The sky burned.
Bilba huddled in a small niche just inside the gates of Moria and watched quietly.
Dragons, scores of them, swarmed in a frenzied dance. Even at a distance Bilba could easily tell the difference between them. The ones the orcs used were small, about the size of a warg, stocky with short wings that barely got them off the ground. All of them were the same yellowish white color and if they possessed any intelligence of their own she had never witnessed it.
The dragons the dwarves rode were on a different level entirely.
They rode Firedrakes.
The creatures were massive, long and snakelike, their bodies coiling through the air in movements of pure grace. They came in the color of jewels, shimmering and sparkling as they wove in battle with the orcs.
Rushing feet sounded as a new wave of orcs raced past her out the gates. Bilba drew herself tighter into the alcove, pressing back into the shadows. The last thing she wanted was for one of them to see her and report it to Azog later. Her master often punished her for imagined disobedience. The punishment for actual disobedience would be a thousand times worse. He did so enjoy being creative.
Her eyes were drawn out the gate again, away from the dragons to the battle happening on the rocky plain outside. The landscape was crawling with warriors, the bodies of the dead and dying scattered about like macabre decorations. She had no idea why they were there or why wave after wave continued to surge forward only to break upon the never-ending wall of orcs pouring from the mines.
Some of the injured screamed in pain and, as she watched, others darted forward to drag them to safety, risking their own lives in the process.
A memory flickered deep in her subconscious, her mother risking a beating by comforting a dying slave. Bilba hadn't understood. The slave had barely been there a week, neither of them had any connection to him, why would her mother risk a beating? A beating could cause an infection or, worse, slow you down and have you labeled as no longer useful.
Because, her mother's words floated back to her, I am not an orc and I will not behave like one.
Her mother's eyes burned into Bilba from deep within her mind.
And neither will you.
An ear-splitting roar suddenly sounded from overhead, causing her to start, her mind snapping back to the present. The sound was so loud she could feel the rock vibrating around her. A massive, blood-red dragon burst from the pack. Flame erupted from its maw, barely missing many of the orcs and dwarves below. On its back she caught a glimpse of a single rider, a middle aged dwarf with a long decorated beard. A moment later the dragon and rider were gone, the dragon shooting straight up and vanishing into the clouds. Several orcs gave chase, disappearing quickly after them.
A second scream, this time from a dwarven throat, rang out and Bilba followed it to where Azog stood on a low outcropping of rock. His arm was outstretched and dangling from his hand was the severed head of a dwarf. White hair tangled in Azog’s fingers, trailing down to the macabre object swaying lightly in the breeze.
A dwarf burst through the ranks, stepping forward to face Azog. He was young, tall and broad chested with long dark hair and a short beard.
Azog stepped forward to meet him and Bilba tensed, rising up just a little to see.
The battle closed about them and she lost sight of them. She waited, hoping they would reappear but, after several minutes, there was still no sign.
She sighed in disappointment. She’d been hoping the dwarf would kill Azog and she’d get to witness it.
Deciding she’d risked being there long enough she carefully edged her way out of the alcove and headed back into Moria.
She kept herself low, scuttling past legions of orcs rushing outside. They paid her no notice, eager to be out in the thick of battle.
The sounds of fighting didn’t fade until she was several levels below the surface. Here the corridors were less populated as almost all of the mines had emptied into the upper levels.
All that had been left were the slaves. Orcs preferred hobbits as slaves as they were small and generally peaceful, offering little resistance. It didn’t prevent them, however, from taking humans, dwarves and even the occasional elf slave as well. Any who gave them too much trouble was simply killed and replaced with one less likely to cause problems.
The ones she passed now huddled together in masses, half-starved, filthy and beaten.
Bilba knew she looked little better. The rags she used for clothing hung off her and dirt was ground so deep into her skin it would probably never come off. Her hair was shorn close to her head to try and prevent lice and, combined with a frame so thin it was nearly skeletal, made her gender almost impossible to tell. Most of the slaves had long ago forgotten she was female, half the time she was pretty sure Azog had forgotten as well. It meant little to her either way, gender had no meaning in the mines. Male or female, elf, dwarf or hobbit, all suffered and died exactly the same.
She padded down even lower. There were fewer fires, forcing her to find her way by memory alone and the cold beneath her bare feet became intense.
