is rhetorical nonsense. Spouted by Thranduil, doubtless to attempt to sway me to open my gates."
"But without trade, the kingdom is bound to decline," said Fili, a tad desperately. "Perhaps it was simply a ruse on King Thranduil's part, but there is truth in his words. If the gates remain closed, then the kingdom will stale."
Thorin regarded him darkly. "Trade with the elves will not uplift the realm."
"Nor will closing off the realm."
Thorin sighed. "I cannot open my gates."
"Why?"
"Because I do not wish to," he said, leaning forward, fists clenched on the throne. "Why should I, when all they will do is take our wealth and pay it back inadequately? Why should I, when they do not realize that it is because of me that they survive? If this is the only way to make them understand what exactly will happen should they not give to the one from whom they take, so be it."
A slim braid slipped out of his hair, falling across his shoulder. The metal bead at the end gleamed, marked all over with sigils of Durin. Fili briefly closed his eyes, then opened them, feeling despair take hold of him in its claws.
"But being a king," he said softly, "does it not mean the opposite of isolation?"
"It means power," Thorin said, fists still clenched. "It means holding the Arkenstone, it means yours is the fist ruling this valley."
Fili shook his head, throat dry. Why was he doing this? Why was he talking back to Thorin? Why wasn't he just agreeing and leaving and saving himself from whatever lay in wait for him now? But he couldn't bring himself to stop.
"Not to me," he said. "To me it means opening the gates, it means diplomacy, it means—it means—" The opposite of what you say it means.
"Means what?" Thorin asked softly, and his tone sent alarm bells ringing immediately in Fili's brain. Enticing and inviting, coaxing him to say exactly what he shouldn't. He chose his next words with immense care.
"It means links with other realms," he said. "Not hoarding wealth, but sharing it. Giving it to those who need it, and allowing them to give it back in their own time." He thought of the turrets of Dale, and the faded, forlorn flags fluttering in the wind.
"The Arkenstone," he said carefully, "to me, decides nothing. It is but a gem, is it not? Even if you did not hold it you are king."
"While that may be," said Thorin, his expression unwavering, "without it, who are we? This stone," he said, "is what makes the blood in our veins flow blue. It is what decides who wears the crown."
Fili bit the inside of his lip. "Even without it we are of the blood of Durin."
"But with it, we are more than that." His eyes were snapping with fanaticism. "You do not see yet," he said. "When you take the throne and hold this stone you will realize its weight. Its meaning. It is the true summit of the peak, the true wealth of the Mountain."
Fili's eyes flicked up to the gem, feeling his jaw clench. Liquid hate filled him, all directed at that one hateful object. It glimmered innocently, flashing ivory white, coral pink, and ice blue.
"We do not need it to prove our position," Fili said. "Only to exert it."
"Exactly," said Thorin. "If we did not have it, then what would we be?"
Something better than this. "Just kings," said Thorin. "We would be no different than the lords of the Iron Hills, or the kings of Moria. It is the Arkenstone that makes Erebor the greatest of all the seven Dwarf Kingdoms. And when you come to the throne you must remember that."
Fili felt helplessness clutch at him. How would he ever make his uncle understand that this path was the wrong one to take? How would he tell him that the Arkenstone was not an object of power, but of destruction? How would he tell him that if he ever took the throne, that stone would be the first thing to go? He did not want to be an isolationist like Thorin was.
"I will," he said instead, bowing his head.
"Good," said Thorin, leaning back again.
"About the gates," Fili ventured again. "If you do open them—"
"Even if there was the slimmest chance of me opening the gates, then I would open them only for the elves, for their competence far outstrips that of Dale and Esgaroth, as the current situation of both can attest to," he said dismissively.
Fili thought it wisest to say nothing, holding back a biting reply. "But I'm sure if the gates of the Woodland realm open, Dale will make the most of it," Thorin went on. "They will ask for aid, and if I know the Elvenking at all, then he will refuse."
Then he smiled, he actually smiled, despite the perversity of it all, despite the implication of what he had said, knowing that a city and its inhabitants that had done nothing to provoke him were dying because of him. And he didn't care. He didn't feel a shred of remorse, or repentance, or anything.
"I knew Thranduil was only waiting for an excuse to close his own gates," Thorin went on casually, as if he were talking about the weather. "I'm sure he didn't take much convincing to do the same. He always was especially conservative, even for an elf."
He stood, the rich furs on his back falling in folds to the floor, whispering on the stone as he descended the steps from the throne, stopping in front of his nephew. He was a good inch taller than Fili, and he swallowed, feeling very small all of a sudden.
"It is only a matter of time," Thorin said softly, and Fili didn't dare look up. "Before something must happen. But what will happen first? Will my gates open, or will we discover her true intentions here?"
Fili's eyes were fixated onto the floor. "Anything can happen," he said.
"Indeed," murmured Thorin. "Anything can happen, but we must shape circumstances so that we know what will come. And our enemy will be swept away by the tide that we escaped."
Fili dared to look up, seeing the cold blue of Thorin's eyes—eyes he saw every day when he looked into a mirror—gazing back at him. "We have no enemy," he said. "Not really."
Thorin, to Fili's relief, stepped back slightly, hands clasped behind his back. His brows were raised, lips set into a humorless smile.
"Everyone is an enemy," he said. "There are no more alliances, Fili. Only hostility."
"But engineered by whom?" murmured Fili, so quietly even he could scarcely hear it.
"It was not engineered," said Thorin. "It was always there, but it made its presence known only recently. We can trust no one; everyone acts only in favor of themselves. If we do not look to our own, then we will be deceived."
Fili swallowed, nodding. "But if you do open the gates..."
"Then I do not know what will come after," said Thorin. "But if I had a choice, then the gates of this realm would open for none, not for the men, nor for the elves. We are well off enough on our own, without their aid. And while the same cannot be said for them, I can hardly be blamed for that."
He swept back to the throne, fixing Fili with a piercing look. "So the floodgates will reopen in early March."
"Yes," said Fili. "And until then..."
"Until then," said Thorin, "we must uncover every lie festering under this Mountain." His smile was a razor blade in the dimness, sharp and serrated and deadly.
"And when we do," he said softly, "the hunt will begin."

The room was empty, and every step he took echoed around the hollow chamber a hundred times, until he was surrounded by the soft patter of his own footsteps, going on and on and on. There was a single lamp glowing softly with a buttery yellow light, but he couldn't see it. It was cold, the stone all around doing nothing to warm the room. There was no fire.
It was a chamber so massive it dwarfed even the Gallery of the Kings. The ceiling was low, and marked all over with gentle, sweeping runes of grief and mourning and remembrance, painted in gold and red.
The symbols echoed the ones etched onto the tomb, but the hand that had marked them was clearly different—these were more dramatic, the lines more taut, the edges more sharp. To anyone who knew him, the one who had etched the runes onto the tomb was very obviously Thorin.
Fili had watched him carve those runes, had seen his hands shaking, but the markings were neat and clean, perfect almost. They spoke of irrevocable loss and sadness and emptiness, a grief beyond comprehension.
Fili sat in the frontmost pew, folding his hands in his lap. He gazed at the tomb that held his mother's body, cold and still and distant. There was a hollow ache inside him, where she used to be. A wound that opened afresh every day.
He wondered what she would make of all this—all the lies and the careful deception on more than one front, the planned backstabbing and the false impressions. She was always a peacemaker, his mother. Always willing to compromise, willing to forget petty grievances and forge new alliances. She had disapproved of her brother's closing the gates, and had been vocal about it, protesting in nearly every meeting. But Thorin's word was law, and eventually she was forced to accept it.
He could only imagine how she would react to Thorin's compulsive measures and decisions now, and how little trust he harbored for anyone. Sometimes Fili wondered if Thorin trusted him and Kili, or if he was watching them too, wondering when they would show where their true loyalties lay.
His eyes flicked to the tomb again, and a wave of sadness crested and broke inside him, and he swallowed hard, bowing his head. He simply breathed in the silence for a few minutes, hearing nothing except the soft sounds of his breaths.
He raised his head after what felt like an eternity, and he stood from the pew, moving towards the stone structure. There were patterns etched all over it, telling the story of a warrior princess, the advisor to the king, the iron rod that held the kingdom up, the mother and the sister and the wife and the daughter. She had stood by her brother, aiding and advising and ruling by him. She had been queen in all but name.
And then the flame had sputtered and gone out, so abruptly that it had left the whole kingdom reeling. Erebor had been draped in black banners for months, and there had been no smiles or laughter for what felt like ages and ages. And, of course, what had come after.
He heaved a sigh, a careful hand reaching out and settling onto the cold stone, feeling pinpricks of numbness begin to spread up his arm. He paid it no heed.
"I know it's been a while since I came here," he said, and his voice cracked. "I'm sorry, I've been... preoccupied. With things. Big things." He cleared his throat. "I should've come sooner, but it's been... I haven't had time."
He swallowed past the lump in his throat. "I miss you. Every day I miss you. I wonder why you left, why you had to leave so soon. It isn't fair, is it?" His hand slipped on the cool stone. "There's so much going on, and so many big things have happened in such little time, it's forcing us to change, to learn. And Thorin..." His eyes stung. "You wouldn't even recognize him if you saw him now, Amad. The things he's done..."
He took a shaky breath, trying to master himself. "He's not who he was before," he said softly. "He isn't Thorin anymore, he's something else. If you were here, maybe he wouldn't have changed. I don't know, but in these last few years, Kee and I have lost everything; Adad, you, now Thorin too. And Kili is still so young, and I don't know what to do."
He chewed on his lip. It was difficult, admitting it, that he didn't know what to do, didn't know where to go, didn't know how to proceed. He was utterly lost.
"I just wish we'd had a few more years," he said finally. "Together. But since I can't change the past, can't I fix the future? I can try." He exhaled hard. "I will try. Maybe one day the gates will open again. And maybe Thorin will be the uncle we once had again, and the king he used to be."
He stepped back, his hand falling from the tomb. "It's Yule tomorrow," he said. "Our first Yule without you. It'll be difficult, and there won't be much cheer, but we'll remember you. Like we always do." He took another step back. "I'll miss you, Amad."
He turned around, leaving the tomb behind, gently closing the door behind him and walking away, up the winding corridor and out of sight.

"So," Kili said, putting his feet up on the table. "March?"
Fili shrugged in response, tossing a sugar-coated biscuit into his mouth. It was decorated with elaborate swirls in frosting and was filled with liquid chocolate, and was probably the unhealthiest thing he could possibly eat, but it was Yule, so he didn't care.
"Kind of late, hmm?" asked Kili, carefully selecting a sweet from the assorted platter of biscuits and chocolate he had nicked from the kitchens. He bit into it, chewing thoughtfully. His eyes lit up.
"Ooh," he said. "Mint." He popped the rest of the chocolate into his mouth, sighing in a satisfied sort of way as he did.
"It is late," said Fili, brushing crumbs out of his beard. He flushed when he remembered Sigrid's soft hands and her wide eyes and how close he had come that day to—
"At least Bard was willing to compromise," said Kili, interrupting his thoughts. "Nice of him."
"He felt bad for her, I suppose," Fili said, picking up a gingerbread man. Well, technically it was a gingerbread dwarf, since he had a thick ginger beard and eyebrows, complete with a a small ax with runes on it. He inspected it for a second, then decidedly bit its head off.
"Who wouldn't?" asked Kili, leaning back against the armchair he was sitting on. They were in Fili's room rather than at the celebration, finding it more peaceful there. Kili had snuck a plate of sweets from the kitchens, and they had forgone the ceremony entirely. Thorin also wasn't there, despite being King, so their absence would hardly be felt.
"She's an elf, and Thorin's not exactly nice to her, is he?" Kili went on. Fili swallowed his bite, coughing slightly. He just managed not to choke.
"Tell no one what happened," she had said. "Especially not Kili."
"Anyway," Kili said dismissively, "three months is better than a year, right?"
"Mmh," Fili said, putting the rest of the gingerbread dwarf in his mouth to avoid answering. Swallowing it, he said, "I'm sure that's an arrangement you're entirely too happy about."
"Is it?" Kili asked wearily, sighing.
"Three whole months," Fili said seriously. "Now that you think of it, it's quite a while, isn't it?"
Kili shrugged. "It is."
Fili grinned. "Don't make me say it."
"You don't have to," Kili muttered. He snatched a tart from the platter with unnecessary force, nearly displacing the plate as he did. Steadying it, he took a bite out of the tart, ignoring his brother studiously as he pretended to be absorbed in eating the pastry.
"And I didn't ask you—how's your career as a stalker coming along?" He smiled innocently from above his cherry tart.
Fili made a face at him. "I'm not stalking her."
Kili raised his eyes to him. "If it's not stalking, then what is it? Spying?"
"Neither," said Fili, swiping a sticky lemon drop from the plate. "I'm just worried."
"For what?" scoffed Kili. "What could possibly endanger them, they're perfectly safe!" He licked his fingers clean of the sugar that coated them. "I don't know, but she won't like it when she finds out."
Fili lapsed into a stubborn silence. For a few minutes there was no talk, only the sound of the merry fire crackling away in the hearth in front of them. Finally Kili sighed. "I think I'm going to burst if I eat any more," he said, glancing at the nearly-empty plate next to him.
Fili mirrored his sigh. "Me too."
Kili stood up, stretching like a cat. "I'm going to the library," he announced. "Coming?"
Fili shook his head. "I think I'll stay here. I'm too lazy to get up."
Kili rolled his eyes, but grinned, stretching again before leaving the room, humming one of the carols they had heard floating in from the celebration below. The sound was cut off abruptly when he closed the door, leaving Fili wrapped in silence.
He sank into a stupor, gazing at the fire. A log cracked, sending up a plume of sparks and smoke. He watched it curl in the air, flitting up the chimney and up into the air. There was a calming silence, and his mind came to rest slowly, the thoughts flitting through calming and settling, leaving a blissful blankness behind it.
He blinked, sensing a flicker of movement in his periphery. He glanced out of the thick glass window set high into the wall of his room, turning his head to see what was there, expecting perhaps a particularly violent flurry of snowflakes.
He jumped when he saw a shape fluttering there, a large, black shape smudged with white from all the snow. He leaped to his feet, hurrying over to the window, all prior laziness forgotten.
He prised it open, just a crack. The raven on the other side screeched, flapping its wings. A gust of snow swirled inside the room, dusting the carpet and coating it in white.
"What is it?" he demanded. "What happened?"
It shrieked, flapping noisily. His eyes narrowed, and he looked to the smudged lights of Dale.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
The raven cawed in reply, beating its wings frantically to keep itself afloat against the howling wind and the snow. He frowned at it, trying to decipher what it was it was attempting to tell him.
"An emergency?" His heart skipped a beat. "What's going on?"
It warbled, the sound lost on the wind. It flapped again and he bit his lip. Kili was in the library, Thorin was likely in his room, and the celebration was ongoing, meaning nearly the whole Mountain would be empty. Nobody would see him leave, and nobody would see him return, either. Kili would likely only come out after dinner. Thorin was nowhere to be found, and would remain that way till the next day. It was the perfect time for a quick getaway.
"All right, wait at the gates," he hissed, snatching his coat. "I'm coming down."