Finally she reached an enormous chamber lit only by the barest number of torches in sconces on the walls.
The faint light illuminated the firedrake that dominated most of the room. She'd been dragged in nearly a month earlier, after she and her rider had the misfortune of traveling too close to Moria and had been beset by orcs and their dragons. From what Bilba had heard, the drake had been injured and forced to crash into the mountainside.
It had taken nearly a week to get her inside and her shrieks of pain had nearly deafened them all. They’d been so loud that Bilba still could swear she heard them sometimes in the upper levels, echoing off the rock.
It had taken the slaves another week to scrub the blood she’d trailed behind her from the stone.
Her rider had been nearly out of his mind, roaring obscenities and fighting to get to her. He’d broken an arm in the process and hadn’t seemed to notice.
Neither one made a sound now.
The firedrake had fallen asleep within days of being brought down and hadn’t woken since. She still breathed but responded to nothing, not even the cries of her rider when Azog tortured him to try and bring her around.
Bilba shuffled forward carefully just in case the dragon chose that exact moment to wake up. When they’d first brought her in she’d been a brilliant gold color but now had faded to a pale yellow. Her sides barely moved and there were long pauses between each breath.
Staying as quiet as possible, Bilba moved around until she found the rider. He, as always, was tucked just behind the dragon’s foreleg, against her stomach. When he’d first come in he’d been wearing rich clothing and armor. He’d been big and powerful with long blond hair and a thick beard.
Now he looked markedly different. The orcs had taken his armor and most of his clothing leaving him with only his trousers and a shirt. They’d ripped out his beard and his hair was disheveled and matted. Dirt and blood caked his body, which was now far thinner than when he’d come in, and numerous welts and lash marks striped his flesh. A thick manacle was locked around his left ankle, clanking loudly every time he so much as shifted.
Moving closer she knelt next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder, feeling the sharp point of his shoulder beneath the skin.
He twitched and opened his eyes, the once brilliant blue now faded.
“Ah, my little guard,” he said, his voice a low rasp. “It’s been awhile hasn’t it?”
Bilba nodded. It had been about a day and a half since she’d seen him last. The orcs couldn’t be bothered to look after their slaves when a battle raged so she’d spent the time scrounging every scrap of food she could to hand out to them. Most of them had been too terrified of Azog, or anything associated with him, to even look at her but they'd accepted the food nonetheless. Bilba didn't begrudge them their rejection of her, she'd have done the same thing in their place. She still helped them regardless of how they treated her. It was what her mother would have wanted.
The dwarf shifted, grimacing in pain. The arm he’d broken was strapped to his side with strips of his shirt, what was left of it. She’d helped him set it as best she could and wrapped it.
“So,” he said, blinking his eyes in an apparent effort to clear his mind. "What’s going on? There seem to be far fewer orcs scuttling around down here than usual.”
Bilba frowned. In the time he’d been there the dwarf, whose name he still refused to give lest an orc be around to hear, had been teaching her a hand language. He called it Iglishmek and stated they would be able to talk to one another once she’d learned it.
She hadn’t learned very much yet, however, so she struggled to convey to him what was happening overhead.
He must have gotten the idea because his entire demeanor changed, his body straightening and a strange light entering his eyes.
“They came for me,” he whispered.
Bilba gave him a skeptical look. Why would an entire army come for him? He was just one person. Even the drake wasn’t that special, to the dwarves at least. They had many others. She almost asked him but he was indicating for her to continue so she put it aside and did so. Her grasp of the hand language was soon exhausted and she had to resort to a mix of Iglishmek and pantomime. When she got to the point about Azog and the decapitated dwarf she was startled when the rider’s hand suddenly stopped her wrist with a surprisingly strong grip.
Bilba obeyed, carefully using what words she knew. When it came to the color of the dwarf’s hair she pointed to her own eyes, indicating the white area outside of the iris.
The rider looked as though he’d been struck. Bilba watched as his face crumpled and he actually seemed to shrink inward. He released her wrist and hunched in on himself, drawing up his knees and wrapping his good arm around them, his fingers digging into his calf so hard the knuckles turned white.
He made a strange sound and then another, his shoulders shaking.
He was crying.
She hesitated and then stretched a hand out to rest lightly on his shoulder. The rider had been kind to her. He spoke to her instead of at her, like she was an actual person and not just a slave. It had been so long since anyone had done that, she'd almost forgotten what it felt like.