The cold stung his cheeks as he fought his way through the snow drifts that had formed between Erebor and Dale. He had forgone a steed, knowing that he wouldn't be seen either way. As a result, he had to manage on his own, with a cackling raven above him dancing on the wind, flapping ahead of him every few minutes and waiting for him to catch up.
Swearing softly, he arrived at the gates of Dale, which were twined with a slender string of glowing lights for the festival. The raven flew into the city, sweeping through the air as he followed, now feeling as though his patience were being tested to the fullest.
The snow had stopped at last, and it was just turning into evening, the sky a deep, fathomless blue, as he could see through the small gaps the clouds made as the winds teased them. There were carolers in the streets, cheeks pink and eyes bright, their merry tunes ringing through the street and echoing around. He expected everyone to either not even acknowledge his presence, or perhaps react with hostility, maybe leer at him, tell him to leave and go home.
But instead their smiles widened and they held their hands out, wishing him a merry holiday and raising their voices to sing more, any enmity born from their situations forgotten. Many a pedestrian smiled at him, with wishes on their lips and no hostility on their faces as he made his way to the king's house.
He found his mood lifting invariably, and by the time he got to the door of the king's house he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. There were no enemies here. Thorin had been wrong. The only enemies he had were the ones he made himself.
He bit his lip and rang the doorbell, and the raven cawed, as if wishing him luck, and flew off over the roof, disappearing above his head. He waited, wondering if this was a bad idea. Maybe nobody was home. Maybe they didn't hear the bell. Maybe—
"Just a minute!" called a laughing voice from inside the house. His heart did a little tap dance in his chest when he heard the voice, wondering if she would be pleased to see him—
The door flew open and then she was standing there, her face glowing with happiness and eyes shimmering, not quite green and not quite gray. She was dressed in a plain, pretty dress, red and gold for the festival, and she was barefoot.
Her hair was down, and he had never noticed nor realized how long it was, or how thick—it fell in heavy curls down her back, chestnut with hints of coffee and russet, held back by a simple band that was woven into a braided crown on her brow.
She stopped short upon seeing him, her laughter dying abruptly. She blinked, and her cheeks reddened slightly, accentuated by the deep crimson of the dress. He saw her swallow.
"Fili," she said, and there was surprise in her voice. Vaguely he realized that she had called him by his name, without any formality.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, blushing again. She seemed to realize that she was blushing and straightened, clearing her throat. She waved a hand before he could reply.
"Never mind," she said. "Da, Tilda and Bain have gone out for the celebration—I said I'd be there in about half an hour. I've still got plenty of time. Do come in."
She stepped aside, letting him in. Once the door had closed behind her, and clasped her hands in front of her and smiled at him. He returned it, and her cheeks darkened slightly.
"Merry Yule," he said.
He caught a flash of white teeth when she smiled again. "And to you," she said. "Not celebrating at home?"
He shrugged. "Kili and I always hated those things."
"Mmm," she said, twining a curl of hair around her finger. "Too many people and not enough drinks?"
He laughed. "Quite the opposite," he said. "Too many people, too many drinks and not enough celebrating."
"They'd fight you over the definition of 'celebrating'," she observed.
"They would," he agreed. "That's why I don't like the celebrations there."
"I wouldn't either," she said, then fisted a hand in her dress, lifting the hem slightly to make it easier to walk, beckoning him after her. "Let's not talk here," she said. "Doorways are hardly the place to be when it's Yule."
He followed her deeper into the house, every step she took affording him a glance of her smooth, unmarked ankles as she walked. She spoke to him over her shoulder, her voluminous curls bouncing with every step.
"It's cold out," she said, "but I don't think you mind, do you? There's this lovely little pavilion where nobody but me ever goes, and it's all lit up for the holiday."
"No, I don't mind," he said, and let her lead him to a small courtyard, with said pavilion in the middle, the sloping roof iced over and the pillars in the walls strung with lights. Sigrid shoved her feet into thin slippers before she walked into the pavilion, and as he followed he wondered how on earth she wasn't slipping on the inch thick layer of ice coating the ground.
She sat in the pavilion, on a stone bench that ran around the sides. She crossed her long legs, the hem of the skirt riding up again and displaying her feet and ankles. The seat must have been freezing, but she didn't seem to mind at all.
He glanced around discreetly, but the raven was nowhere in sight. Stupid bird—there was clearly nothing wrong, so why had it called him so urgently? It had probably been mistaken. Some days he didn't know why he even employed the thing.
"Nobody ever comes out here," she said, her breath misting in the cold air. "I like to just—sit here and think, it's a bit of peace and quiet for a change."
She braced her hands on the bench on either side of her, looking away towards the house. She pressed her lips together, her hair blowing slightly in the wind.
"It's rare that we get peace and quiet," he offered. "It's impossible to find it in the Mountain though. There's so much to do."
Her eyes flicked toward him. "Duties," she murmured.
"As the next in line for the throne," he said. Her eyes darted to the ground in front of him.
"As the firstborn." Her gaze went to his shoulder.
"As the eldest sibling." Her eyes came to rest directly on his. There was hesitation there, but there was also challenge. Warmth. Something unfurling, opening, loosening.
"It can be..." She seemed to be casting around for a word. "It's... Sometimes you just feel so..."
"Trapped," they both said at the same time.
Her face flamed, but she held his gaze steadily, not looking away. Irresistibly his mind was dragged back to the day before—her tentative smiles, her even more tentative fingers, the way her breath had caught and her pulse had fluttered in her neck.
He swallowed, feeling his own cheeks grow warm. It was strange, how this one human girl could reduce him to a stuttering mess who couldn't tell high from low. He thought of the way Kili would practically have stars in his eyes when he looked at Tauriel, how he looked at her as if she was the sunrise after years of darkness.
"It's rare that I find someone who understands," she murmured, her eyes still locked onto his. "Empathy, rather than sympathy."
He didn't blink, unable to look away from her. She flushed, finally breaking the stare. "How uncourteous of me—I didn't even ask you to sit." She scooted over on the bench, patting the seat where she had been sitting moments before.
He sat, and he was very aware of how it was still warm from where her body heat had thawed the cold, and how she smelled faintly of nutmeg and lemongrass.
"It's very lively here this time of year," he said. "It's definitely nicer than the celebrations at home."
She smiled, swinging her legs. "Yes, it's quite merry. There's a bell tower where we all gather around evening, and there's a feast and all. It lasts well into the small hours, and everyone wakes up late the next day." She laughed.
"The dwarves are no strangers to late nights with drinking and even later mornings with headaches. It's a daily occurrence, Yule is no exception," he sighed. "I must say I've never tried it."
"Oh?" She threw him a teasing smile. "The Crown Prince can't hold his liquor?"
"I'm afraid he can't," he said regretfully. "But his brother can. And so can his uncle. He didn't get the alcohol resistant genes, unfortunately."
"It could be quite useful at times," she said, sighing. "Can't say the same for myself, either. I tried wine once and nearly spit it back out." She smiled ruefully.
"Anyway, this is most likely our last Yule here," she said, her eyes going distant. "It'll all be gone by this time next year." Her words were heavy with sadness.
"No, it won't." He sat up straight, his hands fisting by his sides. "It won't be."
"Don't," she said sharply, turning her face away. "Don't try to make it seem like it'll be fine, because it won't—"
"I'm not disillusioning you," he said. "I mean it."
"How?" she demanded, her voice strained. She turned to him, eyes shattered. He could see it, the physical stress she put on herself, how much she thought about this and lost sleep over it and spent ever waking moment thinking about it. "How do you know anything? You're safe, you have a good life, one that isn't threatened to collapse any month now, you have a home, somewhere to go back to, and because of your king we don't—"
"I will help you," he said evenly, cutting through her tirade. It was something he had observed, something he knew worked; whenever Kili was especially angry, all Fili would do was talk over him calmly, and he would fall silent. It did most definitely not work here—she looked, if possible, even angrier than before.
"What do you mean?" she demanded.
"I mean what I said. I will help. I'll do something, anything, to try and save the city, you never deserved this fate."
"But why?" she whispered. "Why are you trying to save us? What are we to you but another conquest?"
"To Thorin, nothing. But to me..." He shook his head. "All I could see when he closed the gates were the faces of those who lost their homes and their livelihoods, who lost their future. I felt responsible—isn't he my uncle, my king? Am I not to take the throne after him? Who am I to decide who lives and who dies? I am not a god. But Thorin thinks he is."
He shook his head again. "I am not lying when I say that I will do everything in my power to see this city as it once was. I promise." He looked at her, feeling the chalenge burning in his own eyes.
And she was looking at him. Really looking at him, as if she had never seen him before. Her eyes were wide and shimmering, and she was sitting so close that he could see every individual brushstroke of green in them. A chestnut curl fell across one of those eyes, and he itched to brush it back in place.
"I promise," he said again, softly. "I will help you—all of you. I will see you smile again, I will see your fates restored, I will see the flags of Dale flying high and proud and mighty again. I will revoke what Thorin has done. I will help you rewrite your futures."
He took a deep breath, steeling himself. "I will bring Dale back to its former glory. I swear it. Even if—" He swallowed. "Even if I die."
She caught her breath with a little gasp, her lashes fluttering. She was still looking at him, with that wondrous look in her eyes, as if she were looking at a miracle. She leaned forward, towards him, her teeth catching on her lips. Her lower lip trembled, and she opened her mouth to speak when a deep, sweet chime filled the air, ringing through the city and around the hills.
Her eyes darted up, looking at the massive bell tower whose bells were ringing merrily, announcing the pinnacle of the holiday. He didn't look away from her face, and the layers of pure, rich notes fell over and under each other, blending to create a lovely sound that somehow reminded him of cheer and home and hearth, of joy and celebration.
Slowly, the sound of the bells died down, and her eyes slewed to his again, and he saw her swallow. Her gaze dropped ever so slightly from his eyes.
His hand reached out, brushing the stray curl from her eyes, tucking it behind her ear gently. Her eyes closed briefly, and her breath escaped in a small rush. Her eyes opened again, and he could see something flickering in them.
"Merry Yule, Sigrid," he said softly.
His hand curled around her cheek, cupping her face in his palm as he leaned forward, closing the distance between them slowly, giving her time, to see if she would push him away, hesitate like she had done the last few times.
She didn't.
Her eyes closed, and her face tilted up slightly, lips parting in invitation. He leaned up, his mouth brushing across hers, a gentle, soft, tentative kiss. Her lips were warm, and she tasted of cinnamon and mint and softness and Sigrid.
She moved forward, deepening the kiss, her slender hands resting first hesitantly then with greater purpose on his shoulders, her fingers curving around them and pulling him closer. They both slipped a little on the ice and she gasped against his lips, a small, surprised sound that sent heat shooting through his body.
Her hands slid into his hair, winding the golden braids around her fingers and tugging slightly, spilling a soft groan from his mouth and into hers. His lips slanted across hers, and she sighed his name against his mouth, her other hand warm on his back. He heard a rushing, pulsing sound, like beating wings, and—so suddenly he nearly jumped out of his skin—the sharp, loud caw of a bird.
They drew away at the same time, both gasping. Sigrid's cheeks were flushed, and her lips were slightly swollen and pink, and her eyes looked wide and dark. She was panting slightly, and her lips were parted.
They both looked at the glossy-feathered raven that was perched on the railing near them, blinking at them inquisitively. It set about preening its feathers, as if it had not just very rudely interrupted them.
He turned back to Sigrid, a finger tracing across her cheekbone. "Sorry," he murmured. "The damn bird just hasn't got a sense of timing."
She blinked, as if waking from a dream. "Your—the bird. It's yours?"
He nodded, a hand still tangled into her hair. She seemed to be deducing something with great difficulty, her brows drawing together. She frowned at him.
"It's your bird," she repeated.
"Yes. Why?"
She jerked back, eyes narrowing. She held a hand up when he moved forward, stopping him.
"That bird," she said, "has been veritably following me for the last two weeks. No matter how many times I sent it away, it always came back. Care to explain why?"
She isn't going to appreciate being spied on, Kili had said. "I—it was—," he began feebly.
"Fili," she said, and her tone brooked no room for argument. "Have you been tailing me?"
"Not—I wouldn't say tailing," he said desperately. "I was only concerned—"
"So you decided to spy on me?" She stood, folding her arms, clearly furious. "Do you have any idea how afraid I was, thinking that bird was from your uncle and that it was following me day in and day out? I already have so much to worry about, so much to do and so many things to look after, and this just added to that load!" she seethed.
"I—I'm sorry," he said. "Forgive me—I did not think."
"No," she sniffed, "you lot never do, do you?" She drew herself up straight, holding herself upright. "I trust you know your way to the door," she said, and turned her nose up at him in a very condescending manner.
With that, she turned on her heel and stalked away, not slipping once on the ice as she disappeared into the house, her curls swinging down her back. He stared after her helplessly, still sitting on the ice-slick bench.
The raven next to him cackled, sharp, acerbic laughter coming from its beak in uneven bursts. It flapped its wings, snickering at him.
Fili threw a stone at it.

Chapter Text

Kili

The torches glowed merrily in the stone corridor as he walked along it, his shadow spindly and elongated on the walls in the guttering light. He trailed his hand across the cool stone as he walked, his mind elsewhere.
Which explained why he collided headlong with something very solid as he rounded the corner.
He stumbled back, inwardly cursing his own lack of balance and concentration. His right shoulder hit the wall, a small flare of pain shooting up his arm and into his neck. He reeled away from the wall, rubbing his shoulder as the (mostly) healed wound there loudly made its presence known. As if he'd forgotten about it.
"Sorry," he mumbled as he rubbed his arm. "Wasn't looking where I was going."
"It's quite all right," said Tauriel's voice, and he jumped, all the pain in his shoulder vanishing mysteriously. He dropped his hand.
"I rather thought you and your brother would be at the celebration," she said, arching a coppery brow. He felt himself flush under her gaze, and shrugged.
"Never liked those things," he said. "If feel like it sort of ruins the point of the holiday. What happened to peace and sanctity and all of that?"
She smiled ruefully. "I doubt any dwarf would understand that."
He tossed her a roguish half-smile that would have melted any lesser woman. "Some of them do."
Her lips twitched. "Oh?" He detected a note of teasing in her voice.
"Mmhmm." He leaned against the wall, crossing his legs. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Don't you celebrate Yule at the forest?"
She made a face. "Not exactly. We do have a revel to bid farewell to the winter, and welcome the new year, but we never did anything for Yule. It is not our festival to celebrate."
"Pity," he sighed. "It's my favorite holiday."
She smiled. "Why?"
He tugged self-consciously at a lock of hair hanging into his eyes. "Well... It's nice to sit around a fire inside singing carols when it's all cold and snowing outside, for one thing. I don't really like the cold. Snow takes life, you know? The plants wither and the animals all go to sleep till spring. We lock ourselves in here—even if we're already locked in here. But the holiday sort of brings everyone together. Makes it easier to forget that there's a war going on. A respite, no matter how brief, is one cherished."
He winced. "Sorry, that was probably the sappiest thing that's ever come out of my mouth."
She was looking at him oddly, the firelight playing across her sharp features. Alternating gold and black striped her face, and with that flaming red hair framing her face she looked like something wild, untamed but proud and fierce, like a lioness.
"Is there?" she asked at last, her voice soft.
"Is there what?"
"Is there a war going on?" She blinked at him, her green eyes turned blue by the firelight. She was beautiful and also terrible, like a goddess. The dichotomy of it made him a little dizzy.
"A war's been going on for years now," he said. "Ever since my mother died."
Her eyes flickered. "A war between whom?"
He shrugged, looking down at his boots, somehow unable to make eye contact. "There are so many—the war between our realms, between ours and Dale, between Fili, me and Thorin, and Thorin's war with himself—" He broke off, biting the inside of his lip. He'd gone and said too much again. When would he learn to close his mouth?
Predictably, her gaze sharpened. "What do you mean?"
He balked. "It's nothing."
Her face was still, only her eyes holding any life. If not for the light in them she could have been a statue, cold and pale and unmoving.
"He was not always like this, your uncle?" she asked softly.
He swallowed past his dry throat. "Like what?" He was stalling, and he knew it—but the truth would have to wait—
"You know." She moved at last, tipping her head back and lowering her lashes to look down at him. "You know how he is. Better than I."
He sagged, defeated. "Back when Fili and I were children," he said hesitantly, "before he took the throne and everything fell apart—before all that he was... he was just our uncle, not a king. He was so different. He loved to leave the kingdom, he wouldn't come back for days, and whenever he did he'd have some crazy story to tell me and Fili—I don't know if they were true, or if he just liked to make us laugh.
"Then he had to take the throne, but it was too early. He could barely handle it, he was younger than I am now. He managed, and well, and for years we were happy. But then my mother died, and he just—dissolved. Disappeared. I don't know where that Thorin went, that Thorin we loved and were loved by. We buried him with my mother, I think. Now all we have left is what he became. We don't really know him, we don't want to. But... he's all we have."
He lapsed into silence, spent. It was only then that he realized his eyes were stinging. He blinked rapidly to dissipate it, looking at his boots again.
There was silence for what felt like an age. Then:
"I'm sorry," Tauriel said softly. "I didn't know..."
"Didn't know he wasn't always a ruthless killing machine? Not many do know it."
"Not that. I did not know that you and your brother have gone through so much."
He blinked, caught off guard, momentarily stunned into silence. She was fingering her sleeve, not looking at him.
"People have suffered through worse," he said at last.
"Perhaps," she murmured. "But to lose everyone and everything that you hold dear can be a tiring experience indeed."
Tiring. Not painful, not scarring. Just... tiring. And it was—nobody had ever christened what had happened as tiring, but that was the perfect word to describe it. And he was tired. Down to the bone.
"It was—or, it still is," he sighed. "Sometimes all you want is some rest, you know?" He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it so that it stuck all around his head. He didn't care.
"Rest is a luxury none of us can afford," she replied with a tight smile.
He swallowed and looked at a small glowing strand of tinsel someone had wrapped around a torch nearby.
He raised his eyebrows. "And I nearly forgot—merry Yule, lady Tauriel."
She offered him a tentative smile, turning fully towards him. In the flickering light, the not-yet-faded marks scattered all over her throat were thrown into sharp relief. What on earth had happened?
"And to you as well, prince Kili," she said. Her voice rolled the l in his name, and flattened out the vowels, her faint accent hugging the syllables and adding a faint trill. His name had never sounded so exotic.
Once, he could practically have heard Fili laughing at him, telling him how soppy he was being. But as of late, Fili hadn't been teasing him or poking fun at him or anything—not that that was so out of the ordinary that it had to be pointed out, but he'd been awfully withdrawn for the past few weeks, telling him not to get too close to her. At first he'd thought it was because Tauriel was an elf, or because she was an ambassador from Thranduil.
But how he began to wonder.
"You've never celebrated Yule, have you?" he asked, raising his eyebrows at her. She shook her head, tucking a strand of red behind her ear.
"Never. Our culture does not see the celebration." She shrugged elegantly. "Yule was always a mortal's festival in our eyes."
A mortal's festival. Of course—elves were immortal. He was sure they had better things to do than celebrate something trivial like Yule.
Well, too bad.
He straightened, unhitching himself from the wall. "In that case, follow me," he said, starting off along the corridor. "I'll show you something."
She fell into step beside him, a curious light entering her eyes. "Where are you taking me?"
He grinned. "You'll see."

"It's beautiful," Tauriel breathed.
They were standing in the massive hall where the celebration had begun (everyone had trickled off to the ballroom for the feast), now empty. It was one of the smaller halls in the Mountain, but still huge, big enough to fit about five Oliphaunts comfortably.
It was crisscrossed with lights, covering the walls, hanging from the ceiling, woven across the rafters and stretching from the walls, the glimmering globes of light raying off bright colors in green, red and gold.
And in the middle of it all stood the tree.
It was so tall that its topmost boughs brushed the ceiling, and they both had to crane their necks to get a better look at it as they came closer. It's feathery green branches were laden with candles and glass balls, all of them bigger than Kili's head. The weight of it didn't seem to hinder the tree; the branches swayed but didn't break, and the trunk was firm.
"They carted it in from the foothills," said Kili. "Took forty-five dwarves to lug it in."
Tauriel's eyes were shimmering, both from the reflection of the candlelight, and from her obvious rapture. She appeared to be taking it all in slowly, her lips pulling into a smile.
"Mortal's festival indeed," snorted Kili with a grin at her.
She laughed, and it was a merrier sound than the silver bells hanging from the lower branches of the tree. "It's lovely," she said earnestly.
"It is," he agreed. "I always preferred to come here rather than go for the feast."
"I can see why." She stepped up to the trunk, running her fingers along the bark. "It lives?" she asked.
He pointed at the massive pot set below. "It does. Once the festival is over, we just go and plant it in the forest again."
"I see." She turned to him with a radiant smile that robbed him of breath a little. "It's so..."
"Bright?" He raised a brow.
"Warm." She smiled.
He smiled back. She flushed but held his gaze, and the moment seemed to hang in the air, time stopping completely. He could have stayed there, in that one second, and he'd be happy forever.
"Our revels are not like this," she murmured, still looking at him. "We usually—"
"Dance and sing?" He shrugged. "So do we, but..." He thought for a moment. "There's less emphasis on the spirituality and more on the reality. We're celebrating the passing of winter, sure, but it's also for the children, when they get presents and it's decided whether they've been naughty or nice that year, and so on."
She seemed to suppress a grin. "Naughty or nice?"
"If you've been naughty, you get a lump of coal, if you've been nice you get sugar and if you've been sour you get lemons." He smiled at the memories. "And I'm proud to say that I've never gotten a lemon till date."
She laughed her wine fountain laugh. "And have you gotten coal?"
He pretended to think. "Maybe once or twice... or maybe every other year." He grinned. She shook her head with another sparkling laugh.
"Fili never got coal," he sighed, heading over to the archway near the back of the hall, wreathed with ivy. He ran a hand along the leaves, nearing them rustle. "He was always a good little boy."
"Mmm," said Tauriel, joining him under the arch. A sprig of mistletoe dangled above them, filling the air with its sweet scent. "Although being a bad little boy is much more interesting," she muttered, fingering a leaf. He suppressed a smile, saying nothing.
She looked up, reaching a hand up to roll a mistletoe berry between her fingers. "Mistletoe," she said softly.
"It grows only around Yule...," he said, and flushed when he remembered what his mother had once told him with a suggestive wink, many Yules before. "Be careful who you stand under the mistletoe with," she'd said. "It's a tradition to give them a kiss, for good luck."
He must have looked pretty flustered, because Tauriel blinked at him concernedly. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he muttered. "Just a silly tradition."
"Oh? What is it?"
He squirmed, and she grinned. "Silly traditions are what we are built on," she said. "That's why we follow them."
He sighed. "My mother always used to say that kisses under the mistletoe brought good luck. She loved those kind of things..." He swallowed, rendered slightly helpless under the tide of memories that were born at the thought.
"It's my first Yule without her," he said suddenly.
The thought had only then just hit him, that he'd never come to this hall without his mother, that he never would come here with her again.
Tauriel was looking at him sadly, her brows drawn together. A small frown line appeared between her brows, a tiny crease. He swallowed, shaking off the sadness like cobwebs.
"It's Yule," he said, trying for an upbeat smile. "I shouldn't be talking about these things on Yule."
"No," she said, her voice oddly wobbly. "No, it's fine—I understand."
He only nodded, looking intently at the ivy next to her. "Sometimes silly traditions can be right, in a way," he mumbled. "The mistletoe itself may not bring luck, but maybe it just feels good to be kissed on Yule day. I wouldn't know, either way."
A strange expression had settled onto her face. "Would it? Feel good to be kissed, that is."
He managed a sly grin. "My, my," he said. "Are you volunteering, Tauriel?"
She smirked, but she ruined the effect by blushing. "Well, I could use some luck," she said.
He laughed. "Everyone needs luck nowadays."
"Mmm." Her eyes were blazing. Had they always been that green? "Luck is hard to come by."
"We've been pretty bereft of it around these parts, if you hadn't noticed."
"I have." He could see every fleck of gold and brown in her eyes. Her lips were slightly parted, and he could see a faint abrasion on the fullness of her lower lip where she had bitten it. She smelled like cinnamon and cloves. If he kissed her, would she taste sweet, or sour? Bitter or hot?
No, he shouldn't be thinking about her like that, she was a royal ambassador, she wasn't for kissing, she was—
Her eyes flicked upwards, quickly, just a flash, lingering for half a second on the bunch of mistletoe hanging above. Then she looked back at him, and the sudden lack of space between them was evident.
She bit her lip, her lashes fluttering. There was a palpable charge in the air, one that crackled and popped between them. It was so obvious it was a miracle he couldn't see it.
He could see the hesitance in her eyes, clear as day. Hesitance, and fear. She was usually opaque, like Fili, and he could never usually tell what she was thinking. But now, for once, he could read her expression like a book.
You don't have to be afraid, he wanted to say. You don't have to hesitate.
Something behind her eyes seemed to crack, to give way. She took in a deep breath, as if to steel herself. As his heart lifted, she leaned forward—and then fear flooded her eyes. She swallowed visibly, stepping back, moving away.
He caught at her hand as she turned, her skin cool. "Tauriel?"
"I—I'm sorry," she said, her face white. "I can't..."
"What happened?" He felt a little dazed.
"I'm sorry, Kili," she said, and turned away, her fingers pressing to her lips. The other hand went to the marks on her throat. A familiar choking feeling gripped him.
"Tauriel—who did that to you?"
"I—I don't—it's nothing," she said, blinking rapidly. He had never seen an elf so robbed of composure. "Think nothing of it."
She turned back to him, a safe distance away, the unreadable expression back on her face. Her eyes, vulnerable mere seconds before, were now glassy and hard, almost stiff.
"Tauriel—?"
"I'm sorry," she said again, her voice as stiff as her expression. "It's nothing you need worry about."
"If—if you say so," he said, a little harried. He'd give her the space she needed, but that didn't make him any less curious—or worried.
"I should go," she murmured. A now-familiar feeling of disappointment shot through him. It was always like this—one moment she was talking and laughing, and the next she was withdrawn, and just when he thought he was wearing down her walls she would pull away and leave.
"Right," he muttered. There was no point pining. He knew the most logical thing to do was try and forget about her, but something about her drew him to her. He couldn't deny it. But all the same, he was tired of being pushed away.
"I'll see you around, lady Tauriel," he said, trying not to sound too disheartened. "Merry Yule."
Her eyes flashed as he turned away. "Kili, wait!"
He stopped but didn't turn.
"I never thanked you for bringing me here," she said. "It was lovely."
"It was nothing."
There was a red and green flash, and then somehow she was standing in front of him, her face open but her eyes still guarded. How had she moved so fast?
"It was a kindness," she said. "And I have encountered precious little of it over the past few months."
He swallowed, but said nothing. "Thank you," she said.
"You already thanked me," he muttered, feeling like a petulant child.
She smiled, tentatively. "Not for this. For—for trying to make me feel at ease. At... at home."
He blinked, thrown. Home was a strong word, one he had changed his mind about over the last few years. Hearing it the way she said it...
"I'm sure I haven't succeeded," he said finally.
She bit her lip again. "You have," she said, so softly he barely heard it.
He drew his brows together, but before he could even think of anything to say she had already leaned down and placed a soft, featherlight kiss onto his lips. He felt his eyes widen and his cheeks flame, and then she leaned away, her teeth catching on her lip.
"It wasn't under the mistletoe, but..." She looked up shyly, and when she smiled at him, it was brighter than all the lights in the room, so luminous it could have lit the whole Mountain.
"For good luck," she said.