He took a deep breath and looked up. His eyes were red- rimmed but when he spoke his voice was strong.
Bilba described the dark haired dwarf and the rider smiled bitterly.
“Fool,” he said, “he better not get himself killed.”
Bilba frowned and struggled to remember the right signs to question how the rider knew the other dwarf.
Words suddenly ripped like blades into her mind, shredding her shields, and Bilba leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her waist and pressing her forehead into the ground. Pain bloomed in her head, pounding behind her temples and sparking down her nerves until her entire body shivered with it.
COME, HALFLING. NOW.
Bilba let loose a small whimper and now it was the rider who leaned forward to place a hand on her shoulder, his grip strong.
“It’s alright, breathe through it.”
The first time it he’d witnessed Azog ripping through her mental shields and sending words into her mind like weapons he’d tried to help her. For a split second she’d felt the rider’s shields expand to cover hers, protecting her against Azog’s attack.
Azog had been angry. He’d taken it out on her, ignoring the rider’s screams about it being his fault and demanding any punishment be laid on him.
Azog didn’t care. He was teaching a lesson.
It had been learned.
The rider didn’t try to help her again.
Bilba grit her teeth, wrapping her arms around her torso and struggling to her feet. The last thing she wanted was for Azog to speak to her again.
The rider was staring at her, his eyes dark.
Bilba gave him a pained half smile and left, hurrying back through the corridors and levels until she’d reached the top.
The battle appeared to be over. She no longer heard the noise of it or the roaring of dragons from outside the gates. Orcs no longer raced outside but instead straggled back in. Many were injured and she knew most would be killed in the coming days, if they weren’t lucky enough to die on their own.
Weakness was not tolerated among the orcs.
A roar that was unmistakably Azog came from the direction of his room and she hurried in that direction.
Upon taking over Moria, Azog had located the royal wing and promptly moved in. The room she entered was enormous and filled with treasures and rich tapestries abandoned by the dwarves when they’d fled.
Azog was lying on the massive, four poster bed with multiple orcs holding him down. Blood was spraying everywhere and as Bilba approached she was stunned to see one of his arms was missing, removed completely just below the elbow.
A fierce joy rose in her at the thought the wound could very well prove fatal. This feeling was followed immediately by an equal amount of fear of what might happen to her once he died. The average life expectancy for a slave could be measured in a handful of years. Bilba had only lasted as long as she had because Azog had taken a special interest in her and claimed her as his personal slave. If he were gone it was unlikely whatever orc replaced him would want her around. She’d either be killed outright or be sent back to the general slave populace, where she would undoubtedly die quickly.
One of the orcs holding him down snarled at her and she jumped. She left and gathered the few medical items the orcs possessed. If Azog had been anyone else he’d have been left to die. It was very possible he might still be killed by someone hoping to take his position.
After returning with the supplies, and having them wrenched from her arms by the orcs, Bilba quietly took her spot on the small pile of filthy rags she called a bed in the far corner of the room. The arm and leg manacles she normally wore were piled there but she hadn’t had them on in a month. Azog had removed them to speed her trips to and from the rider. So far he either hadn’t seen fit to put them on again or had forgotten she was no longer wearing them altogether.
Bilba felt it was probably the latter and had tried to stay as quiet and out of his way as possible, in the hopes he wouldn’t remember.
In spite of the rudimentary attempt at medical care, or perhaps because of it, the wound soon developed an infection. For the next two days Bilba stayed mostly in her corner, out of the way and hoping fervently Azog died. She tried to keep herself awake in the hopes someone would sneak in during the night to kill him and she could cheer them on.
Eventually Azog developed a high fever and began ranting and raving in delirium. Concerned she’d be blamed if he hurt himself Bilba finally got up and alerted a few of the orcs that she knew were loyal to him. She deliberately did so as slowly as possible, taking a full hour just to reach them.
Once they had headed off to his room Bilba went back down to check on the rider. On the way she scrounged up a few scraps of food and some brackish water to take with her.
The dragon was even worse, her breathing shallow and with long gaps between each breath.
The rider was awake. His eyes were fixed straight ahead and, at first, he didn’t seem to notice Bilba’s approach.
She knelt before him and offered the meager items she’d been able to find.
His eyes shifted to her and he gave a weak smile.
Bilba nodded and settled back as he ate. Her own stomach growled at her, reminding her how long it’d been since she’d eaten, but she ignored it.
A portion of the food, about half, slid into her view. Bilba shook her head but the rider insisted.
She sighed in exasperation but obeyed. The food did little more than wake her stomach up to greater hunger pains but it was better than nothing.
“What’s been happening?”
Bilba explained as best she could.
The dwarf nodded, his eyes lighting up at the mention of Azog’s injury. “Do you know what happened to the dwarf that fought him?”
Bilba shook her head.
He nodded and leaned back, his face tightening in pain for a brief moment before smoothing out again.
“And you say the battle appears to be over.” He sighed. “The orc presence is too strong here. I could have told them it would be futile.”
He was silent a long time after that. Bilba settled in next to him and studied the flickering patterns cast on the wall by the torches. She was very good at staying quiet.
“Does anyone know you’re down here?” The rider asked, the oddest look on his face.
Bilba shook her head. Generally Azog locked a metal collar around her throat at night, ensuring she couldn’t leave her corner. He couldn’t do it in his current condition, however, and no one else had bothered.
The rider closed his eyes, his lips moving soundlessly and his face twisting as though in some horrible pain though she couldn't see any new injuries on him.
He struggled to his feet, his movements stiff and awkward. Moving slowly and carefully, one leg dragging from the weight of the manacle, he made his way to the dragon’s head and knelt. He stretched out his arms and lay his upper body across its massive snout like a child might hug a parent when a nightmare became too horrible to bear alone. For several long seconds he was completely silent. Then, in a voice almost to low to hear, he began to speak.
Bilba recognized the language she sometimes heard the few dwarf slaves speak. She didn’t understand the words but recognized the pain in his voice well enough.
The dragon never responded. The rider continued to speak, grief leaking into his voice. His head lowered and his voice gradually grew quieter.
The dragon’s breathing began to slow.
Bilba held still, as if by doing so she could pause time. She’d done much the same thing after her mother became ill.
The dragon breathed in and then exhaled, her sides deflating.
She did not inhale again.
The dwarf put his hands on both sides of her snout and leaned forward, his forehead resting against her. Bilba heard him let out a single sob, his shoulders shaking.
She got up and started to take a step forward but he was already pushing away and standing up. His face was bone white and the look in his eyes was one of utter devastation.
“I need a knife.”
Bilba frowned, her hands half forming a question.
He shook his head. “Now, please.”
Something in his voice sounded fractured. She’d heard that sound only once before, in her mother’s voice right before she died.
“Tell him, Bilba. Promise me you’ll tell him.”
She had promised then.
She obeyed now.
It wasn’t hard to find a blade, orcs weren’t known for their organization or cleanliness. She only had to go a few hundred feet out of the cavern before coming across a number of weapons scattered about. Most had been taken off captives and cast to the side or carried for a while before the orc had grown tired of it.
She caught the slight glint of metal in a corner, partly under some rocks, and dragged the weapon out. It was a beautiful long dagger, practically a sword for her, elvish looking in design with curling script etched into the blade. She hefted it in one hand and hurried back to the rider.
He was sitting against the dragon’s silent body when she returned, eyes staring vacantly into the distance.
When she offered the weapon he got up and took it from her. The look in his eyes was vacant, like he had been the one to die and not the dragon.
“Look away,” he ordered, his voice hoarse.
Bilba lifted her hands, confused.
“Now,” he ordered, his voice brooking no defiance.
Bilba flinched, reacting almost viscerally to the tone of command, and obediently turned her back.
There was silence behind her, for a long time.
She heard the rider take a deep breath and then a horrific squelching sound. Without thinking, Bilba turned around, just in time to see the rider use his good arm to drive the sword a second time into the belly of the dragon. Bilba raised an eyebrow in surprise. Did dwarves eat their dragons, then, as orcs did? She had no idea what dragon tasted like but always imagined it must be good as the orcs certainly hoarded it tightly enough. Azog in particular guarded the meat of the orc dragons like it was gold, storing it in his chambers in such quantities the smell alone made Bilba want to throw up.
The rider drove the knife in again, slicing deep. Blood sprayed out, drenching his hair and staining his clothes. He threw the sword down, his movements angry, and then shoved his way inside the dragon's stomach.