He was walking back to his room, feeling oddly buoyant. Really, it was just one, very chaste kiss. And he'd hardly had time to react, or kiss her back. And it had lasted all of two seconds. All in all, it shouldn't really have done much.
But it had done a little too much. He felt like he was floating, and his mind kept telling him to tone it down, but it had just felt so right, like he had been waiting for that moment all his life and he'd never known it.
He turned a corner, aimless and wandering. He was going towards the front gates, but he didn't particularly care. He didn't think he could care about anything ever again.
He tried to wipe the ridiculous smile off his face and failed. Mahal, he was pathetic.
Now that the initial euphoria had worn off slightly, he was beginning to wish it had lasted a bit longer, so that he could have maybe let his hands go where his mind always went earlier—to her long red tresses, bury his hands in them and see if they were as soft as they looked. Or the delicate, pale skin of her forearms, corded with muscle but still lithe and streamlined, like the rest of her body. Or perhaps the dramatic arch of her jaw and throat—
"Kili?"
He whirled, blinking himself out of his trance, and saw Fili approaching, snow caught in his hair and on his clothes. His boots were caked with it, like he'd just walked through the storm outside. He drew up to Kili, and he could tell that he was out of breath.
"I'd just gone to—"
"Dale," finished Kili.
He got a sigh for that. "I'm beginning to feel predictable."
"You're covered in snow, where else could you have gone?"
He smiled weakly. "Opened my window, maybe?"
"You're an idiot if you think anyone would believe that."
"You're right," sighed Fili. "And... not only about this."
"Oh?" He raised his eyebrows. "What happened?"
Fili cleared his throat. "Well... I..."
"Saw Sigrid."
"Erm... yes."
"And?" He raised his brows, folding his arms across his chest. "Come on, spit it out."
"I may have... kissed her."
His arms fell to his sides. Oh.
"How did it happen?" he asked finally.
"Well... I went there, and she was alone at home, and we sat at this pavilion outside, and we just talked, and it sort of turned into something else, I suppose. But that's not it."
Kili waited.
"I also may have sort of sworn... on my life... to get them out of the mess they're in."
"What?"
Fili was looking at him with an expression that was part stubbornness and part apprehension. "I know it was," he hesitated, "reckless, but—"
"Reckless is an understatement."
"But I knew I had to do it. I don't regret it, Kili."
He sighed. "Now you've tied your fate to theirs. Imagine what could go wrong—"
"Nothing need go wrong if I can help it. I—it's a feeling. I'd do anything in my power to free them from the chains Thorin put on them, Kili. I'll right his wrong, even if it isn't my task."
Kili but the inside of his lip. "I don't want anything to happen to you, is all."
"To me?" Fili looked startled—the nerve! "Why would you worry about me?"
"Why do you think? Because you're my brother, you dolt." He scrubbed a hand across his face. "If anything did happen to you, I don't think I'd be able to—" to come back from that.
"I lost Adad, then Amad, then Thorin... I can't lose you, too."
He felt Fili's warm, solid hands on his shoulders, steady and grounding. He'd always been the force that kept Kili tethered to the ground, the bedrock of his childhood and the guidepost of his life now. Without Fili he would be helplessly lost.
"I will be fine," Fili said, his smile steady and calm. "If I die, you have my express permission to kill me."
Kili managed a laugh. "Fair enough."
Fili bit his lip. "And there's something else too."
"Oh, no. Now what?" He studied his brother, cheeks bright red from the cold, the dampness in his hair from the snow, the brightness of his eyes.
"She found out about..." He gestured vaguely, a hand briefly withdrawing from Kili's shoulder. Kili frowned.
"About wha—oh." He grinned. "She found out you were spying on her, didn't she?" Judging from the guilty look on Fili's face, she'd found out just that.
"She didn't take kindly to it, did she? Is that why you're back so early? Did she kick you out? Tell you off? Tell you she had enough to worry about without you tailing her?"
Fili cringed at every word. "Well..."
"She did, didn't she?"
"...Yes."
"Ha!" Kili grinned. "I told you! Didn't I tell you she wouldn't appreciate it? I'm sure she also had a few choice words to say about your tact—or rather, your lack thereof."
Fili groaned, putting his face into his hands. "I hate it when you're right."
Kili smirked, though his brother couldn't see it. "So she was angry."
"Yes," came the muffled reply.
"I don't know how you weren't expecting her to find out," said Kili, frowning at Fili's snow-dusted blond head. "It isn't as if you were discreet. What did she say?"
"The same thing you said." He sighed and lifted his head, rubbing at his eyes. "And just when I'd thought I'd done something right..."
"Bad luck, brother," Kili said happily, clapping him on the shoulder. "But at least you managed to kiss her before she found out."
He grumbled something intelligible, sighing. "I suppose," was all he said.
Then he narrowed his eyes at Kili, appearing to only then notice something. "What happened to you?"
Kili tried to tone down the probably ridiculous expression on his face. "What?"
"Something happened—what? Is it Tauriel?"
Why was he so good at guessing? Kili scowled at him. "None of your business."
"Not going to work, Kee. What happened?"
He scuffed the ground with the tip of his boot. "Shemayhvekssedme."
"What?"
He sighed, frustrated. "She kissed me."
Fili's expression was carefully neutral, almost still. "Looks like I'm not the only one, then."
Kili blushed, shrugging. "I wouldn't worry," he said. "She kissed me. And it only lasted about a second, so you don't have to look like I just told you I killed someone. And it's nice to know you're so happy for me."
Fili looked almost guilty. "It isn't as if I'm not happy for you, it's just—I want you to be careful."
"I don't get it. Why are you suddenly so apprehensive about it? A week and a half ago you were fine."
Fili's expression didn't waver. "It's just a feeling. I'm worried."
"About what?"
"About you, and what could happen if you get too close to her. Kili, something's happened, couldn't you tell? A few weeks ago..." He swallowed. "I don't know, but be careful."
There was genuine fear and worry in his eyes, and it was that which convinced him that Fili knew something. Something about Tauriel, something big. And he didn't want Kili to find out... but what was it?
"Okay," he said instead. "I'll be careful."
Fili smiled a little, leaning in conspiratorially. "Good. Now, how did it happen?"
Kili laughed, shoving him away. "I'm not telling you anything, you nosy lug."
"All right, all right," laughed Fili. "So you finally managed to do it. It's—it'll be good, for both of you."
"What?"
"A rel—this thing. Between you two, it'll be good. For a lot of things."
Kili narrowed his eyes. "Are you giving us your blessing?"
Fili snorted. "Something like that."
"Well, thanks, in that case," said Kili, bewildered. Then he grinned. "If you want it, you and Sigrid can have my blessing, too—"
"Oh, shut up."

There was a knock at the door.
Kili frowned, rolling off his bed and standing with a sigh. Glancing at the clock, he rolled his eyes. It was just past midnight, and was probably Fili, calling for something stupid, like why he hadn't come for dinner.
He stomped to the door and flung it open, scowling, about to say You're really lucky I was awake, you know, but the words died on his lips when he saw a nervous-looking dwarf at the door, clearly a guard. He was shifting from foot to foot, and he was holding two pieces of paper in his hands.
"Prince Kili," said the guard, bowing hastily.
"What is it?" asked Kili, frowning at the papers in his hands. "Is it something important?"
"Er—yes," he said, holding out the papers. "There are from Lord Dain."
Dain?
He took the papers, confused. "Why didn't you take these to Thorin? Or Fili?"
"Your brother is not in his chambers, and the king—" He grimaced, and shook his head. "The King is not to be disturbed."
Right. Of course. "Oh," he said. "Right, thanks." He held up the papers. "When did they arrive?'
"Just now, your Majesty. They came by raven."
"I see. All right, I'll read through them and tell Thorin." He dropped the guard a nod, who saluted and marched off, rounding the corner and disappearing. Kili closed the door, staring at the papers. Dain? They were from Dain?
He walked into the room, still looking down at the envelopes. One was addressed directly to Thorin, and the other was for all three of them. He put the one for Thorin onto his desk and sat on his bed with the other, slitting the envelope and pulling out the letter, muttering to himself as he read.
"Hope you're doing fine...blablabla... Heard about the elf ambassador... blablabla... Wonder what Thranduil's plan is... blablabla... Want to know how you fare... blablabla... Am coming to the Lonely Mountain in a week's time... What?"
He reread it, just to see if he hadn't read it wrong the first time. He blinked, surprised. Dain was coming here in a week? To Erebor? From the Iron Hills?
He sat back, the letter next to him. If he was to be here in a week, that meant he was going to leave that very day. And it was clear from the letter that he wasn't just paying a frivolous visit. He was suspicious about Tauriel, and now he was coming there to find out whenever it was he wanted to find out.
He eyed the letter addressed to Thorin, lying on the table. He knew that Thorin would be awake. He remembered the anxious face of the guard as he'd said, "The king is not to be disturbed." Of course, no matter what he was doing at the time, Thorin wasn't one to trifle with.
He knew the guard would probably not have much luck with Thorin, but Kili knew he had to give this to him... right now. It was important. And there was a letter addressed to him specifically. In fact, it'd be the wrong thing to do if he didn't give it to him.
He heaved another sigh and stood up, pocketing the letter. He picked up the one he had read and left the room, closing the door behind him and heading out.
He jogged to Thorin's door, grumbling inwardly about Dain's stellar timing. Or rather, Dain's raven's stellar timing. It just had to arrive at one in the morning, didn't it? And of course he had to be the only available one.
He was about to knock on the door when he frowned, stopping short, his hand resting on the doorknob. He heard faint noises coming from inside—rough panting, like someone was breathing heavily, and lighter, higher whimpers, almost as if the person making the noise was in pain.
He swallowed, his mind racing. He glanced fleetingly at the letters in his hand, then made up his mind, biting his lip as he raised his fist and knocked on the door once, twice, then three times.
The noises coming from inside stopped abruptly, though he could still hear someone breathing. There was a gasp, then a faint giggle. Kili blinked at the door, balking.
"Who is it?" called a voice from inside. It was Thorin's voice, but it was bit rougher than usual, and he sounded out of breath. Kili gnawed more savagely at his lip, his mind still racing.
"It's Kili," he called. "And it's important."
There was a sigh, then he heard wood creak and bedsheets rustle. "Come in then," he called after a few seconds, but he sounded faintly amused. Dreading what he'd find inside, Kili pushed the door open, bracing himself.
He saw Thorin first, half sitting, his hair artfully disheveled. His chest was bare, displaying his scarred, muscled skin that was gleaming with sweat, and the sheets were low enough to insinuate that a lot more than just his chest was bare.
The next thing he saw was the girl.
She was partially covered by Thorin, but he saw enough; the covers pulled till her clavicle, the slender hands holding them in place. Her hair was as mussed as Thorin's, dark chocolatey brown curls that hung till her waist. The covers slipped slightly and he looked away, cheeks burning. Her acid-green eyes glimmered with thinly veiled amusement, and her kiss-swollen lips pulled into a sultry smile.
The first partially coherent thought that flashed into his head was a sort of intense dismay, and he thought, Again? Now? After so many years of abstinence?
He swallowed hard, not knowing what to do. Why had he come here again? What was he doing here? He'd forgotten. It was something to do with... something he couldn't remember.
"Kili," said Thorin's amused voice, and he forced himself to look right at him, trying not to think of what he'd just been doing mere seconds before Kili had come in. "You said it was something important?"
The letters. Of course. "Um, yes—" He looked down at the paper, nearly crushed in his fist. He loosened it and cleared his throat, tentatively edging forward with the letter held out.
"Have—have I caught you at a bad time?" he asked, sure he was blushing. "I could come back tomorrow—"
"No, now is fine," Thorin said dismissively, holding our a hand for the letter. "Who is it from?"
Kili gave it to him quickly. "Dain."
Thorin's brows shot up. "Dain? Is something wrong?"
"Nothing serious. He's coming here in a week, though."
"Dain coming here? That's odd," murmured Thorin, taking the other read letter from his nephew and reading through it, his brows furrowed. He finished it and handed it back to Kili, who carefully avoided looking up as he did.
"So he wants to meet the ambassador," said Thorin, lips pulling up at the corner into a small humorless smile. He tossed the other letter onto the desk by the bed, sitting up a little. The sheets slipped again and Kili glanced down at his fingers.
"She's become quite the celebrity, hasn't she?" Thorin sighed, rubbing a hand across his face. The movement bared his throat, where Kili could clearly see a fresh, raw red mark, and a bruise was beginning to form—a bite mark, similar to the ones Tauriel sported on her own neck. He swallowed, his mind churning.
"Maybe he just wants to meet her to find out why's she's come on such short notice," Kili said, determinedly not looking at Thorin, but focusing on a point in the air just to his left. "He knows, doesn't he? That she's here."
"He knows," said Thorin. He seemed remarkably put-together despite what Kili had heard through the door seconds before. He didn't seem embarrassed, either—just indifferent, and apparently unabashed that his nephew had just caught him in bed with a woman. The thought made him feel even more sick.
"I told him, the day she arrived. It was he who told me not to send her away immediately, but to try and negotiate." He snorted. "Usually he would be the one telling me to get rid of her, rather than the opposite."
"He said he'd be here in a week, maybe less."
"Hmm. He'll have to start at first light tomorrow, then, if he wants to reach here soon. I'm sure we'll all have plenty to talk about while he's here, won't we?"
Kili swallowed again, his throat dry. He wanted to run as fast as he could in the opposite direction, but he stood his ground. "A lot more to talk about than we do now, that's for sure," he said.
"I'm sure it'll be quite the show with Dain here," sighed Thorin. Then suddenly he frowned, as if only then realizing that it was nearly half past one in the morning. He looked at Kili. "Shouldn't you be asleep?"
Kili managed a weak, halfhearted smile. "I was awake. I was just going to go to bed when I got the letters. I thought they were a bit too important to bring up only tomorrow morning, so I..." He trailed off.
Thorin's smile was more of a smirk as he raised a brow. "I'm sure you meant well, and I'm more than sure you didn't mean to come while I was... busy."
Kili's stomach turned. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. "I think I'll go to bed," he muttered finally. "See you in the morning."
At Thorin's brisk nod he turned, quickly crossing the room in a few strides and turning to pull the door closed behind him.
The girl smirked at him from behind Thorin's shoulder as he left, her slim fingers coming up and curling against his exposed throat, tracing the mark her teeth had left there, her tongue flicking over his shoulder.
Kili pulled the door shut, heart racing. He stumbled away from it and fetched up in the adjacent corridor, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes.
Mahal, not again, not now, not after so many years... He sunk his teeth into his lip, uncaring about the torn skin tearing even further, a sharp pain shooting from the spot. Why now? Why again? He thought Thorin was past that.
He let out a long breath, shaking his head. Something was wrong. Very wrong. Something had happened, that was the only explanation he could think of, for what he'd just seen. He wanted to use that girl like a drug that could make him forget—but forget what? What did he not want to think about?
He stood up shakily, staggering out of the corridor and towards his own room. Reaching it, he yanked the door open and collapsed onto his bed, his mind racing and his stomach churning. He'd been too young, back then, to really know the implications of what was happening, and moreover, Thorin had stopped, after a few years. He lost all interest in the prospect.
But now... now it was happening again. And it was one thing to see it as a child who had no idea what was happening.
To see it as an adult and know exactly what was happening was another thing entirely.
He rolled over with a groan, trying to sleep. But he couldn't; what he'd just seen was keeping him awake. He didn't think he could sleep in a million years.
Surely enough, it was close to dawn when his eyes finally drifted closed and he dropped off to an uneasy, restless sleep.

It was only a few hours later when his eyes opened. He felt groggy and irritable, and for a few blissful seconds he couldn't remember why.
Then the memory of the previous night smashed into his head with the force of a battle-hammer. He squeezed his eyes shut, sighing into his hands. Really, did it have to be him who had to go through all this nonsense? Surely Fili would have handled it with more dignity and would have been able to mask his emotions and not let Thorin know exactly how uncomfortable and sick he'd felt seeing what he had. He hated not being able to be unreadable. He was sure Thorin had had a good laugh over his flustered face afterwards.
He groaned and rolled off the bed, washing quickly and stomping to breakfast. He knew Thorin wouldn't be there; he would most likely still be asleep. That, or the girl hadn't left yet. The thought made him lose his appetite a bit, but he plowed on.
Surely enough, Thorin wasn't at breakfast. Neither was Tauriel—Fili was alone, poking at a plate of eggs. Kili plunked himself down across from him, snatching a plate of toast.
"Fili," he muttered from behind the bread, "I need to tell you something."
Fili looked up. "Mmm?"
"Where were you last night?"
He looked confused. "In my room. Why?"
"After midnight, where were you?"
Fili frowned, putting down his fork. "I'd gone to the library to study. But how did you—?"
"A guard came to my room with letters from Dain. You weren't in your room and Thorin—you know why he couldn't go to Thorin—so he came to me."
Fili looked perturbed. "Letters from Dain? Why?"
Kili tore off a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, not really tasting it as he chewed. "He's coming here," he said once he'd swallowed. "Next week."
Fili looked astonished. "Really? Dain, here? Why?"
Kili looked around nervously. "Because of Tauriel. He wants to find out why she's here. He doesn't think... he thinks what we all think. He's suspicious. And he wants to meet her."
Fili had stopped eating, frowning pensively. "That's strange," he murmured. "Dain would drop everything and leave the Iron Hills just to come here for a few weeks?"
"If it involves something as outlandish as an elven ambassador, it isn't so surprising. I can tell why'd he be so interested."
"Hmm," Fili said. "It's still strange. When was the last time we saw him?"
Kili frowned. "Ten, twelve years ago? I'm not sure."
"It'll definitely be entertaining with him around. We won't have a single dull moment with Dain here," said Fili, echoing Thorin's words the night before. "There'll be plenty of talk and action."
"All that is fine, but... there's something else." Kili tore his toast into pieces, suddenly not hungry anymore. "It—the letters from Dain were too important to let leave till now. I had to go give them—"
"To Thorin," said Fili, nodding. "You're right. Did you?"
"I did." His teeth caught on his lip. "And..."
Fili's eyes sharpened. "What happened?"
He sighed. "It's happening again."
"What is?" Fili looked alarmed now.
"Well, I went there, and I was about to knock and I heard noises..." He swallowed. "I knocked—"
"What noises?"
"Odd noises." When Fili rolled his eyes he said, "I don't know how to describe it, all right? Anyway, I knocked, and then the noises stopped and he told me to come in, and..."
He scrubbed a hand across his face. "I saw him with a girl."
Fili's face was wiped clean of expression. "What do you mean, you saw him with a girl?"
"I mean I caught them in bed together." He cringed immediately after he said it. Mahal, that sounded terrible out loud.
Fili exhaled, putting his palms flat on the table. "I knew it," he said softly, almost to himself. He shook his head. "I knew he'd do something like that."
"How on earth could you know that? It's totally out of the—the last time Thorin bedded a woman was probably a hundred years ago." He frowned as Fili's eyes darted to his.
"Kili..."
"What are you not telling me?"
Fili seemed about to say something, then visibly caught himself. "Nothing. It's nothing."
"It isn't nothing. I know you know something. What is it?"
"It isn't important," Fili said, and there was a note of urgency in his voice. "Really."
Kili let it go. "Fine. But this... I don't know, I was just really..."
"Disappointed?"
"Disappointed, and sort of nauseated."
Fili sat back, chewing on his lip almost as steadfastly as he did. "This is bad," he murmured.
"'Bad' is an understatement."
"I had a feeling, but... you're right, it's been forever since he's..." He cleared his throat. "You know."
He sighed and sat back, throwing his torn pieces of toast onto his plate. "I've suddenly and inexplicably lost my appetite," he said. "Mahal, I wish I could unsee what I saw. It'll be burned into my brain forever."
Fili swallowed, his eyes widening. "You didn't catch them while... Not in the middle of—"
"Mahal, no. Thank goodness I didn't, else my eyes would have burned out. No, I knocked, so I guess they had time to—can we not talk about this, please?" He groaned. "It wasn't exactly a pleasant experience."
"No, you're right, sorry." Fili picked up his fork again. "So what do we do?"
Kili shrugged. "Wait. We can't do anything else. What do we do, go up to him and tell him to knock it off?"
"No, we can't do that," Fili agreed. "I suppose we'll just have to hope he gets bored again." He didn't sound convinced. "Anyway, Dain will arrive soon, so maybe that might stop it."
"Maybe," said Kili, though he wasn't convinced, either.
There was silence for a few minutes, broken suddenly by the door opening. Kili looked up, fearful that it was Thorin, but it was only Tauriel, sweeping up the table and sitting down—right next to him. He tried not to notice how his heart flipped over in his chest as she did. Fili sent him a secret, evil smile and he scowled fiercely in return.
Fili looked at Tauriel, a look of obvious consternation on his face. He looked almost worried, though Kili couldn't imagine why. He sneaked a glance at her and looked away quickly, but it was enough to see that the bruises still weren't gone, though they looked weeks old.
Something in his brain was telling him that he was missing something, something big, something obvious. Something that connected the dots between Fili, Tauriel and Thorin. Something he was not supposed to know.
He glared at his empty plate. Why did everyone always insist on keeping him in the dark? It wasn't as if he wasn't old enough. Or mature enough. He was plenty mature. He thought of Fili's almost frightened face as he said, "It isn't important." But it was important. He was sure. Why else would they not tell him?
Tauriel was humming softly next to him, a simple, clean tune. She caught his eye and gave him a small smile, and invariably he found his heart lifting as he smiled back. It felt like something was expanding in his chest, something warm and bright. Something that could perhaps drive away the darkness that was to come.
Because a darkness was coming. And he wouldn't back away from it—no, what would happen would happen, whether he wanted it to or not. And he would meet it when it did.

Chapter Text

Sigrid

She was glad it wasn't snowing.
If it had been, her boots would have been soaked by then, and she wouldn't be able to walk across the street without getting accosted by a violent flurry. But the storm had died down, and the sky was a tremulous blue, almost as if it were surprised at its own nerve that it had chased away the clouds that had been spewing snow for so many weeks in a row.
She trudged through the road, her breath misting. Wrapping her arms around her middle, she tried to keep herself warm. If Fili was there, he'd have repelled the cold like a furnace...
She blushed furiously at the thought of him, even if she was alone on the street. The last time she had seen him... the last time she'd seen him was Yule day, the day he'd kissed her.
She blushed again. Eru, she was a mess. She was quite proud of the way she'd managed to handle it after she found out it was his raven that had been tailing her—honestly, men were so dense—and she had hidden how flustered she had been.
She hadn't seen the raven for three days; the last time she saw it was Yule. She couldn't help but feel a small stab of disappointment, and then chided herself for feeling that way. After all, it was she who had sent him away. But mostly to hide how confused and happy she had felt.
She really was a mess.
She sighed loudly as she walked into the house, pulling the door shut behind her. She pulled her hat off her head, shaking flakes out of her hair and allowing it to fall down her back in heavy honey-blond curls. Flinging the hat onto the rack and shucking off her coat, she rubbed her hands together to bring back some of the feeling in her fingers.
"Sigrid, is that you?" called her father's voice from somewhere above.
"Yes, Da!" she called back, heading to the kitchen and pulling the box of spices she had just bought out of her bag and stuffing it into the cupboard. Closing it, she sighed and headed for the stairs, combing her fingers through her hair.
She poked her head into her father's office, waving. "I put everything in the kitchen already," she said. "It seems all right."
He smiled tiredly. "Of course, thank you, Sigrid."
There was a loud crash from the room next door, and Sigrid sighed. "I'll just go find out what that was," she said with a roll of her eyes, and closed the door before heading to the next one.
She could hear yelling—the play yelling kind. One necessity about having two younger siblings was knowing the difference between play yelling and actual yelling.
"All right, what happened?" she asked, sticking her foot through the gap in the door and pulling it open. "You didn't knock down a bookshelf or something, did you?"
"No," was Bain's muffled reply.
She stepped through the door, sighing again. Bain and Tilda were playing—which mainly involved Tilda running around the room and Bain trying to catch her—and it usually wielded catastrophic results. This was no exception.
Bain was lying facedown on the floor and Tilda was giggling in the corner, smothering her laughter in her fist. "He fell!" she said unhelpfully.
"I see that." Sigrid frowned at her brother's back.
"I'm doing fine, thanks for asking," he said, his forehead meeting the floor with an audible thunk.
She rolled her eyes. "Don't make so much noise," she said, pulling off her gloves. "I'll be reading."
"Fine," muttered Bain, and she rolled her eyes again before closing the door, heading to her own. The work of the eldest born was never done.
She kicked her door shut, throwing her gloves onto the desk. She fell backwards onto her bed, staring up at the ceiling with a sort of detached boredom, worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. She was confused, and rightly so; she didn't know how she felt. Was she happy that Fili had kissed her? Yes, of course—but did that mean she liked him? Well, obviously. But that was exactly what she'd been trying to deny all this time. And, moreover, the raven was his. She'd been terrified that she was in danger, and while she was relieved that it wasn't the king, after that she had just felt irritated.
She was back to confused.
She sighed with frustration and swung her legs off the bed, sitting up. Plucking a book from the shelf next to her, she tried to lose herself in the reading, though she had read the book enough times to know the lines word for word. Eventually she fell into a sort of stupor, reading but not really absorbing the meanings of the words.
There was a knock at the door. "Sigrid, can I come in?" asked Bain's voice.
She threw the book onto the bed next to her. "Yes," she called back.
The door cracked open and her brother's dark head insinuated between the wall and the door. He wriggled the rest of his body through the crack, then shut the door behind him.
"I wanted to talk to you," he said hesitantly.
She patted the bed next to her. "What about?"
He sat, almost cautiously, on the very edge of the bed as if prepared for a quick getaway. "It's... well, I've noticed you've been a bit... off-color lately."
She swallowed. "Off-color?"
"Is something wrong?"
She bit her lip. It was difficult, keeping so many things to herself all the time, confiding in no one, letting no one in and bottling everything up. But Fili was something she could not tell Bain about.
"I can't imagine why you'd get that idea," she said pleasantly. "I'm perfectly fine."
He looked unconvinced. "You're a lot more unmoored than you were before, and that's saying a lot. You never showed up for the Yule celebration at the bell tower, and you never really told us why. For a few weeks now, you've been acting odd. You kept looking over your shoulder like you expected some mad ax-man to come jumping out of nowhere, and you barely spoke to anyone, and you've been really... detached."
He fidgeted with his fingers in his lap. "I... First I thought it was because you were scared about the city—I mean, I know you're still a bit scared about that, we all are, it's only... Now I'm not so sure it's that anymore."
She bit her lip. Was she that obvious? If what Bain said was true, then of course he'd been worrying. She chose her next words carefully.
"Bain... it's nothing you need to worry about, I just have a lot of duties and work and all, and I have to take care of Tilda as well, and..."
"I'm just worried," Bain said, looking down at his hands. "I don't want you to bear any unnecessary burdens."
She smiled, reaching out and smoothing down a stray brown curl that had escaped his hair. "I'm not," she said. "If I was overworked, believe me, you would know."
He laughed softly, but it was short-lived. "We don't have much time left," he said. "We'll have to leave soon. Go somewhere else."
She thought of his words all those weeks ago, his defiant voice echoing around the room for all to hear. "I will die in Dale. I will die for Dale." Then she thought of Fili, his softer, more gentle words, but the spine of it had been the same. "Even if I die."
She swallowed. "Bain." The words tumbled out of her mouth, seemingly unstoppable. "Bain, I need to tell you something."
He looked up. "Yes?"
"I've been stepping out," she blurted, "with Prince Fili."
His eyes widened, then narrowed, then widened again. "What—"
"He came here, about a month and a half ago," she rambled. "I met with him then, and I've seen him about four times since. He came for Yule, and that's why I didn't come to the bell tower."
There was a swelling silence for about seven seconds. Then:
"You've been... stepping out... with Prince Fili."
She swallowed, then nodded. "For—for quite some time now."
"Prince Fili. From Erebor."
There was the cursed word, the word that drove the rift between their lives deeper with every passing day. She sighed, dropping her head into her hands. "Yes."
"How long?"
She glanced up through her fingers. "Two months, give or take."
His face was harshly blank. He said nothing.
"I—well... he came here for Yule," she said, her voice muffled. "And he—" Her voice jumped. "He promised he'd... he swore on his life, took a binding oath that he would save the city. And the crazy thing is, I believe him. Bain, he cares... he cares so much. I see it in his eyes every time I see him. I know he will help us."
Silence.
"Bain, say something."
"What do you expect me to say?" He sounded like someone who had been plucked up from his normal life and deposited somewhere strange and different.
"I don't know, anything."
"Do you like him?"
She was taken aback, so taken aback that she answered honestly. "A lot."
He loosed a breath. "And besides you and him and now me, nobody else knows this."
She chewed on her lip. "Yes."
He studied her. "That isn't all, is it?"
She squirmed. "We kissed."
His eyes widened comically. His mouth dropped open. "What?"
She winced. Maybe she shouldn't have told him so soon.
"What?" he asked again, blankly.
She cleared her throat. "Yule day," she supplied. "That's why I didn't come for the feast..."
"You didn't. Tell me you're joking, Sigrid."
She sighed. "I can't do that, Bain."
He exhaled, bracing his hands on the bed on either side of his knees. "Sigrid..." He scrubbed a hand across his face. "Have you ever thought that maybe he's here by his uncle's orders? That maybe he's not all you cut him out to be?"
She stared at him. He went on hurriedly.
"I'm not doubting you or anything, it's just that... you know how the king is. He's not above sending his nephew here to try and win your favor and..." His face reddened. "You get the idea."
She shook her head, slowly. "Bain, it's not like that. Fili would never—he's nothing like Thorin. He'd never do anything to hurt"—me.—"us," she finished.
Bain slapped a hand onto the wood. "That's just it, Sigrid. How do you know? What if it's all a ploy designed to win you over? What if you don't really know what he's like—"
"Bain." Her voice was swift and sharp. "I know why you're worried, and I don't blame you. But if it is one thing in this world that I know to be true, it's that Fili would never harm anyone willingly, or unwillingly. And he hates the king as much as we do. More, actually. And I know him. More than I'm willing to admit. And knowing him, I am sure when I say this."
He bit his full lower lip. "That's why you've been acting so odd. You've been meeting him."
She shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry I didn't say anything earlier. I was afraid you would... disapprove."
He coughed. "Well, you weren't wrong, but... are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? Are you willing to trust him for what he gives you?"
"Wholeheartedly."
He nodded, looking at the floor. She could practically see the gears turning in his brain, deciding whether or not to approve.
"Then I'm happy for you," he said.
She felt oddly dizzy, like the room was spinning. It took her a while to realize it was relief—relief that he understood, relief that now at least someone knew, relief that there would be no more hiding.
"Are you going to tell Da?" he asked finally.
She balked. "I don't know."
He nodded. "Give it a while," he said with a half-smile. "Though I'm sure he'll come around. It's Tilda you have to worry about."
She sighed. She could already imagine how that conversation would go. "Maybe later," she said, feeling slightly ill.
Bain laughed a little. "Later," he agreed.

"Silence, please," called the king.
The room quieted slowly, conversion hushing and dying down, leaving silence behind it. It was late afternoon, just tipping into evening, and the weak sun sent wobbling, not-very-warm rays through the arching glass windows of the meeting room, pooling on the ground in pale puddles.
"Thank you," continued Bard. He was standing at the lectern, holding the edges. He seemed tense, judging by the tense lines bracketing his mouth, and the rigid set of his shoulders.
"Last week we spoke about the possible resume of trade with the elves, and the opening of their gates by a negotiation."
Sigrid set the notepad she had carried to the room on the table, flipping it open to the right page.
"Writing and sending a letter was the most logical suggestion we received and reviewed," she said. "It's peaceful, it would only imply that it is our opinion that they've sent a spy and not an ambassador, and it's easier than an actual confrontation."
"What if they find out that you're lying?" sneered Alfrid from the front row. "What if they don't reply?"
"We can't know that unless we try it," she said, shrugging. "Unless you would rather"—she glanced at the notepad—"march into Mirkwood with an envoy to discuss with them directly. Which," she said, cutting across him as he opened his mouth, "is a direct violation of their clear laws and the measures taken by their king in recent years, so, it is not an option."
He closed his mouth.
"All right then," said her father, glancing at her with a tight smile. "If we do send a letter to their king, then there must be thorough deliberation regarding what content goes into it. It's the most important thing."
"We need to be discreet," said Hilda. "Elusive, I suppose they'd call it. Indirect. They can't know we know what we know."
Sigrid blinked. "That's essentially what we need to do."
"Do we mention the envoy at all?" asked Bain, frowning. "Their envoy, that is."
"I'm afraid that's essential," said Bard. "It's sure to get their attention."
"If we don't get their attention then they won't even consider it," said a blond man in the fifth row. "He'll throw the letter out and won't even bother reading it—it's how elves are."
"A letter," snorted Alfrid. He managed to make it sound ridiculous. "That'll show our indifference. Shows that we're too lazy to get up and go to him ourselves."
"It shows," said Bard, "that we are aware of the many lines that lie between our realm and theirs. Shows that we respect the space between us. It's sure to get his attention."
"That's all very well," said a woman near the back. "But what about trade? Without some kind of link we are sure to fall within weeks. Winter is not yet over."
"We must ask him about trade as well," said another woman. "Are his gates open for us as well as Erebor, or will he scorn us as he once did before?"
"We'll see," said her father, a pained expression in his face. "We will ask him about trade, yes. Though we will only hint. A blatant request can be taken the wrong way."
Sigrid sighed, fidgeting with the edge of the notepad. Elves were so difficult to deal with. Fickle, volatile, haughty... the worst possible partners, especially eith a common enemy like Thorin, whom the elves didn't really care about. As long as both gates were closed, with their property back with them. Allying with them was... risky.
But then again, she would rather take a risk than sit by and wait for her kingdom to fall. Some things had to be done.
"Correspondence is difficult," Alfrid protested, echoing her earlier thoughts. "There's too high of a chance of them saying no."
"Why not risk it, though?" Bain asked. "What do we have to lose?"
"What little wealth we have left!" His eyes popped. "It'll all go to waste."
"That doesn't matter," snapped Tilda. "As long as we try to restart trade."
"Are there any other suggestions then?" asked Bard, frowning around at them all. "Afterwards we can take a vote."
They began, and it quickly became apparent that there were two major stances—the solution of sending a letter, and sending an envoy of about four people to negotiate. There was an equal number of people for both, though the envoy idea seemed quite popular.
"I say send an envoy," Alfrid said loudly when it was his turn. "They want to turn their backs on us, we'll show them what we mean. We'll go to their forest and show them that we mean business. If we send a letter, he'll never take us seriously. What we need is numbers, people. Voices. Impossible when you're writing on a piece of paper! I say send an envoy."
Bard sighed. "Are you done, Alfrid?"
"Yes, I am done. And I'm right."
Her father shook his head. "Next."
So it went.
In the end, the number of votes for envoy and letter were exactly the same. Sigrid worried at her lip. She was the last person left to vote, and Bain, who was too young, nudged her and muttered, "Say letter."
She rolled her eyes. "I know."
She stood, knowing she would have to put forward a very convincing argument to win over the gathered. She also knew they would be looking to her, knowing she led them as much as her father did. Here she was powerful. Here she could be heard.
"The elves are an ancient, patient and powerful people," she said, allowing her voice to ring around the room, and yet remain soft. "They put a high regard on fidelity and trust. They are also conservative, isolationist and haughty."
There was a stunned silence.
"If we send an envoy of people, they will return the day they left. The elves have clearly put forth a myriad of barriers before their realm. They allow no one to enter, and no one to leave. The only exception has been the ambassador to the Lonely Mountain, who we believe has gone there for ulterior motives. My point is that the elves will not appreciate an envoy. They thrive on secrecy. A letter can speak volumes; think of the layers of subtlety, implication, we can use to get them to look at us. An envoy can't do that. I say send a letter. It will not go unnoticed. In fact, I'm positive we will even get a reply back. All we have to do is word it properly. If we do, I'm sure we won't regret it. Sometimes written words can have more power than spoken ones." With that she sat down, head held high.
"And that carries the vote," said her father, giving her a secret smile. "A letter it is."
A few people clapped, and a few scowled. The rest of them simply seemed neutral. Her father closed the meeting with grim words of farewell and foreboding ("Cheerful," Bain muttered in her ear), and the room emptied slowly.
Once they were the only ones, Bard sat at the table, head in his hands. "I hope this works," he sighed. "It is our only hope."
"I'm sure it will, Da," said Tilda happily. "I have a feeling."
He gave her a tired smile, patting her cheek. "Then we may escape this yet," he said.

"Da?"
Sigrid pushed open the door to her father's study, which was slightly ajar. Warm lemon-yellow light was spilling from the crack in a slim line that sliced across the wooden floor, dust motes dancing in its wake.
"How is everything going?" she asked, edging into the room. Her father was seated at the desk, tiredly gazing at the papers scattered all over it. She noticed with a pang how wan he looked—there was definitely more gray in his hair, and more lines on his face, and more shadows in his eyes.
He looked up and saw her, and some of the shadows dissipated. "Everything is... fine, I suppose." He stood up, sighing. They both looked at the pile of papers on the table.
"That doesn't look 'fine' to me," she said, raising a brow.
He managed a tired smile. "Nothing I haven't tackled before," he said.
"Da... maybe you should take a break. Tilda made scones, we've saved some for you downstairs. There's even butter and jam."
He hesitated. "Not now," he said. "I have a lot of work."
She eyed the papers. "But you've been working all day. We had the meeting too... Just sit down for a bit. It'll do you some good."
"I appreciate your concern, but I do need to review these by morning," said her father, looking sadly at the papers. "It's fine, Sigrid."
"I could help you."
That got her a smile. "I can manage."
"You're working a little too much," she said, sweeping off to the desk and gathering up the papers into a neat pile and stuffing them into a file nearby. "Really, Da. When was the last time you got a full night's worth of sleep?"
He hesitated again, a little too long. She frowned. "You're overworking yourself, Da. Give your body rest, or it'll shut down."
He protested weakly and she shook her head. "I know you don't want to leave. Leaving means forfeiting everything your forefathers gave you, means resigning your position as King. It'd mean losing everything."
He sighed and sank into his chair, rubbing his hands across his face. "Sigrid..."
"You can tell me."
He spoke into his fingers. "I do not wish to give you any unnecessary weight," he said.
She plopped herself into the desk across from him. "It won't be any trouble at all. I'm your daughter, Da. You can tell me anything and I'll help you."
His voice was muffled. "I don't think this can be helped."
"Nothing can't be helped."
He was silent for a few minutes, then continued to speak into his hands. "The city is falling, Sigrid," he said finally. "Day after day more people leave. More money is lost. More evil flows from the Mountain."
She said nothing.
"It is becoming impossible to bear," he said. "Every day I wonder if I could have done something, anything, pleaded with Thorin, perhaps, to save the city. I feel as though I've failed my ancestors who kept the city alive for so long. How is it that they did it but I could not?"
She caught her breath. "Oh, no, Da, it's not like that—"
"Is it my fault that the city is withering? I feel it is so. If we are forced to leave, I do not think I could live with the guilt of it, that it was my own fault."
"But it won't be your fault—"
"Is it not?" He finally looked up, and he looked so tired and so sad that her heart broke. "I am the king. Should I not have tried to save the city? Bring it from its state of ruin to its former glory? Done something to save my people?"
"They don't blame your and nor do we. Da, you know which King to blame, and it is not you. The Mountain King—"
"He simply closed his gates. Is it not incompetence that we could not survive without his aid?"
"But even Esgaroth—"
"Esgaroth was a small town. It survived solely on trade—it was a port town. Only dependent on Erebor and the elves."
"Even so." She bit her lip. "You can't blame yourself."
"How can I not?" His eyes were frighteningly blank and listless. "Even your mother's death," he went on, and she felt another pang, this one more acute than the last.
"Shouldn't I have done something to save her—?"
"Da," she said, trying not to allow her voice to tremble. "You know that was—"
"An accident? There is no such thing as an accident. If I had acted quicker, called more nurses, asked for aid, perhaps she would have lived." He shook his head. "Once again I was too slow. She fell, and Dale fell with her. And who is to blame?"
"Not you." She shook her head. "Never you. Da, if anything you are the reason we've survived so long. By all means we should have all been gone years ago. But here we are."
"Poverty-stricken and desperate."
"Resilient and strong," she corrected. "We are still here, Da. And who knows, maybe the elves will open their gates for us. Maybe we will live to see third next winter yet. You cannot lose hope, or faith in yourself. If you do, then there really will be nothing left to hold onto. Then we really will fall."
There was a long silence. There was no sound but for the sound of her father's breathing into his hands, and Sigrid's own heartbeat in her ears. Finally:
"You do not blame me, then?" he asked.
She exhaled. "It's more likely for Thorin to open his gates and give you flowers than it is for us to blame you for anything, Da."
He gave a weak laugh, rubbing his eyes. "And Bain and Tilda..."
"Don't blame you, either. Nobody blames you. You shouldn't blame yourself, Da."
He said nothing for a while, simply sitting there with his head in his hands. After a few minutes, he lifted his head, and his eyes seemed clearer than they had in years. As if a burden that had been weighing him down for so long was finally lifted.
"Thank you, Sigrid," he said.
She smiled, trying not to cry. "I'm always here for you, Da. Now come downstairs and have a scone. Those things are delicious."
He smiled and stood. "All right. I'm coming."