That was something she'd never seen before. What in all of Middle Earth was he DOING?
He returned a few seconds later, gasping out the breath he’d been holding, his entire body so covered in blood and gore he looked more like a monster than a dwarf. He carried something awkwardly in one arm but she couldn't see what it was under all the blood and whatever else covering him.
The rider nodded toward the sword on the ground. "Take that and strap it on."
Bilba gave him an incredulous look. Had he gone out of his mind? She would be killed, instantly, the second an orc saw her with a weapon.
His eyes narrowed for a second and then changed, grief clouding them. "Please."
Bilba sighed, she supposed she could humor him. The orcs were all on the upper levels anyway and she could just take the weapon off as soon as she left the room. She moved forward and picked it up, ripping part of the remnants of a sleeve off to use to tie the sword to her waist.
"It'll have to do for now," the rider said. He shifted and held out whatever was in his arm. "Here, take her."
At his insistence Bilba put her hands out and had the object placed in them. Warmth flooded her palms, followed by the unmistakable feel of something breathing. The realization she was holding a living creature startled her so badly she very nearly dropped it but recovered at the last second and pulled it close.
She could see now, through the blood, that what she was holding was a baby dragon. The tiny creature fit easily into her arms, its eyes closed and tiny wings were folded across its back.
"You have to get her out of here."
Bilba looked up at him, stunned. She had to do what?
"Please," the rider said again, "please, you know what will happen if Azog gets her." He rattled the manacle on his leg. "I can't go so it has to be you." There was a desperation in his voice, his eyes wide and frantic.
He was right about Azog. Bilba had no doubt the orc would TRY to keep the baby alive but she also had no doubt he would fail. There was no way something this small could survive in the mines of Moria. She had survived but that had been a fluke, a miracle.
Azog would kill the baby just as he'd killed the mother and just as he would undoubtedly kill the rider once he found out what had happened. Her eyes went to the manacle and she mentally cursed the fact that she didn't know where Azog kept the key to it.
The rider grabbed her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "You can do this," he whispered, voice intense. "I know you can. Get her out of here. The dwarven army should still be in the area. Go to them, they'll protect you both."
Bilba began to tremble. She'd never known anything but the mines, could she actually survive outside? On her own?
She didn't even know what the word meant. It was an abstract concept. Her mother had tried to teach her but, having never experienced it, Bilba had no way to truly know what it was.
"I know you're scared," the rider said, "I do, but do you really want to stay? Would you rather risk dying out there, or in here?"
The answer was instant. She wanted to experience the stories her mother had always told her. Stories of dragons and the sky, of the feel of grass under her feet and the wind in her hair.
Fear continued to inch along her nerves but now it was accompanied by a strange thrill, an excitement almost. She could feel her eyes widen, her breathing coming in short gasps.
She'd dreamed of this for so long, could she really do it?
What if the orcs caught her?
What if they didn't?
The rider stepped forward and hugged her suddenly, his good arm wrapping around her, careful of the baby dragon. Bilba barely had time to react to it before he was stepping back, smiling at her.
"Hurry," he said. "Every second you tarry is another second the army moves farther away. Go to them, quickly."
Bilba nodded, shaky and turned to leave.
As she reached the door she cast one final look back to see the rider had taken up a position by the dragon's snout. He had a leg drawn up and an arm thrown over his knee. His head was tilted back to rest against the dragon and, even from where she stood, Bilba could see the tears streaming down his face.
She turned away again, facing the dark opening that led into the rest of the mines. She moved quickly after that, keeping to the shadows. It was easy that far down, there were few orcs and the slaves were all asleep. The ones who were awake didn't look at her, as usual, allowing her to walk right past without them giving her a second thought.
The shaking in her body grew worse the higher she went, as did the doubt.
What was she doing? She'd never make it through the gates. She'd be stopped and dragged before Azog. He'd take the baby and kill her and then what would she have accomplished other than her own death?
She should just take the baby to Azog. Throw the sword aside and take the baby to him and pretend like that had been her plan all along.
Bile rose in her throat and she bit it back even as her legs continued to carry her onward.
More orcs began to appear, most of them asleep in various corners and halls. The ones who were awake ignored her as she skittered past.