A frozen lake. A solitary figure walking along it. Golden hair and eyes as blue as the ice that surrounded him. A promise, and an oath.
And the flames that consumed him.
The ice cracked... spilling her into the depths.
She sat bolt upright, gasping. She was shivering, fine tremors racking her body, but not from cold. Goosebumps rose along her arms, but that wasn't because of the cold, either.
The dream. The one that plagued her every night. She had dreamed it again.
But this time, she... remembered. For the first time, she had remembered it.
Fili.
And his promise. To her. To Dale. To save them. Even if I die.
Heart was filled with fear, fear for him, what may happen if he kept his oath. If he broke it, he could die. Or worse. But if he kept it... was his uncle truly ruthless enough to kill his own nephew? She shuddered. She wouldn't put it past him.
She had learned never to put anything past Thorin Oakenshield. No matter what it was, how horrible or how unethical or how cruel, he would do it. And he would smile while doing it. He'd enjoy it. He thrived on destruction and sorrow.
But Fili... he had sworn. On his life. That sort of oath was not to be broken. What had he done? Why had he done that? Why had she let him? He had put himself in such danger.
She closed her eyes and bowed her head, sending a silent prayer up to whatever gods were listening. She couldn't watch him die. It would break her.
I will see you smile again... Even if I die.
She put her face into her hands and prayed.

To: King Thranduil of Mirkwood
From: The royal family of Dale

Lord Thranduil,

Our apologies for a certainly unexpected and unannounced correspondence. However, this remains a matter of importance, and thus we have chosen to communicate with your realm. Word has spread that your gates have opened and you have allowed an ambassador to venture forth to the Lonely Mountain to reinstate the dormant act of trade that once linked your realms. However, we have heard but a facet of this incident, from many a person. Moreover, there are other facets we have uncovered.

The King under the Mountain has in his possession many a precious item from the neighboring kingdoms, who, as you know, paid homage to him. Even the pride and glory of other realms lie in those halls, ours included. Now that the Mountain King has closed his gates, it seems unseemly that our heirlooms lie in their halls while our links have withered.
And links are not the only thing that has withered for Dale—our prosperity lay on the shoulders of Erebor and the Woodland Realm, both of whose gates are now closed. Our city lies in ruin before the greatest two kingdoms Middle-Earth has ever seen, now reduced to nothing by King Thorin's wrath. We have no desire to become wandering folk with no roof above our heads and no home to call our own. Only trade may keep us alive, and we have found it fruitless to negotiate with one such as the King under the Mountain. Keeping this in mind we wish to present to you a proposition.
We are aware that your gates will only open once Erebor's gates do the same. However, we are willing to open our own, as they have been open for many a year, to reignite the flame that once linked our realms. It has reached our ears that the ambassador from your realm is in the Lonely Mountain now, negotiating trade—a trade which, as even you know, is not a priority. However, the pride of the elves of Mirkwood lie in their heirlooms. And the heirlooms of their people lie in the halls of the Mountain King.

We wish to resume trade, not only to uplift our own realm, but to do so for both of ours. Should your gates open for ours, our gratitude will never fade, nor will we look to the Mountain, be it for trade, or for any other benefit. Our sincere hopes lie with you and for the possible reinstating of our links that may prevent the sunder of Dale and the dignity of your realm as well from crumbling.

In the name of the Valar,
The royal family of Dale

Chapter Text

Tauriel

Her eyes opened, and she could feel sunlight playing on her face. She turned her head to the side, burying her head into the pillows, biting her lip. She hadn't slept, but she'd been lying down for a while, allowing her mind to wander. It was dark outside—there was no window in her room, but her internal clock told her it was after midnight.
Her mind took her back to earlier that day, in the hall with Kili. For a moment, for one fleeting second she hadn't seen Kili; she had seen Thorin, and it had been his voice calling her name, whispering sinful words and promises as empty as his eyes.
But it had dissolved faster than she had anticipated. It had winked out, and then she saw Kili again, his soft smile and odd jokes that made her laugh for the first time in months. It had taken courage on her part to draw away from him, and yet it had crumbled.
Her fingers came up, brushing along her lips. She rolled over, lost in thought. She had come here as an ambassador—a thief, but with the intention to take the gems back—and yet against her better judgement she had become entangled in the web of lies, treachery and trickery woven for any and every outsider who set foot in Erebor.
She didn't blame herself for wishing herself elsewhere, but in a way she was glad fate had brought here there, because her eyes had been opened to more than one thing. It had taught her the meaning of caution, and that she could never trust her own body, no matter how much it yearned for another's.
But she could trust her heart. And what was her heart telling her?
She shook her head, shying away from the thoughts. Day after day she was growing increasingly worried about her position there—Thorin was wily and cunning, and it was only a matter of time before he would discover her true intentions of being in his kingdom, and that that was not for trade.
He would not be forgiving of her king's trick, of that she was sure. Legolas had been concerned for this very reason, back at the Woodland Realm, but she had brushed it off, telling him she would be careful. She had underestimated the extent of Thorin's corruption. Now she was paying the price for her ignorance.
She was almost sure that if he found out, he would kill her. Either she would die, or there would be a war against her people. Maybe even both. But she would not be caught. She had to try.
She chewed in her lip. It was moments like the past hour, with Kili, when she realized the depth of her situation—she had wanted to tell him, tell him why she was there, ask him to help her. Was it foolishness, or trust? She did trust him. She hardly knew him, but she trusted him. And dare she admit it? Perhaps her heart felt something for him as well.
But after Thorin...
She sighed, putting her face into her hands. She was over what had happened with the king. At least, whenever she saw him she would not feel as if someone had kicked her hard in the stomach. Instead she just felt rage, and hate, and bitterness. He had left his marks on her, but they were only testaments of her hardships. She had let him go. And she was sure he had let her go the moment she had stepped out of his door.
So why was she so afraid?
She groaned her frustration and slid off the bed, heading to the desk and picking up a curl of parchment. She sat down and dipped the quill into the ink, frowning at the blank paper as she tried to think of something to write to Legolas. Her mind drew a blank, and after a few minutes she found herself staring into space, her mind wandering as she sucked on the end of the quill, her eyes unfocused.
She blinked, and shook her head, then placed the tip of the quill onto the paper and scratched out a tentative letter L. Her fingers trembled and she dropped the quill, sighing and turning away from the paper, her face in her hands. It was hopeless.
She glanced at the time, seeing that it was well after midnight and would be dawn soon. Finding no reason not to, she slipped out of her room and into the winding corridors, with no destination in mind as she wandered. If she wasn't an elf, she would have lost her way long ago, she thought as she delved deep into the bowels of the Mountain. It was a maze of corridors and hallways.
She turned another corner, and at the end of it she made out a vague shape, as if someone was walking towards her. She squinted, and caught sight of a mane of dark hair, and a willowy frame, with broad shoulders.
Thorin, she thought, and stopped in her tracks, her heart racing, and her shoulders tensing. They relaxed again when the figure came closer and she saw that the eyes she could see were brown, not blue. And the figure wasn't tall enough, nor was it broad enough, nor did it have enough of a beard.
"You know," said the figure, "we should really stop meeting like this."
"Like what?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Kili crossed his arms across his chest. "Unintentionally and in the corridors. If anyone walks by they'd think we were up to something."
"And we are not?" Her smile to him was artless, and he arched a brow. She could have sworn he was blushing, but the light in the hallway was too dim to properly make out.
"I don't know. Are we?"
"Answering a question with a question. You sound like an elf."
"Looks like I've been spending a little too much time with you. You've brainwashed me." He blinked up at her, his expression enigmatic. She rolled her eyes.
"If I wanted to brainwash you, I wouldn't do it that way," she informed him archly.
His eyes glittered with mischief. "Oh? Then what way would you do it?"
Her cheeks flushed. He always said just the right things to turn her into a mess. She tried not to let it show. Instead she didn't answer, simply putting a finger to her lips teasingly. "Shh," she said. "I wouldn't want you to know that, would I?"
"That depends on your perspective about the matter," he said indifferently, though his eyes were smiling. "So what are you doing in the corridors at the crack of dawn?" he went on, frowning.
"Couldn't sleep," she said. "I find that it's... difficult, for me to find it in the Mountain. And what is the prince doing wandering the halls at this hour?"
"Same as you," he said. "I couldn't sleep. I haven't been able to, for the past few months. There's just..."
"Too much to think about," they said at the same time.
Their eyes locked. Tauriel's lips were burning to say something, to say what she had been wanting to say for a long time. To her own alarm, she found that she had taken a step forward, and she was so close to him that she could distinguish the pupils in his eyes from the iris. Usually in the light it was impossible, for his eyes were dark. And yet they were warm, like the glowing wood of a fire. She could drown in those eyes. Sometimes she thought she already had.
Her lashes fluttered, and she made to step back, aware that she was far too close. "Sorry," she breathed, stepping away. "I—"
"Wait," he whispered, and then his hand was tangling in hers, their fingers lacing. His skin was smooth, slightly calloused, and warm. He smelled like wood smoke. "Don't go."
She turned again. Another of her hands came up, fingers brushing his hair back from his forehead. Only a few hours earlier she had let her guard down like this, the defenses that were a thousand times stronger than they had been before she came to the Mountain. And Kili had shattered them so easily she had been left reeling. As if he hadn't even been thinking about it.
His eyes fluttered closed, and his hands covered hers where they rested on his cheek. His other hand curled around her neck, drawing her down slightly. His breath fanned her lips.
"Tauriel," he breathed, and her name in his mouth sounded soft and warm and right. His eyes opened slightly, and he blinked, eyes full of trepidation. "Can—can I—"
She answered his question by leaning forward and kissing him.
It was so different from the hot, desperate, carnal kisses she had shared with the king—those were all bite and blood, fire and loveless passion. This was gentle and caressing, promising and sweet. His mouth was soft beneath hers, and his hands where they stroked along the sensitive skin of her throat did not evoke lust but something else, something softer, more gentle.
He drew away slightly to gasp for breath, and they both stared at each other for a moment, as if disbelieving of what had just happened. Then he leaned in again, lips seeking hers, and she found herself moving closer, missing the peppermint taste of his mouth already.
His lips moved against hers, hasty but controlled and light, so unlike his uncle's demanding, rough ministrations. Once again she was comparing the two, marveling in the stark contrast of them, though every kiss here was burning away the memories of Thorin and what had been.
After an eternity, or it could possibly have been a few minutes, they broke apart, both panting. She felt as if something dark and clawed was taking flight in her chest, leaving her heart and laying it as bare as it had been before all her mistakes. As if what Thorin had left in her was finally gone. As if she were finally free of what had happened.
As if she could love again.
His forehead was leaning against hers, and his eyes were closed. He was smiling, just a small tilt of his lips, which were slightly swollen. A small swell of absurd gladness rose in her chest, and she relaxed into his embrace. After a moment she realized he was shaking slightly, and she looked up, alarmed, only to see that he was laughing.
"What?" she asked defensively. Then she frowned, suddenly self-conscious. "Did I do it wrong?"
His head snapped up, his laughter dying and a look of surprise flashing across his face. "Wrong?" he echoed disbelievingly. "Mahal, Tauriel, that was..." He shook his head, grinning. "That was..." He shook his head again. "I don't even know what to say."
She blushed. "You weren't so bad yourself."
"So..." His eyes opened a crack, blinking at her. "Does this mean we are officially stepping out with each other?"
She opted for the elvish way out: "Would you want it to?"
To her chagrin, her voice was breathless and rushed, too high. She cursed herself inwardly.
"Well," he whispered, "I've been wanting to do what we just did for about two months, does that answer your question?"
Her heart skipped a few beats. She smiled, feeling her heart lift. So this is what it feels like.
"It does," she murmured back. "So yes, that does mean we are officially stepping out with each other." She felt his quiet laugh.
"We'll need to be quiet," he sighed. "Secret. All of that."
"Mmm." She said nothing, just reveling in the feeling of his breaths on her lips, the simplicity, the softness, the difference. How could she ever have thought Thorin was worth anything?
"I don't mind," she sighed. "As long as..."
"As long as it's forever, right?"
"As long as it's forever."
He sighed, his eyes falling shut. They stayed like that awhile, just breathing each other in. It felt right, as if she had been stumbling in the dark all this while and she only now had found what she was looking for. She found herself wishing that if only she had found it earlier... the struggles she could have spared herself were indescribable. But she would be glad that she had struggled, because she had learned. A phoenix, rising from the ashes.
In the dark of the corridor they clung to each other, the only survivors of a shipwreck on a lonely, abandoned shore.

The words flowed from the end of the quill easily, and her hands didn't even falter as she wrote the letter with an ease that had abandoned her earlier two days ago. It was odd, she thought, how her mind was so much clearer than it had been days ago. The way experiences could scar more than just your body.
Within minutes the letter was finished, and she sat back, inspecting her hands. There was a faint smattering of ink on her fingers, and she wiped them on a cloth, sighing as she reread the letter to check for any errors. Finding none, she rolled it up and placed it back on the desk, making her way to the mantel. It was nearly time for breakfast, and though she didn't wish to go, she knew she had to; Kili had told her the previous day that they would be expecting an important guest in the morning.
Another set of suspicious eyes, she thought with a sinking feeling in her chest. As if the current number wasn't enough. No doubt she would be interviewed extensively by yet another dwarf King. The thought was depressing.
She made her way to breakfast, and her spirits lifted somewhat when she saw Fili and Kili, but not Thorin at the table. One less thing to worry about.
She sat down, and the brothers were still conversing, low tones that still carried to where she was sitting. "It doesn't help that Dain's set to arrive in an hour or so," said Kili, sending her a small, secret smile as he spoke, which she returned.
"For some reason I think it'll be all right," said Fili, frowning. "Why did he say he was coming?"
"Er..." Kili glanced at Tauriel fleetingly, then looked back at his brother. "He fancied a change of scenery, I suppose. It can get cold at the Iron Hills during winter."
"Kili."
"All right, all right—he's suspicious. About—you know."
"About me," said Tauriel calmly.
Two pairs of guilty eyes sought hers.
"Well—yes," said Kili. "But it's fine, I'm sure he'll—"
"I don't mind," she said, waving a dismissive hand. "If I were him, I would be suspicious as well. Should he question me, I will have answers."
"And we don't doubt it," assured Fili. "It's just... Dain can be a bit..." He gestured vaguely. "Rude," he said at last.
"I can handle rude kings," she said serenely. "It is my job."
Kili snorted into his bowl. Even Fili cracked a smile. "Then I suppose you're quite safe," he said. "Though you should be careful; he's known to be a lot less reasonable than Thorin."
"I'll survive," she said. Though she wondered who could possibly be less reasonable than Thorin Oakenshield. If he was, she wasn't too excited to meet him.
Almost as if something had heard her thoughts, there was a rumble deep in the Mountain, making her teeth rattle slightly. The floor vibrated, and a long, low horn sounded somewhere far away.
Fili and Kili rose in unison, looking towards the door. "Dain is here," said Fili.
Kili muttered something. "Do we go, or do we stay here?"
Fili sighed. "I'm staying here."
"Fine," said Kili, and they sat again.
Tauriel frowned. "You aren't going to meet him?"
"Well," said Fili, "there'll be about six hundred people there to see him arrive, and Thorin will be there as well, and we won't be able to see him. We will be able to see him in a day or two, when everything settles."
"I see," she said. "You will not see him today?"
"No," said Kili. "He's going to be especially busy today. Tomorrow there might be a meeting or something important and we can see him there."
"I see," she said again. "Where he will voice his... suspicions." She cocked a brow. "And what exactly is he suspicious of, Dain Ironfoot?"
"Well," said Fili after a pause, "you did arrive... unexpectedly. Unannounced. Unprecedented. It was bound to make him a little curious."
"And you all as well."
"A little," he admitted. "An elf, from Mirkwood, here for trade? It rose more than a few eyebrows."
She shrugged. "The ways of my king are not to be questioned by his subjects. His intentions are always sound and his methods are always ideal. This was the only way he saw to link us again. I imagine your king had quite a different perspective on the matter." It sounded like a question.
"You know Thorin," said Kili, waving a hand, and Fili's eyes flashed up at her for a moment before returning to his tightly interlocked fingers in his lap. "He sleeps with one eye open," went on Kili. "He had his doubts."
"And they are not cleared, I assume."
"Probably not," said Kili. "He's not the forgiving type."
"Or the forgetting type," murmured Fili, worrying at his lip. There was a tense silence for a few moments. Tauriel's mind was whirling, clicking over the possible outcomes of the arrival of Dain. By the time the gates of the Long Lake opened, she needed to convince Thorin to give up the gems. But if he refused, she would need to be gone like a shadow, taking the gems and leaving.
But what about Kili?
She swallowed, not wanting to leave him behind. Not when she had just begun to find something, just begun to reopen her heart. Her duty to her king came first, but what was an oath of the mind as compared to an oath of the heart?
The only way out of the whole affair was to ask the king. She would put forth conditions, saying that the gates would reopen only if the gems were with the Elvenking. But then Thorin might simply refuse to reinstate trade and send her back. Then all these months of negotiation would be fruitless. She would have accomplished nothing coming to the Mountain except getting the king of Dale to reopen the lake in March. She would have failed her king.
She was beginning to feel as if the only way out of this was to steal the gems.
But she couldn't be caught. And she couldn't tell anyone. Not even—
Kili's arm brushed hers where he sat next to her, an almost unconscious gesture. She shivered, ripped away from her brooding at the slight contact. It felt good, to be able to touch someone willingly and not feel as if she was doing something terribly wrong by doing it. To be able to touch him and not feel any guilt, for what she wanted. But here there was no wanting, not that way. Here she wanted to know him, to see him and to be a part of him. Perhaps a small part of her did want, and yet it was an entirely different wanting from that she had felt earlier, for a different man. It wasn't as desperate, nor was it as frangible. It was a lambent, lasting candle flame, not a churning, brief inferno. She was happy.
But she had no idea then how short a while that happiness would last.

Of all the dwarves she had met so far, Dain Ironfoot was probably the most dwarflike yet.
He was short, shorter than Thorin at least, with wild red hair streaked with white, and the tusks of a boar woven into his just as unruly beard, and he wore a thick fur cape, giving her the impression of a wild, untamable beast. He looked even more so standing next to his cousin, tall and dark as he was. A massive war hammer hung from his belt, chased with intimate, intricate chisels.
She was standing before the throne, head held high. The aura coming off the two dwarves in front of her was unmistakable; she stood before two powerful kings, and they held the authority here. Though she stood taller than them, something about the way they held themselves exuded regality.
"So," said Dain, "this is she, then. The ambassador from Thranduil. She's got quite some nerve, coming here."
"She can hear, and speak for herself," Tauriel said coldly. "You may address me directly, Dain Ironfoot."
As Dain's brows shot to his hairline, Thorin smirked from where he sat on the throne. "She's got a mouth on her, that one," he said, his deep voice rumbling through the still air. "Pay it no heed."
Dain was looking at her thoughtfully. "I expect no less from an elf," he said, and he sounded almost impressed. "But I like a woman with an attitude."
Behind him, Thorin rolled his eyes. Tauriel hid her smile as Dain looked her up and down. It wasn't anything like the way Thorin had looked at her the first time, with that dark hunger in his eyes, as if she were something he could use and discard as he wished. Here, she was being looked at as if her strengths and weaknesses were being measured, as if he was appraising her.
It was a refreshing change.
"What's your name, lass?" he asked at last.
"Tauriel."
"Bah. So elvish." He walked towards her, circling her. "How long have you been here, exactly?"
She looked straight ahead, at Thorin, but not really seeing him at all. "Five months."
"And what's happened in that time?"
Thorin's eyes flicked to hers, his lip curling. She refrained from snarling at him and spoke stiffly. "Negotiations."
"No conclusion?"
"Not as of yet."
"Hmm." He came in front of her, brows raised. "Knowing your king's wily ways, he'll have laid out conditions, wouldn't he?"
She said nothing, only tilting her chin up even higher. In front of her, she heard a slight clicking noise as Thorin's fingers tapped a random tattoo on the stone of the throne.
"He does," she said tightly.
"And what may those conditions be?"
She determinedly did not look at Thorin as she spoke. "He requires what belongs to him and what lie in these halls."
"Tit for tat, eh?" He frowned at her. "What does he want?"
Now she looked directly into the cold blue eyes of the king on the throne. "He wants the white gems of Lasgalen."
Thorin's expression didn't flicker as he looked at her. They stared each other down silently, and she could have heard a pin drop in the hall.
"Let me guess," drawled Dain. "He thinks they're his heirlooms and they belong to him and we've taken them from him."
She allowed a slight smirk to tilt her lips. "Something along those lines. He paid your king homage with them, and now that our realms are no longer linked, there is no reason for the gems to stay here when their rightful place is with then Elvenking for whom they were made."
"But he still wants to trade?" Dain asked almost incredulously.
"Why not? In return for your gates opening, he requires payment. What is rightfully his. It is not as if the king of Erebor has anything to do with elven gems, is it?" Her smirk widened as her eyes sought Thorin's. They were simmering, darkened to cobalt.
"Elves," said Dain with a roll of his eyes. "Thick as thieves, the lot of them. There's always a price, isn't there?"
She blinked, then recovered. Dain had a rather... overwhelming personality. She hadn't yet decided whether she liked him or not. It was difficult to come to a conclusion.
"There is always a price," she said. "Be it whether you deal with elves or not."
"True," sighed Dain. "Well, this isn't my decision to make, is it? Though I can aid." He winked at her. "So I heard you got the Long Lake to reopen early."
"I did. Though early is still late."
He waved a hand. "You're an elf," he said. "For you, late should be soon. Our lifetime passes in the blink of an eye for you immortal folk."
"Though victory can never come soon enough."
"Not even for elves."
"Especially not for elves," said Thorin, sitting back on the throne with a dark brow raised. "It's often I find their fabled patience wears thin when faced with something they cannot obtain."
Tauriel seethed silently at the jibe.
"And your king's the worst of all," said Dain, seemingly uncaring that she was standing right there. "All his empty talk and manipulations and tricks and illusions."
She bit her lip, not having the heart to deny it. After all, he was absolutely right.
He stomped up to the throne, frowning at his cousin. "So, what're you going to do, Thorin? Open the gates, or tell Thranduil he'd look terrible wearing those gems?"
Tauriel swallowed a laugh. She decided she liked Dain Ironfoot. She looped her hands behind her back and tried not to let her amusement show.
Thorin's fingers were steepled under his chin, and his gaze was unwavering. "I don't know," he said softly. "I am yet to weigh the risk of what may happen."
Risk? She refrained from sneering at him from where she stood. There was no risk but the one he introduced.
"My gates," he went on, "have been closed for years. I find no reason to open them. However..." His eyes burned into hers, and she felt a sudden chill, a sudden fear washing over her. He knows, she thought.
"It may prove fruitful," he said, and he turned his eyes to Dain again, the feeling vanishing from her bones. She shuddered slightly.
"We have a few more months," he said. "By then I will have come to a conclusion. Till then..." His smile was like the edge of a knife, sharp and cold and unpredictable. Once again that feeling overcame her, the choking feeling that he knew, and he would kill her and he would laugh while doing it. Then as quickly as it had come it vanished.
"Till then we will discuss," he said, turning his razor blade smile to her. "I'm sure we will have lots to talk about."