When she reached the front gate she stopped and stared, half convinced she was dreaming. Had she truly made it so far?
She stepped forward slowly, stopping just short of a patch of moonlight illuminating the rock outside the gates. A cool breeze drifted in from outside, wrapping around her body. By this time she was shaking so hard it was a wonder she didn't shatter into a million pieces. Her stomach was in knots and breathing was difficult.
She didn't know how long she stood there. There was no concern for a guard, the orcs were so convinced they could repel any attacker that they didn't bother to post one. It was now beginning to occur to Bilba that they were equally convinced the slaves were all so terrified that they wouldn't dare try to escape.
She imagined that would change after they realized she was gone.
In her arms the tiny dragon shifted, snuggling into her arms and settling itself once more. Bilba looked down at it and, again, imagined what would happen if someone like Azog got his hands on it.
You are not an orc, her mother's voice whispered once more, be sure you never act like one.
Bilba took a deep breath and let it out. Her stomach settled somewhat and an almost trancelike peace settled over her.
She stepped through the gates.
Halfway across the world, Fili, Crown Prince of Erebor, woke up from a dead sleep with a gasp.
Stumbling out of bed, the young prince ran out of his rooms and to one down the hall. Shoving the door open he raced across the floor, barely feeling the cold rock against his bare feet, and lunged into the bed, shaking its occupant.
"Kili! Kili! Wake up!"
Kili woke up with a start, automatically reacting in self-defense and lashing out at the form attacking him. Fili evaded the attack easily and wound up straddling his little brother, pinning him until Kili woke up entirely and recognized him. Even then he didn't move because it was nice to prove he could still kick his brother's butt even if Kili seemed intent on catching up with him in height.
"Fili," Kili said conversationally, "something I can do for you?"
Fili grinned at him widely. "My dragon was just born."
Kili blinked at him, his sleep heavy mind slowly processing the words. Then his eyes widened in shock. A moment later the world tilted wildly and Fili found himself flat on his back, his brother sitting on his chest smugly.
"Are you serious?" Kili asked, "you've felt it?"
"I did indeed," Fili answered, trying, unsuccessfully to flip his little brother off and then trying, equally unsuccessfully, to look at though he were allowing Kili to continue pinning him.
"That's fantastic!" Kili said then almost immediately frowned as a look of confusion entered his eyes. "I don't understand though, who's expecting right now?"
"No one that I know of," Fili said, "it must have been an early birth."
"Well, in that case," Kili drawled, "let's go find out, shall we?"
He scrambled off the bed and Fili rushed after him, racing him down the halls until they reached the levels where the dragons rested.
The dark, quiet levels.
Fili frowned in confusion, skidding to a halt at the entrance. For a birth the area should have been a hive of activity. Every rider within the mountain would have been awakened by their dragon...which, now that he thought about it...
"You weren't alerted?" He asked Kili.
Kili shook his head, looking as though he'd just thought of it himself. He tilted his head to one side and got a far off look in his eyes, a look Fili had longed to have himself for longer than he could remember.
After a moment Kili came back to himself, his expression one of confusion. "Lyth says there have been no births."
"But that's not possible," Fili said in desperation, "I know I felt it!"
"Maybe it was a wild drake," Kili said, reaching out to grab Fili's shoulder. "There are some still out there. Maybe it's--"
He went white, his eyes widening and a look of horror crossing his features.
Fili felt a surge of panic and he reached out to grab his brother's tunic. "Kili? What's wrong? What is it?"
Kili swallowed. "I just--I just thought of something."
"What?" Fili asked.
Kili looked at him and Fili could see he was struggling to decide whether or not to tell him.
"Quenth," he whispered finally. "She's pregnant, but she isn't due for months so I didn't think -- I mean, it COULDN'T be her, could it?"
Fili's hand went slack and fell off his brother's shirt. He staggered until his back hit the wall and then slid down in a boneless heap against it.
"Finally," he said numbly. "I've finally heard it." He looked at Kili and saw the pain in his brother's face that he was sure was reflected in his own.
"I heard it...and you're telling me it comes from the depths of Moria?"
"Uncle is there," Kili said, his voice desperate. "He'll -- he'll do something. I'm sure of it."
His tone rang false even as he said it and Fili didn't bother to answer him.
They both knew that, regardless of what happened, nothing would be the same ever again.