Tauriel's fingers were itching. She was restless, tired of being cooped up in the Mountain. How dwarves lived all their lives under stone was a mystery to her. She wanted to hunt, to fly through the trees and stand underneath the stars. She longed for the rush of cool air, for the thrill of the open wilderness.
With a sigh she stood up, moving over to the hearth. The flames danced merrily, almost as if to taunt her, like ribbons of blood. She sat cross-legged in front of the fire, feeling its heat on her face, and seeing how it dyed her skin copper.
That chill in her bones still hadn't dissipated, as if a constant fear lingered at the edge of her vision, always just out of sight. For a moment she had thought she'd seen something in Thorin's eyes, something that told her that he knew why she had come. He had always suspected, she was sure—someone as cunning and who had been brought up amongst liars and masqueraders and cheats as Thorin had certainly would not be somebody easy to hide from.
But if he knew something, surely he would confront her about it, accuse her of lying and being there for something as unethical as stealing the gems. So why had he not? Was he unsure? Apprehensive? Perhaps even afraid of her king?
No. He was waiting for something. If at all he knew even the smallest sliver of her true intentions here, he would be waiting for something. She had learned not to cross Thorin Oakenshield in her time at Erebor. And yet her very purpose here was to cross him, to such an extent that discovery meant sure death. He would not hesitate to slip a knife between her ribs if he learned why she had come. And with Dain in the Mountain as well, every sense in her body had sharpened in the light of another foe, another bloodhound that would sniff out her lies.
She was wondering if perhaps she had presumed too much, coming to the Mountain. Or, more aptly, if she had presumed too little. She had presumed too little of the evil that brewed here, and of the nets that had been woven for her without her knowledge, and of the corruption of the one who held the Arkenstone.
Once, back when Thror was king and when the lust of gold had not yet reached its feelers into his heart, it had been almost happy. She remembered what Kili had told her once, about how Thorin had been a good prince and a good uncle, someone you could care about. Someone you could love, and someone who could love you in return. It was almost too strange to believe, how grief and being alone could twist and shape you into something you never imagined you could ever be, something you hate. This kingdom had been a prosperous one, once. But perhaps happiness such as that was not meant to last.
A sudden knock on the door startled her from her dark thoughts.
She stood with a fluid grace, uncoiling to her feet and turning towards the door. Who would call at this hour? It was after dinner. After gazing at the door for several minutes, she slowly moved towards it, a hand falling on the doorknob. Silently, she pulled it open.
"Uh... bad time?" asked Kili, blinking out at her. Or, more specifically, at her clothes.
She looked down, only then realizing that she was uncharacteristically dressed down in a simple pair of linen pajamas. She felt like a ghost, with her long tresses unbound and slithering till her waist and the white cloth making her skin glow moon-white.
"Not at all," she said. "What makes you think that?"
"Nothing," he said, hiding his smile. "It's just—late."
"And yet you are not asleep," she noted, glancing at him.
"You know me," he said with an indifferent shrug. "I'm practically nocturnal."
"Of course," she said, raising her brows. "How could I forget?"
"Your razor sharp wit is not lost on me," he muttered. "Anyway, I wanted to show you something, if you'd let me."
"All right," she said. "Where is it?"
"A bit far," he said, finally allowing a small smile to creep up his face. "You'll have to dress as well. If Fili ever found out I was leading you around this place dressed like this he'd have my head."
"What's wrong with these?" She frowned self-consciously down at the linen. "I like them."
"Of course," he said seriously. "Pajamas are..." He nodded, a familiar spark of mischief lighting his eyes. She was seized by the sudden and overwhelming desire to kiss him. "They're great. But I think it'd be wiser to get dressed all the same."
"Fine," she said loftily. "Wait here, then."
He nodded, now grinning in earnest. "How much ever time the lady needs."
She turned in a swish of white fabric, and just before the door closed she managed to grab his collar and tug him in for a quick, messy kiss. As the door closed, she heard his laughter, and as it shut between them she didn't try to hide her own smile as well.

"All right," said Kili. "We're here."
She gazed with rapture at the massive hall that now surrounded her, the stone walls rising high above her, so high that they reached far above and dissolved into murky shadow. The very stone seemed to glow from within, as if lit by some strange light.
"Where... Where are we?" she asked, turning in a circle so as to better absorb the sheer volume of what lay around her. The skill of dwarves never ceased to amaze her, the way they could shape something out of nothing and create kingdoms so large even the mightiest of beings would be swallowed by the eternal stone halls.
"The forges," said Kili, walking forward into the massive cavern. His footsteps echoed in the hollow room, which she belatedly realized was empty.
The great forges of the dwarves of Erebor. Some small part of her had always wanted to see it, to come to the place where so many things of wondrous beauty and brilliance were made, and also the weapons of war, the sharpest blades and the most impenetrable armor. It was like stepping into the pages of the books she had read at home.
"It's so empty," she said, hearing her voice whisper around the cavern and bounce around.
"Usually it's full to bursting," he said, his voice coming from somewhere to her left. "But everyone leaves early nowadays, when we don't really sell anything nor use it." He emerged from behind a huge vat of red-hot iron, cutting across the steep channels laid into the floor with ease, stopping in front of her.
"I thought you'd like to see it," he said almost shyly.
She huffed out a little disbelieving laugh. "Like to see it? I would have loved to see it. I've always dreamed of coming here and seeing how you create such wonderful things from stone."
His lips curved up into a smile. "Okay, good. Then I did something right."
"I don't think you could do anything wrong," she said with a smile of her own. "But I have always wished to see this place."
She made to take a step forward, but Kili shook his head, reaching for her hands with his own. "Wait," he said. "It won't do if you're running off and getting lost, will it? It's a big room, and I know my way around, you don't. So let me help you."
He gently pulled her after him, one of his hands warm in her own. He navigated the small trenches in the floor, making sure not to step into them as he led her across the forge, stopping occasionally to point something of importance out.
It quickly became apparent that she had completely underestimated the sheer size of the forges. It went on for what looked like miles and miles of stone and gold and iron, with freshly forged weapons hanging from the walls on rich plum velvet.
"How many people work here every day?" she asked, aghast.
He made a thoughtful face. "Five hundred, six hundred, give or take."
"Valar," she breathed.
"Yep." He grinned. "It's quite the work force."
"This place must employ half the dwarves in this Mountain," she said.
"That sounds about right." He seemed proud. As he should have been. Try as she might to be patriotic, there was nothing in the Woodland realm even nearing this size or this grandeur.
"So... can you forge anything?" she asked, gazing up at the massive crate of iron rods standing in front of her.
"Every dwarf knows how to forge something," he said. "It's something everyone learns. Regardless of position, gender, age."
"Then could you forge something now?"
He turned surprised brown eyes to her. "Now?"
"Would that be unadvisable?"
"No," he said, apparently recovering. "No, it'd be all right. Nobody's here, so it'd be fine. What would the lady like the man to forge?"
She made a face, moving closer. "The lady would like to aid her man. To forge a dagger sharp enough for both of them. She does not want to sit by and let the man do all the work, you see. She does not mind getting her hands dirty." She held up said hands, palms up.
His eyes glimmered, the beginnings of a grin forming on his lips. "You want to help me?"
"Why not?"
His telltale smile widened. "I don't see why not. Come on, follow me."

With a mighty clang, she set down the sheets of silver and iron she was carrying into a pile, heaping them on top of each other. She stepped back and frowned at it.
"Is this enough for a dagger?" she asked Kili.
He glanced over at it, brows furrowed in concentration. "Several daggers, if my experience has anything to say."
He walked over, dusting his hands off on the grimy blacksmith's apron he'd donned over his clothes. It was already streaked with soot from where he'd already wiped his hands off. Behind him, a bed of coals near an anvil glowed red-hot, stoked carefully by the prince's hand.
"Okay, bring them here," he instructed, pointing at the sheets of metal. They both fed the sheets into the coals, which he tended patiently until it was a roaring fire, so hot that it nearly singed her hair. She pulled it up into a bun, tucking it into place with her fingers.
With a pair of tongs he removed the pieces of metal, which he layered neatly one on top of the other until he had a neat stack. He stepped back.
"Hammer," he said, holding out a hand. His voice was sharp, authoritative. This was where he had more knowledge, more experience. She handed it to him and he wasted no time, pounding the metal sheets until they had all molded into one solid piece.
He dropped the hammer and thrust the metal into the fire, seemingly uncaring about the fact that it was glowing hot. As it began to soften he drew it out again, and began shaping it slowly into a long, elegant curve.
"Tauriel," he said, and she jumped. He pointed at a smaller sheet of metal. "In the fire," he instructed. "Make sure it's as hot as it can get without melting. Then take it out and make a hand's length wedge."
She hurried over to the sheet, doing as she was told as his deafening hammering resumed. There was one Kili she knew well, a joking, laughing Kili, and there was this other Kili, a terse, more rough one who was no nonsense. It was disconcerting to say the least, she thought as she drew the hot metal out of the flames and began to shape it.
"Okay, that's enough," his voice said at her elbow once the metal had reached the desired length. "Bring it here." He gestured to the anvil.
He stuck the crudely formed blade into the fire once more before drawing it out and hammering both the pieces together, forming a handle and hilt. His forehead was gleaming with sweat, and she decided not to mention that there was a smear of soot on his cheek.
"Tauriel," he said again, and this time she didn't jump. "Yes, Kili?"
He pointed at the far end of the forge. "A tub of water," he said. "It should be cold."
She hurried off, in the direction he had pointed. The search for a trough took her into a further wing of the forge, full of equipment and other paraphernalia. After locating a suitably sized tub, she filled it with ice-cold water at a nearby pump and lugged it back to Kili, who, the instant she placed the tub down, swept the blade up and plunged it into the water in one smooth movement.
There was a low hiss, and a billow of steam rose from the tub, clouding the air for a few brief seconds before it settled.
He drew the blade out, then placed it onto a cloth he had laid out next to the anvil. The iron meshed with silver had stopped glowing, and was now a pale, glittering silver-gray. It was flawlessly shaped, curved and deadly sharp, with a light handle and an even lighter hilt.
"It's beautiful," she said.
He turned to her, squinting from all the time he'd spent looking into the blazing flames. "But not quite finished yet. Can you sew?"
She was momentarily caught off guard by the sudenness of the question. "Yes. Why?"
He handed her a strip of black leather and a thick iron needle already threaded with sturdy twine. "We'll need something for the handle."
She set to work, sitting on the anvil and wrapping the leather around the handle and carefully stitching it to the blade. She leveled the strip of cloth, making sure it was perfectly balanced. Then she tied the twine off, cutting it and knotting it.
"Finished," she announced.
"All right." He carefully took the knife, then held up a finger, turning away. He fidgeted with it for a bit before turning back to her, holding the completed weapon out for her to see.
It was an elegant instrument of war, the whole thing from hilt to tip as long as her forearm. The blade was strong but curved at the end, and the hilt was a hand's length, fitting snugly into her palm. The blade was a light silver but gleamed dully, since it had been forged with iron as well. The handle was simple black leather, and to her surprise she saw that he had cut out a small piece in the handle and had placed a small jewel into it, one that gleamed a trillion different colors at once and yet was pure white. It's facets caught the light, each raying off a different color.
"It's a diamond," said Kili softly. "I thought it'd give it a bit of elegance."
"It's lovely," she said reverently. "The finest weapon I've ever held."
She ran a finger along the blade, and noticed he had etched something into the metal near the hilt, looping script that was as elegant as it was warlike, in the sharp runes of the dwarves.
"Turn it over," he said softly.
She did, and to her surprise, there were markings there as well, but these she could read. After a moment she realized the script was in Sindarin.
"It says our names," she said in surprise.
He shrugged, tugging at the strings of the apron he was wearing and flinging it onto the anvil. "It was a combined effort, so I carved out names, one side in Khuzdul and the other in Sindarin."
"But..." She held the blade out, marveling in the balance of it. "You know Sindarin?"
"No," he admitted. "I just learned how to write your name in it." He smiled at her. With her sitting on the anvil he was slightly taller.
"It's the most beautiful blade I've ever seen," she said. "I love it."
"It's yours," he said quietly.
"Ours," she corrected, taking his hand and guiding it to the handle so that both of them gripped it together. "A combined effort, remember?"
He said nothing, just looking at her. The fingers of her free hand brushed along his cheek, gently rubbing away the smear of soot there. His hand caught hers, holding it to his skin.
"An elf covered in soot, with grimy fingernails and sweaty hands and messy hair, forging a dagger with a dwarf in the forges of Erebor," he said quietly. "Who could have guessed?"
She tipped her head up to look at him. "I never would have," she murmured.
"Me neither," he said, and he brought their intertwined fingers to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss to the sooty tips. She swallowed a gasp as he pulled her to him, sighing as he gently kissed her cheek.
"I love a woman who gets her hands dirty," he murmured, and she couldn't help a small giggle, which turned into a squeak with he captured her mouth with his, effectively stopping all her thoughts.
For a few minutes they sat entwined on the anvil, sharing in each other's warmth, each other's breath. His hands were careful, chaste, gentle, and his lips were caressing and warm. He tasted like metal and burned things. To her, at that moment, there had never been anything sweeter.
Finally they pulled away, and Tauriel sighed, laying her head on his shoulder. She felt cherished and impossibly safe.
"I'm glad you came here," he said softly, and she felt his voice vibrate through his chest. "It may not be for the best reason, but... I'm glad we met."
She burrowed deeper into his solidity, his warmth, feeling herself relax. They both gripped the dagger they had made together, as if it were a lifeline.
"Me too," she said.

Chapter Text

Sigrid

The bathwater was getting cold.
She had been sitting there for so long she'd lost count of the seconds, which had stretched into minutes, which would be stretching into hours soon. The steam had cooled and died, and the water was just warm enough to stay her shivers, but another few minutes and it would be cold.
She was too lost in thought to care, though.
She couldn't stop mulling everything over in her mind—the letter that they had sent to Thranduil, the ambassador in the Mountain, her growing fear for Fili. Reason told her he would be fine; Thorin would not hurt his own nephew, what with their family being so scarce. But in the light of a betrayal such as that, would Thorin be able to differentiate family from enemy? Would he stay his hand?
She was beginning to doubt reason.
She rose from the bath, water cascading down her skin, leaving silver trails behind them. It immediately chilled her skin, and she suppressed a shiver as she dressed, the cold air stirring her hair.
Her mind wandered to the letter again, as she found it often went after they had sent it. The questions that constantly plagued her resurfaced: Would he say yes? Would he refuse? Would he even deign to answer back at all? Or would he perhaps ignore them? Whatever the case, she couldn't stop thinking about it. Everything, everything depended on this. Their fates, their futures. But at the same time it didn't seem fair, that their fate rested on the shoulders of two other kings and not Dale's own. Why did they have to depend on Thorin and Thranduil for their survival? Didn't it make them seem weak?
She shook off the thoughts like cobwebs and went downstairs for breakfast, trying not to think in excess. Now she was thinking like her father, and that was never a good thing. She tried to think of positive things, like her last meeting with Fili. Of course, that had hardly ended well, but it made something small and warm wake up in her chest. She wondered if he would come back, or if she had somehow scared him off for good. But for some reason she knew she hadn't. He was much too irritatingly, wonderfully stubborn for that.
She hid her smile as she sat down at the breakfast table, her thoughts gradually slowing and landing yet again on the letter. Worry tugged at her heart, and she fought it down. It'd do no good to dwell on this, not now.
"Sigrid?" asked her father's voice. "Are you all right?"
She started and looked up, realizing that she was staring into space rather vacantly, her fork dangling between her numb fingers. She forced a smile.
"I'm fine, Da, just a bit distracted, is all."
Bain looked up from where he was sitting across from her. "You're thinking about the latter, aren't you?" he asked perspicaciously.
She shrugged. "It's been on my mind."
"Me too," he muttered. "It's the best we can do right now, so I suppose we'll just have to sit tight and wait it out to see if he bothers."
"But that's just it," she sighed, setting her fork aside. "What if he doesn't bother at all?"
He made a face, twirling his form between his fingers. "Then he won't bother, and we'll have to... I don't know, but we'll have to manage somehow."
"But what if he does bother?" asked their father, frowning at them. Both of them raised their eyebrows, sharing an insightful look; it was extraordinarily rare that their father made any sort of optimistic comments at all. Usually his predictions were more of the dark gray variety.
"He may decide that we could be allies, and he could say yes." He sat back, brows corrugated. "His mind works in a very complex way. I couldn't possibly guess what he might do, much like the other king we are at the mercy of." He looked out of the window, where the Mountain lay dark and tall against the white of the cloudy sky. "However, Thranduil may be reasoned with. He won't abandon us."
"I'm not being cynical or anything," said Bain moodily, "but he kind of already has."
Their father shot him an amused look. "Not being cynical? You could've fooled me."
"Ha ha." He scowled, but his eyes sparked. "I'm just being realistic. There's a huge chance he'll refuse."
"Maybe," piped up Tilda. "But there's a small chance he'll say yes."
"The glass is half full," said Sigrid with a wink. Bain rolled his eyes. "More like 'the glass has a few drops in it'. I don't want to get my hopes up only to be disappointed. I don't want to disillusion myself or anything."
"Who knows?" shrugged Bard. "Maybe you won't be."

To: The royal family of Dale
From: King Thranduil of Mirkwood

King Bard of Girion and his heirs,
My surprise upon receiving your correspondence was, I should think, not misplaced. Long since have my halls remained barred from the world, and long since have my gates been closed for all. It has come to your knowledge, then, that we are to open them once more for the kingdom under the Mountain, the kingdom in front of whose gates your city lies. I knew that you would discover this, but I did not think to receive a missive.

When the gates of the Lonely Mountain closed and never opened since and my realm as well followed suit, we were quite aware that your kingdom would no longer be buoyed by the arms of the two kingdoms which acted as grappling hooks. We did not, however, expect the city of Dale to last so many winters in the shadow of the Mountain. I as a previous lender to your city had put much thought into the withdrawal of my hand. Now, I begin to reconsider.
The arguments out forth by your person are adequate. The ambassador who now resides under the Mountain has purposes, and she is fulfilling her duties as my ward. We understand your request and we wish to reciprocate. Should our gates reopen, and trade recommences with Erebor, a purpose shall be filled. You have asked for a premature opening of our gates. To this I say that we will.

Should our gates open for you before they open for Erebor it matters not to me. We will allow wealth to flow between our realms once more, and allow the bonds of trade to once again ignite. I shall expect another missive in the near future.

In the name of the Valar,
King Thranduil of Mirkwood

"No way," breathed Bain, reading through the letter again. "No, it can't be possible. Sigrid, pinch me."
She laughed, snatching the delicate piece of parchment from him. "No, it's real!" she crowed. "He said yes!"
"Yes!" Bain laughed, sinking into a chair with his head in his hands. "We can survive," he sighed, shaking his head. "We won't all die by the next winter."
"That we won't. Look, here," said their father, pointing at the latter in Sigrid's hand. "He implies that he knows we know the nature of the ambassador. He knows we know she's a spy. Or something along those lines."
"Does this mean we aren't leaving Dale?" asked Bain, blinking up at his father.
Bard smiled down at him. "No, Bain. We are not leaving Dale."
"Good," said Tilda. "I didn't want to go."
Sigrid put a hand on her face, sighing into her fingers. It was okay. He said yes. They would survive to see the next year. It was all right. She didn't know what he expected in return, but it didn't matter to her. All she cared about was that they were free.
"Now I can rub this in Alfrid's face," said Bain smugly. "I can't wait to see the look on his face."
"Not now," said their father. "I think we should wait a little while before making this statement public."
"Fine," said Bain. "But I'm still going to rub it in his face."
"We'll trade in goods and not money for the first few years," said Sigrid. "That way we can build up and then give him money."
"That's what I was thinking as well," said her father. "We should write back."
"Not now," said Sigrid. "Just breathe for a minute." She stood and put an arm around his shoulders, letting him put a bit of his weight onto her. He squeezed her shoulder, sighing. "So many years," he said. "So many years of this..."
"Not anymore," said Bain, putting his arm around his other shoulder. They held him together, taking care of him as he had taken care of them all their lives.

A sudden rap on her window made her jump.
She looked up from the book she was reading to peer outside, wondering if it was perhaps a bit of ice that had fallen from the rafters of the ceiling. Assuming that situation was the most practical and likely, she shrugged and went back to her book.
The rap came again.
This time she looked up and stood, placing her book down and approaching the window cautiously. She carefully pulled the sash out and slid it upwards, letting in a blast of frigid air. She shivered and leaned out, careful to hold the window open as she did.
Sitting on the rail of the balcony before her was a familiar figure with glossy black feathers and a sharp, long beak and intelligent beady eyes. It flapped its wings and cawed as if happy to see her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, trying to look cross, while in truth she was quite happy to see it. "Didn't I tell you to go away?"
The raven squawked out what could have possibly been an apology, hopping onto the windowsill directly in front of her. It blinked and made an odd gurgling sound.
"I don't speak raven," she informed it with a shrug. "I have no idea what you're saying."
It gurgled again, doing an odd one-footed dance on the sill, waving its other claw in the air whilst spinning in ungainly circles. It looked so strange that she couldn't help but laugh.
"What on earth are you doing?" she asked. It cawed defiantly and flapped its great black wings once, hopping directly onto her arm.
She jumped but held still, noting the size of its claws that could easily shred her skin. But it didn't seem angry or upset; on the contrary, it seemed to be enjoying itself immensely. It stuck out one of its claws, making a soft, sharp sound.
It was then that she noticed the small crumpled ball of paper crushed in the raven's claw. She frowned at it, and it gurgled yet again. She held out a hand in question, pointing at its closed claw. It released the paper with a delighted squeak and hopped back onto the windowsill.
She unfurled the paper, taking care not to tear it as she spread it out on the sill. The parchment was yellowing and crumbling, and only one word was written on it, in slim, long yet bold and elegant script.
Midnight.
"This... Is this from...?" She looked up at the bird, but to her surprise it was gone, having flown away into the night while she was reading. She looked back at the paper, and before her very eyes the wind snatched it away, sending it tumbling into the black abyss of the darkness. She took a deep breath, watching it disappear into the night. She carefully withdrew from the window, closing it and retying the sash. Then she looked at the time.
It was ten minutes till midnight.
She bit her lip, taking another breath as she assessed her options. She could stay here, of course, play it safer, in case who was calling wasn't who she thought it was. Or she could brave the plunge, go see the one person who she could confide in and the one person who understood.
Quickly, she strode to her closet, pulling out a long, thick coat. Wrapping it around her nightgown and donning a woolen scarf, she blew out the candles in her room and lowered the lamps, then closed the room door behind her.
She soundlessly hurried down the stairs, pulling on boots and making her way to the door. Halfway there she felt an odd creeping sensation, as if someone were watching her. She stopped abruptly, her ears straining for any sound. She heard a soft whoosh of air and turned with lightning speed, grabbing a poker from the fireplace as she did. She held it out, and as the lights flickered on she found herself face to face with her brother.
"Bain!" she sighed with frustration, setting the poker back down. "What are you doing here?"
He was sitting on the armchair, wearing his sleep things and a frown, his arms crossed across his chest. There was a softly glowing lamp on the table next to him, evidently placed there by him, seeing as its original place was by the mantel. There was a book next to it with a bookmark sticking out of it. He'd clearly been there quite a while.
"I could ask you the same," he said, running a calculating eye over her coat and scarf and boots, and her hair, pulled up into a chignon. He raised an eyebrow. "Taking a late night stroll?"
She sighed. "Would it convince you if I said yes?"
"As soon as you gave me an explanation as to why you would take a midnight stroll when it's about three degrees outside." He sat back, his frown intensifying. "And not to mention unsafe."
"How long have you been here?" she asked.
The corner of his lips rose in a humorless half-smile. "Long enough."
She noted the shrewd gleam in his eye and crossed her own arms. "I have a feeling you know why I'm going," she said. "You'd have figured it out by now, wouldn't you?"
A muscle in his cheek jumped. "I know why. And where, and who. I gathered as much. I had a feeling you would meet him tonight."
She blushed furiously. "Oh? How?"
"The letter we got from Thranduil," he said. "Of course he'd want to know about it."
She scowled at him. "He doesn't even know we sent him a letter in the first place," she snapped. "Nor does he know we received a reply."
"Either way," said Bain, "you're going to tell him tonight."
She shook her head. "He needs to know, Bain. It's important."
"I could stop you," he said, and she sensed he was only half-joking. "Call Da, tell him. End this, right now. I could. I doubt you'd ever see him again."
She waited.
"But I won't," he sighed. "You should go see him. I have a feeling he's helping."
She frowned. "Helping what?"
"Who," he corrected. "You. You're finally telling someone things that you can't tell us." As she protested weakly, he shook his head. "You'll be late if you don't leave now. When did he say?"
"Midnight. And, Bain," she called as he stood up, scooping up his book as he did. He doused the lamp, and the room was suddenly washed in darkness.
"Yes?" His voice floated from the black.
"Thank you," she said.
She heard his laugh, growing fainter as he walked towards the stairs. "Anytime, Sigrid," he called back, his voice dissolving. "Anytime."

She arrived at the archway that led to the city, out of breath from a hard run. It was fifteen minutes past midnight, and her thoughts tumbled under and over each other as her eyes searched the dark but didn't see him. What if she was so late that he'd left already? What if he was just late himself? What if he had decided against coming here because it wasn't safe? What if—
"Sigrid," hissed a soft, familiar voice. "Over here."
She turned blindly in the direction of the voice, squinting. Seeing nothing, she squeezed her eyes shut, letting her pupils dilate to adjust to the dark behind her eyes. When she opened them again, she saw indistinct, shadowy shapes, and one figure detaching itself from the thicker shadows of a tree and move towards her.
Even if she had cause to feel worried—she could scarcely see, and it could very well be anyone coming towards her—she relaxed upon seeing the figure; she recognized his silhouette, his gait, his posture. It surprised her how accustomed she had become to his presence.
"I hope I didn't wake you?" he murmured once he'd reached her.
"No," she said in reply. "You didn't."
"Good," he said with a grin. "I thought I saw a light in one of the windows."
She shook her head, bemused. "You still haven't learned your lesson, I see."
"I'm afraid not," he said with that soft laugh of his.
"Why did you call me?" she asked, frowning and sitting down on a rock nearby. "Is it something important?"
His steel blue gaze was unreadable and troubled. "Of a sort. Dain Ironfoot arrived at the Mountain yesterday."
She blinked. "Lord of the Iron Hills?" She'd heard of Dain Ironfoot, of course, and he'd come to Dale many times before Thorin locked away his kingdom and barred it from all.
"Yes," said Fili. "He said he was suspicious about the ambassador."
"Tauriel?" She blinked. The thought stirred up her earlier ones of the letter and the reply they had gotten. She opened her mouth to speak when he cut across her.
"He said he wasn't sure she had come for trade, and he..." He shrugged. "He arrived yesterday morning."
She frowned at him. "What do you think?"
"About Dain?"
"About Tauriel."
He fell silent, his foot tapping on the paved stones beneath. His expression was stormy. "I don't know," he said finally. "Thorin is suspicious, and he said he's known she had another reason since the moment she arrived, but..." He shook his head. "It was a bit overwhelming."
Sigrid bit her lip. "We thought so as well," she said. "We think she's there to take something from you."
He turned surprised cerulean eyes to her. "Take something? What do you mean?"
She shrugged self-consciously. "Gandalf the Grey was here a few months ago, and he told us his suspicions. Then he came back a few weeks ago, and you saw him here."
"So what do you think?" He blinked down at her. "About the reason she might be here?"
She chose her words carefully. "Well... why would Thranduil send her all the way here, to the Mountain, to a king he knows is dangerous, just to continue trade again? Doesn't it seem like a waste? We felt as if the only reason he would risk something like that is if he needed something back, something Thorin has, or has had, for years now. He sent her to take it back, maybe? We don't know what it is, nor do we even have any ideas. We don't know what lies in that treasure hoard, but it doesn't have to be gold or gems, does it? We still don't know about that."
Fili had gone white. "The white gems of Lasgalen," he whispered.
"What?" She wasn't sure she had heard him right. "The white gems of what?"
He turned to her, stricken. "We hadn't even thought of that, that she might be here to take something. Thorin just thought it was something Thranduil wanted to settle with him. Even I thought that—so did Kili—but this makes more sense... Why didn't we think of this before?" He sighed, rubbing both hands across his face.
"Back when Thorin's grandfather Thror ruled the Mountain, everyone had to pay homage to him, as you know," he said. I think your ancestors gave something as well."
She nodded, seeing where this was headed. "An emerald necklace."
He nodded slowly. "Well, Thranduil gave him the white gems of Lasgalen, a necklace made of priceless gems of starlight. He was reluctant, even then. Years later, Thorin closed his gates, and he hasn't opened them for anyone. But Thranduil's gems, which were in our halls so that trade could be two-sided, were essentially in the wrong place. They were given to Thror to be an essential part of the balance. But when Thorin withdrew that scale tipped. The balance was disturbed. Those gems should be sacred to Thranduil. I just can't believe I never thought of it..."
Her heart was slamming in her chest. "He sent Tauriel to the Mountain to take them back. That's why she's there."
There was silence, only the wind howling as the revelation coursed through them. They knew. They had finally found out why Tauriel was there. Now there were no more secrets.
"Are you sure it's..." Fili trailed off, his meaning clear.
"I'm sure of it," said Sigrid. "It all fits!"
He worried at his lower lip, brows furrowed. "Now where does that put me?"
She frowned. "What do you mean?"
He sighed, closing his eyes. "Thorin is suspicious. He knows she's there for some other reason and not trade. And me... My allegiance lies with him." His voice grew quiet.
"But you can't tell him!" Sigrid said, outraged. "He's a brutal tyrant, and he's—"
"He's my king, my uncle, he raised me. I owe him my life and my loyalty. I swore fealty to him, and that's not an oath I can break easily," said Fili, cutting through her. "To keep this from him would be treason." His eyes hardened, and so did his voice. "But it is a treason I'm willing to commit. Tauriel is... I don't know her as well as my brother does, but she's a good person. In this situation she's not at fault."
He slumped. "If Thorin finds out I know, I don't think... I don't think I'll ever be forgiven. Ever."
She understood what he didn't say; he would be thrown out of the kingdom, stripped of his title and his name, with nothing but the clothes on his back. She straightened. That was not going to happen. Not on her watch.
"Well then, it's a good thing you can keep secrets then," she said. "He will never know."
He rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking exhausted. "Mahal, the white gems... Why hadn't it occurred to me?"
"Because you can't think of everything at once," she said, waving a hand. "And even we didn't think of it."
He looked down at her where she was sitting on the rock. "That's because you didn't even know they existed until a few minutes ago."
"That's beside the point." She couldn't help the laugh that tugged her mouth. "It was an effort on both our parts. You couldn't have found out without me, I couldn't have found out without you."
"On the topic of us..." He rubbed at his eyes again. "I never apologized for..." He jerked his head. "You know."
Her mouth quirked. "For chasing after me with a bird?"
"I'm sorry." He looked deeply chagrined. A swell of affection bubbled up inside her chest. "It was stupid, and wrong, and cowardly. I should've—"
She stopped him with a finger on his lips. "It's fine."
"No," he said. "I should've thought more about—"
"Fili."
"More about how you'd think of—"
"Fili."
"Think of what I was trying to—"
"Fili."
"What?" His expression was desperately hopeful and worried at the same time. She couldn't help but laugh, pulling him in by his hand. "It is fine. I actually think it's quite sweet. You only worried me for a moment. I yelled at you because..." She blushed, then mentally cursed herself. She never blushed. Or at least she tried not to. "Because I couldn't think properly and that was my first defense."
"Couldn't think properly? Why not?" His eyes glittered.
She blushed again. "Because—"
His lips stopped hers and she gave up trying to make excuses, sighing as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and back to bring him closer. The winter night air was freezing, but he was so warm and solid that the chill dissipated, vanishing into his heat. His hands, equally as warm as his lips, rested on her waist, and the other tangled into her hair, loosening her chignon and spilling her curls down her back in heavy waves.
His beard tickled her cheek and she smiled against his mouth, her hands bunching in his hood. They both pulled away at the same time to gasp for breath, which puffed out in white bursts in the cold.
"Is that why?" he murmured, his breaths stirring her hair. She bit her lip, burying her head in his shoulder.
"Cheater," she muttered. She felt his laugh as he put his arms around her, holding her close. She snuggled into him, resting her head on his shoulder. They sat like that for a while, in silence, just listening to each other's breath. Her thoughts swirled, and with a small shock she remembered the letter.
"Fili," she said, drawing away. "I forgot to tell you something important."
His brows drew together in concern. "What?"
She searched his face. "We—my family—wrote to Thranduil, asking him to make an exception and open his gates for us and help us survive. To open them a bit early and resume trade with us."
His brows rose. "And did he reply?"
"He did."
"Well?"
"He... he said yes."
He stilled. "What?"
"He said he would open the gates. He agreed to begin trade again."
His mouth opened. "But... but he..." He spluttered, blinking rapidly. "That's a little hard to believe," he said finally.
"It is. Even I had to take a bit of time to really understand he'd agreed."
"So... When will his gates reopen?"
"He asked us to tell him. We're writing back tomorrow."
Fili looked stunned. "Mahal."
She laughed. "I know."
He smiled at her, his eyes shining. "It seems you don't need me after all."
She frowned. "For what?"
"My promise. You're—it's over, Sigrid. You're free, safe, it's done. You've been saved."
A sudden, inexplicable chill settled over her bones, and a small voice in her head whispered caution to her, telling her that somehow even if this had happened they were not yet safe. Something would happen. This happiness would not last.
Fili's smile turned into an expression of concern. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head. "I just... Something just feels wrong."
"What do you mean? Sigrid, it's done. You're free now."
"I don't know," she said. "I just feel like something is going to happen. I don't know what, but it's not a good feeling."
"It's born from the way you've had to fight all these years," he said. "The experience from that existence isn't going to go away so easily. It'll take a few months to get used to it."
"But this feels... different. I feel like this isn't going to last."
"Sigrid." He brushed a hand along her cheek. "I know it's a little hard to believe, but it's going to be fine. You're a little world-weary at the moment, is all. You'll be fine." His lips grazed her forehead and she tried to relax.
"It's just so odd," she said. "Struggling for so long only to get our old lives back."
He held her tighter. "I know. But about Thorin and this whole gems business..."
"I think she might take them and go back," she said.
"And wait for Thorin to track her down and go to war with the elves?" he snorted. "She'll be much more careful than that. She'll manage to convince him to give them to her, maybe. I don't know if he'll... Not after they..." He swallowed.
She raised her head, her eyes narrowing. "What?"
"Nothing."
She raised an eyebrow and he shook his head. "It's not my secret to tell. And I swore not to tell anyone."
"Did they fight?" He shook his head. "Did he threaten her?" Another shake of the head. "Did she threaten him?" He shook his head a third time. "Did he—"
"Sigrid." His voice held a trace of a warning note, and she let it go. "Fine, then. But... is it bad?"
He cracked a tight smile. "Worse than you could possibly imagine."
She blinked, slightly taken aback. "Really?"
"Mmm." He sighed. "It's been so hectic in the Mountain. So much to do, no time."
"And all the drama," she said, wiggling her fingers. "Don't forget the drama."
"How could I?" He gave a halfhearted chuckle. "That's the root of every problem."
There was silence. "Are you all keeping well?" he asked after a while. "It's still cold."
"We're doing fine," she said. "There's plenty of drama here to keep us occupied as well. Your Mountain isn't the only place in this valley with more going on than it seems."
He laughed. "Thank Mahal for that."
"And you?" she asked. "I hope that in all this mess you aren't forgetting to take care of yourselves."
He shrugged. "It's a little hard to get sleep with everything's that's happening, but we are managing. And I just hope this gems-of-Lasgalen crisis won't ruin anything else."
"Such as?"
He winked. "My brother's relationship with the elven ambassador."
She raised her eyebrows. "Tauriel and Kili?"
"Believe it or not." He smiled tiredly. "I'm glad. They're good for each other. And he's been pining for her for almost six months now."
She laughed. "Well, congratulate them for me."
"I will." He sighed. "I hope they get around this whole thing."
"I hope we can get around it as well," she said quietly.
"We already are," he said. Then he heaved a deep breath and stood up rather reluctantly. "It's getting late. I should head back."
She stood up as well, nodding. "It'll be dawn soon."
He pulled his hood up, instantly shadowing his face and blurring his features. All she could see were his eyes, glowing an eerie light blue.
"Come back soon," was all she could think to say.
"I will." He pressed one last, chaste kiss to her hand before turning and leaving, immediately swallowed by the shadows of the night.

"The white gems of Lasgalen?"
Her father frowned at her from where he was sitting at his desk. Papers were spread out all over it, as were a few books. A fountain pen lay amidst the mess, steadily leaking blue-black ink onto a piece of parchment.
"That's what she's there to take," said Sigrid. "I'm sure of it."
"How do you know of these gems?"
She balked. Beside her, Bain coughed, looking away. She took a deep breath, biting her lip. The moment of truth had arrived, and while she didn't want to say anything, she had to. She had no choice in the matter.
"I—I've been stepping out with prince Fili, and he told me last night."
There was a sort of shocked silence in the room for about ten seconds. Her father's expression didn't change, but his eyes were wary. "Prince Fili?"
She nodded, looking steadily at him. "For about two months now. I know, I didn't tell you, and I'm sorry, but you know why I didn't."
He nodded slowly. "And you believe him?"
"Yes." She bit her lip.
"How long has he been coming here?"
"He doesn't come here, he only comes to the city. It's like I said... Two months."
"And you and he..."
She blushed. "Well... yes."
"How long has that been going on?"
She looked at the floor. "Yule."
"Well, as long as you can trust him, I have no objections, though even if I did I'm not sure you would heed them."
She looked up quickly. "You—you're not angry?"
He sighed tiredly. "No, Sigrid, I'm not. I trust you can make the right decisions, and you are old enough to decide whom to trust. In fact, I have wanted you to find someone for a long time. Even if that someone is the Crown Prince of Erebor." He picked up the fountain pen and capped it, then set it aside, where it promptly resumed leaking, ink spilling through the opening in the cap.
"Now, he said that there are gems in the Mountain that belong to Thranduil?"
"Yes. And they're sacred to him."
"Of course he'd want them back." He sighed again. "Did he sound sure?"
"Very. I'm sure that's it. He said they're priceless to him, and that he'd been reluctant to part with them in the first place."
"I should've known it'd be gems," said Bain from beside her. "People these days are so materialistic."
"He said they were gems of starlight," she said.
"Even better," said Bain. "Because elves can't be greedy about just plain gems, they call them gems of starlight."
"I think they're actually made of starlight, Bain," said Sigrid.
"Same difference," he said, waving a hand dismissively. "So he sent that poor woman to steal them back. Doesn't he know that he's walking right into a trap?"
"Thorin doesn't know," Sigrid reminded him.
"So? Does he think Thorin wouldn't know he was doing some crafty elf business? He's on his guard, obviously. If he finds out—which he very well might, given some time—what then? He'll kill her."
They exchanged worried glances. "Maybe he won't kill her—"
"Don't delude yourselves," he warned. "Every time you underestimate him he does something so unexpected it's impossible to see it in advance. You keep trying to convince yourselves that he's not all bad, but he's worse. Can't you see that? He's rotted for so long in those halls with that stone that he's gone mad. You can never predict what a madman will do."
"But we can't just stand by and let him do whatever it is he'll do when he finds out," said Sigrid. "Not when we know what she's there for."
"What can we do?" asked their father, looking stricken. "We're barred from that kingdom."
"Even Fili knows," said Sigrid. "He can do something. Anything."
"Isn't Thorin his uncle?" asked Bain. "How do we know he won't tell him?"
"He wouldn't," said Sigrid. "He hates Thorin."
"He must be a real charmer if his own nephews hate him," muttered Bain. "Sometimes I'm glad those gates are closed."
"We all are," said their father. "So what now?"
"We could go have breakfast, for starters," said Bain. "I'm starving, and Tilda made blueberry muffins. Shall we?"

To: King Thranduil of Mirkwood
From: The royal family of Dale

My lord Thranduil,

We are pleased to say that we have received your letter this morning, and even more pleased that you have to chosen to accept our proposal. If we reignite trade between our realms then our city and out people may be saved from a terrible fate. Since the closing of the two great doors of Erebor and the Woodland realm, we have found the balance that kept Dale alive had crumbled. We hope to avoid the destruction of our kingdom by opening our doors once again.

Our gates may be open at any time, though since the first full moon of the first month is the most auspicious day we will once again reopen out gates on that day. Our trade will be as it once was, and the same articles will be utilized. We will use the Running River and will send bargemen to the shores of the Long Lake to collect the articles as it once was. Although we do not expect to see your person, we hope to keep the bond between our kingdoms alive as it once was.

We look forward to resuming trade in the first full moon of this month, and our bargemen will be at the shore in wait. We once again wish to convey our gratitude for your consideration and actions.

In the name of the Valar,
The royal family of Dale

Chapter Text

Kili

He spun the freshly forged dagger in his hand, finding it was perfectly balanced, hilt and handle and blade. His fingers traced the inscription on the blade, their names intertwined intimately. He'd been careful, not wanting to ruin it.
She had insisted that he keep it for the first few days, saying he had done more than she did. After much protesting and insisting, she'd made him take it.
He held it now, a finger under the place where the hilt met the blade, letting it teeter before it balanced. The diamond in the handle glittered.
It was close to dawn, but he hadn't slept a wink. He was getting worried about himself, that he wasn't sleeping at all but he still wasn't tired. He never got tired, or sleepy, or anything. It was as if for the past few months he'd been running on pure adrenaline.
He ran a finger along the curved blade of the dagger, and there was a sudden knock on the door.
He jumped, his fingers sliding on the sharp blade. A cut opened on the tip of his finger, leaking ruby drops of blood. He winced and put his finger in his mouth, heading to the door.
He threw it open and blinked, lowering his hand. "Fili?"
"Who else would it be? Can I come in?"
"Mmh." Kili stepped aside, allowing his brother inside and closing the door. "What's up?"
"I'd just gone to Dale. I arrived just now."
"Wow," said Kili. "You're getting serious about this thing with Sigrid, aren't you?"
Fili ignored him. "They wrote to Thranduil, asking him to reopen his gates early and start trading with them again."
Kili stared. "But he'll say no."
"That's just it," said Fili. "He wrote back, and he said yes."
Kili's mouth dropped open. "No."
"I know. Even I was surprised. But they're going to start trading again."
"That's mad," said Kili. Then he paused. "But that means they'll survive!"
"Exactly." He looked conflicted. "And we can't tell Thorin."
"Obviously. If he finds out then he'll do something and stop it somehow."
"They're all just so relieved," said Fili. "No more scrounging, no more fighting to live." He sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. "It was so sad."
"It's done now," said Kili, patting his arm. "No need to worry."
"Something finally went right," he muttered. "Something Thorin did has finally been reversed. Something good happened."
"And who'd believe it if we told them that it's because of Thranduil," muttered Kili.
Fili laughed a little. "I certainly wouldn't," he said. He cut his eyes up, looking at him with an unreadable expression. Fili was always unreadable.
"What?" Kili asked finally.
"What what?" Fili deflected casually.
"You were staring at me."
"No, I wasn't," he lied easily.
"Fili. What are you not telling me?"
"Nothing," he said, his face guileless. "I'm just tired, is all. I think I'll go to bed now."
"Fine," said Kili, giving up. "See you in the morning."
"See you," said Fili, and turned to leave. Just as he reached the door he turned around. "There's a meeting tomorrow," he said. "One with every court official and Dain and Tauriel."
"Fine. What time?"
Fili offered him a humorless half-smile. "After dinner, late tomorrow night. Looks like we'll meet Dain then."
"There's something to look forward to," mumbled Kili. "See you there."
Fili nodded and ducked out, closing the door behind him. Kili looked after him for a long time, lost in thought. It seemed as if it were doomed to always be like this—where Fili would know something and hide it expertly even while Kili would know he was keeping secrets. But he was too good at brushing it off. Too good at hiding. That was one thing he'd gotten from Thorin.
He sighed, placing the dagger on the bedside table and flopping back onto the pillows, staring pensively at the ceiling. Eventually he fell asleep, the dagger gleaming on the table next to him still smeared with blood.

"Honestly, what will we even talk about?" Tauriel sighed, swinging her legs from where she was perched on the long table in the weapons room. She was twirling a misericorde in her slim fingers, the light from the high windows running off the edge in a line of silver fire.
"No idea," Kili said. "The weather, maybe?"
She snorted. "That seems more likely than the actual reason they called the meeting in the first place," she said.
"To discuss the 'tidings of this volatile time' or some such nonsense." He shrugged, running a damp cloth along the curved length of his bow. "Dain is just suspicious."
"And this is his exuse to scrutinize me," she said.
"Naturally. If he hasn't done that already... Has he?"
"To some extent." She made a face. I don't know what he got from it, but I made sure not to say too much."
He paused in the act of counting his arrows. "If you had to make sure not to say too much, does that mean you've got something to hide?"
The smile that darted across her face was like quicksilver. "Everyone has something to hide," was all she said.
It wasn't an answer. Far from it, actually. People never seemed to stop hiding things from him.
"Well," he said, "what could a perfectly innocent elven ambassador who happens to be in the halls of her enemies possibly have to hide?"
"I wouldn't say perfectly innocent," she said with another small smile. "But you'd find that I have a few secrets of my own. And now that you mention it, I am in the halls of my enemies, aren't I?"
"An enemy of your king is an enemy of yours," he said.
"Not exactly." She turned opaque green eyes to him. "I found that my king and I disagreed in more than one front. And you do the same with yours."
He couldn't help the humorless grin on his own lips. "What on earth gave you that idea?"
She laughed. "Maybe it was the dirty looks behind his back, or perhaps it is the way you speak of him."
"Ah, you make it sound like treason. I could get locked up for that, you know."
"In this Mountain, you could get locked up for just about anything," she sighed. "I suppose if we were walked in on by the wrong people we could get locked up for this."
"Sitting in the weapons room?"
"Speaking ill of the King, letting me touch the weapons, letting me use the weapons." She arched a brow. "Seducing the poor, unsuspecting prince."
He rolled his eyes. "'Poor, unsuspecting prince'? Please. I'm not my brother."
Her lips quirked. "Don't let him hear you say that."
"Wouldn't dream of it." He sighed. "He'd never let me hear the end of it."
She stretched her arms like a cat, blinking at him. "Where does he go every day?"
"What do you mean?"
"I see him leave the Mountain almost every day, after everyone is asleep." She arched a coppery brow at him and he shrugged.
"He goes to Dale."
She looked startled. "Dale? Why?"
"Well." He frowned at the knife in his hands. "He used to go because he was so concerned and he wanted to see if they needed any help or aid. But lately he's been going a lot more frequently, and that's because he and the princess are a bit closer than they should be."
She smiled a little. "Ah."
He nodded. "We're a family of rebels in this Mountain, aren't we?"
"The very worst." She laughed. "I wonder how your uncle would react if he knew about you and I, and your brother and the princess."
"I don't even want to imagine it," he said. "It'd be an absolute nightmare." He thought of the previous night, when Fili had told him about Thranduil and his new deal with Dale. If Thorin found out somehow...
"What are you thinking?" she asked, her voice curious. "You look as if you've realized something important."
"I have," he sighed. "But it's not important."
"It is as I said," she said with a smile that seemed suddenly very elflike. "Everyone has something to hide."

Dain was just as he remembered. It was, as usual, impossible to tell he was related to Thorin if he already didn't know. They were polar opposites—Dain was short and stout, Thorin taller and lean; Dain's hair and beard were fiery red streaked with white with his usual boar's tusks woven into it, Thorin's were dark and plain; Dain was rather loud and boisterous, and Thorin was quieter, more sinister. Altogether, it seemed odd that they were raised together.
"Kili!" he said, clapping him heartily on the back. "It's been too long, hasn't it?"
"It has," said Kili. "Ten years?"
"Twelve and a half," said Dain, and Kili grinned. "Someone's keeping count."
"Well, someone has to," winked Dain. "So how're you holding up here, hmm?"
"Oh, fine," he said evasively. "Just fine."
"Any fresh air recently?"
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Last time I went out I got shot in the shoulder."
"Ah, what's life without risk?" Dain grinned through his tangled beard. "It's not fun if you don't get shot at least once in your life. I myself got an arrow in the leg for messing around with the wrong woman at the wrong time within close range of another wrong woman."
"Right," he said. "You haven't changed a bit."
"'Course I haven't," he said happily, clapping him on the shoulder again. "So, what's going on, Kili? Have you been messing around with any wrong women lately?"
"Well, now that you mention it..." He pretended to think. "Nope."
"Ah, come on. Handsome young man like you. Which dwarrowdam would spurn you, eh?"
"It's not them spurning me, if you know what I mean," he said. Sometimes to speak with Dain you had to speak like Dain.
"Ahh," said Dain, laughing. "Got standards, have we?"
"Very high ones, yes," he said. "Very high."
"Now who could be tall enough to pass those, hmm?" There was a twinkle in his eye. His voice was heavy with implication. Kili rolled his eyes.
"I have noticed an elf-maid wandering these halls lately," said Dain in a stage whisper. "Though I don't think you'd sink to that level—or, in this case, rise to that level, since she's about three feet taller than you." He raised his bushy brows.
"Dain, come on," he said, making sure his voice was entirely normal. "An elf, really?"
"She's quite the looker, isn't she?"
"Dain, you hate elves."
"Now, don't paint me black and white!" He spread his hands. "I don't mind those woodland sprites."
"Of course you don't. It isn't as if you threw your war helm at their king the last time you saw him or anything like that. That's just going too far."
"He insulted my kin," waved away Dain. "That old pompous prat deserved it."
"Don't mind them indeed."
"Only their king," reminded Dain. "The rest of them aren't all bad. His son was all right. Seemed like the quiet type."
"Sure." He shook his head. "To make an enemy of a king is to make an enemy of a kingdom."
"That sounds exactly like the ridiculous things Thorin spouts," said Dain, sighing. "Don't tell me he's rubbing off on you."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said serenely.
"That makes one of you with a straight head on your shoulders. Fili has grown up a bit too fast, hasn't he?"
"Can't say I disagree," said Kili. "Older siblings, you know... they think they're adults just because you're younger."
"Agreed," said Dain. "They grow up and decide to save the world."
"And that leaves us..."
"In purgatory."
"Succinct."
They both laughed. Kili had almost forgotten how fun it was conversing with Dain. It was like playing tennis, launching a verbal volley and waiting for him to return it. He always has to think before speaking, which could be either disastrous or successful.
"Ah, you haven't changed either," said Dain. "You're still my favorite great-nephew, though I wouldn't go saying that to any potential siblings."
"My lips are sealed," promised Kili. "Not a word to Fili."
"Excellent," said Dain. "Now let's pretend we're speaking about something important; Thorin is coming."
Kili shrugged. "Fine, say something serious."
"I've seen Thranduil naked," he said, deadpan.
Kili choked.

Dain and Thorin were already there when they arrived.
It seemed Tauriel had already met Dain; as they sat in the atrium where the meeting was to take place, she murmured that she'd spoken to him the previous day.
"How was he?" Kili had asked her.
She had blinked, then smiled a little. "He was... unpredictable."
"Not surprising," he'd muttered. "He's not overfond of elves, let me tell you."
"I gathered that much," she had said. "He wasn't exactly courteous, but he wasn't too bad, either. I found it quite hard to hate him."
Kili laughed at that. "Good," he'd said.
All was quiet now, and it seemed Thorin was letting Dain handle this meeting; he was sitting back, arms folded, while Dain spoke his greetings. Thorin's sharp gaze swept the length of the table as Dain talked, lingering on no one but stopping for a few seconds on Fili, no expression on his face as he moved on. Kili looked away as his eyes sought him out, and his shoulders relaxed when they moved away.
"—and the ambassador from Thranduil," said Dain, cutting through his thoughts, "for which I was most curious." He squinted at Tauriel, who looked impassive.
"His conditions are clear," she said icily. "I already spoke of this to the king"—her eyes moved swiftly to Thorin, then back to Dain—"and he is yet to decide what to do."
"Your king, he requires what he so carelessly gave away, if I'm not mistaken," said Thorin, still sitting with his arms folded and a brow raised. "I'm amazed he didn't immediately demand for them when my gates closed all those years ago."
If Tauriel was offended, she didn't show it. She only sat up straighter, casting her voice forth for all the room to hear. "He wished for the return of the gems to begin a new age where we are once again linked," she said.
There was a flicker of movement far above, to the left side of the viewing gallery of the atrium. It was faint, so faint that Kili was sure he was the only one who had seen it—his eyes were especially sensitive to movement; it was a necessity since he was an archer.
His gaze flicked up to the gallery, but there was nothing. He focused back on the meeting, but he found his eyes darting back to the left corner again and again.
"And if I say no to his condition?" asked Thorin, his eyes darkening. "If I refuse to give him what he is asking for?"
Tauriel hesitated. Nobody else seemed to notice it but him; he cast a quick look around the room, but nobody seemed fazed. Maybe he'd imagined it. "Then the deal is forfeit," she said. "I will return to the forest."
Kili didn't like the malicious gleam in Thorin's eye as he nodded and turned back to Dain, and he murmured something quietly. Dain smirked and muttered something back.
That's when it happened.
Something long and slim and black came flying from the shadows in the upper corner of the atrium, so suddenly nobody had time to react, burying itself into Thorin's right shoulder. He jerked backwards, and Kili's vision sharpened. An arrow. His chilling sense of foreboding was right, then. There was someone up there.
The whole room fell silent.
Another arrow came flying from the same place, slamming into Thorin's body two inches away from the first one. He stumbled back again, his head dipping to look at the two arrows spurting from his shoulder. His chest heaved.
The soft patter of footsteps running reached their ears from the place where the arrows had come from. Everyone was staring at Thorin, and the arrows sticking out of his body. It looked almost like a prop, like it wasn't real. But the way Thorin's breath hitched and his chest rose and fell erratically was most certainly real. He looked up, and there was something gleaming there, not pain, something else laced into his eyes that scared Kili more than anything else ever had.
"Well?" he asked, and his voice and tone were deceptively casual. "Aren't you going to catch them, or should I do it?"
The room exploded with sound suddenly, people running after the assassin, chasing them through the corridors. The doors of the atrium closed with a clang as the rest of the room turned with wide eyes to the king.
His fingers, somehow steady, came up and encircled the shaft of the first arrow, knuckles whitening as he gripped it hard. Someone—Balin, thought Kili—shouted, "Thorin, wait—!", but it was too late.
He yanked, hard, his skin tearing as he pulled the arrow out of his shoulder. Blood sprayed the table, spattering onto the polished wood as Thorin let out a soft sound of pain. Everyone seated groaned in sympathy as his breath jumped. His fingers gripped the second arrow.
Kili's eyes widened, and he didn't even have time to open his mouth before Thorin pulled the second arrow out in another, more voluminous spray of blood. Everyone groaned again as the king's blood sprayed across the table, dark red, almost black in the dimness.
A dark patch spread down his arm, soaking his tunic as the wound opened, blood smearing down his arm. Thorin's breaths were coming hard and fast, and he was still holding both the arrows, their tips covered in his blood.
Next to Kili, Tauriel's eyes were wide, and she looked at him fearfully. Not afraid for Thorin, but afraid of Thorin. Nobody in their right mind would pull out two arrows so close together. The wound would become one, larger, more dangerous one. And Thorin's arm was dripping blood. But that's not what she was afraid of—there was no pain on his face, nothing that betrayed any emotion. He just seemed blank.
"Thorin," Balin said. "You know what pulling an arrow out does. And with more than one, the wound will open further—"
There was a commotion, and then three guards came into the atrium, dragging a figure behind them, bound and chained. The guards were holding a bow and a quiver of arrows, clearly having taken them from the figure, who was thrashing, writhing and trying to get away, but it was three to one and they were tied.
The figure lifted their face, and Kili's eyes narrowed. Pale blond hair, cascading down in sheets till a slender waist; defiant hazel eyes filled with rage; soft, full lips that were curled back furiously; round, pale cheeks tinged red with exertion. It was a girl, and a young girl at that—she couldn't have been more than Kili's age. Her eyes glowed with anger when they fell on the King.
The girl was dragged forward, thrashing like a wildcat. Her teeth were bared, sweat gleaming on her skin. She was pushed roughly to the ground and she swore colorfully, cursing the guards as they shoved her down.
Thorin prowled towards her slowly, the arrows still in his uninjured hand. He drew up to her and looked down at her almost curiously, as if wondering how such an insignificant little thing had found its way so far.
She looked up at him and snarled something unprintable, thrashing again. His lips curled up into a small smile as he knelt in front of her, their faces on a level.
"Who are you?" he asked, and his voice was quiet, but it still rung around the room.
"It doesn't matter who I am," she spat. "I am nothing."
"I agree," said Thorin softly, not looking away from her. Rage was rolling off him in waves, so clear that it was amazing that they weren't tangible. "But I asked you a question, and I expect you to answer it. Who are you?"
"I am a dwarrow," she snarled. "That is all there is to know of me."
"What is your name?" His voice was like the crack of a whip.
She hesitated, for too long. "Sifa."
His lip curled. "Liar. Tell me your real name."
She struggled in her bonds, snarling. "I won't," she yelled, her defiant voice echoing in the room. "I won't tell you anything—"
He calmly reached out and backhanded her hard across the face, striking her. Her body slumped to one side, her breaths rattling. When she looked up again, her lip was swelling, a thin line of blood running down her chin. She looked shocked.
"What," Thorin asked slowly and deliberately, "is your name?"
"Alyna," she gasped.
His eyes raked across her, taking in her torn clothes, her blazing eyes. His gaze lingered, then stopped on the curve of her shoulder, narrowing suddenly.
His hand shot out, pulling her sleeve down at the shoulder. She gasped as he tore the fabric of her tunic, ripping the sleeve to reveal a livid, burning wound there, smeared with what looked like black grease.
His fingers brushed down her skin, and Kili saw her suck in a breath, her lashes fluttering. Thorin's eyes met hers. "You were from Erebor." It wasn't a question.
She nodded shallowly. Kili looked at the mark and it slowly dawned on him that it had once been a tattoo, of the royal sigil of Erebor, now burnt and charred. The stuff he'd thought was black grease were the remnants of the ink, now smeared and burnt. It was clear that she had burned it off herself, judging from how uncleanly it had been done.
"You burned it off." His voice was soft.
She said nothing.
"Why?"
"I wanted nothing more to do with this kingdom," she gasped. "I wanted to leave and never look back. I did not wish to swear fealty and allegiance to you."
"Why?"
"You—" Tears filled her eyes. "You killed my father."
His lips twisted into a smirk. "I have lost track of how many innocent children's' fathers I have killed," he said lightly. His finger went under her chin, tilting her face up to meet his. Their eyes met, hers full of rage and disgust, his full of lazy, dark authority. "Care to enlighten me?"
She jerked away, breathing hard. "You—you bastard," she breathed. "You heartless bastard—"
His fingers gripped her chin, hard enough to bruise. He brought his face close to hers, so close they breathed the same breath. His face was calm, and that was what scared Kili the most.
"Answer the question."
She writhed in his grip, to no avail. "He—he tried to help a starving family, from Esgaroth," she gasped. "You beheaded him in front of the whole court and my mother and sisters. He did nothing wrong and you killed him!"
He let her go, and she scooted backwards, her chest heaving. Thorin's face split into a cold smile, his eyes shimmering. "I should have guessed; there was fear in your father's eyes as I slew him—the same fear resides in your eyes now. I can see the family resemblance."
The girl's throat moved convulsively. "My father," she whispered, "died without fear. He died on his feet, a noble death! You are the coward, killing where you wish without even a fair trial!"
His eyes burned. "Mind your tongue, girl," he said softly. "Or I may have to cut it out."
She bared her teeth, but said nothing, her breathing heavy.
"Vengeance, then, is what brought you back?" He tilted his head and regarded her with a cruel gleam in his eye. "Did you get what you wanted?"
He held up his other hand, ribboned with blood, the dark red drops dripping off his fingers. She said nothing,