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I am exact and merciless, but I love you

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"Hello, Dwalin."

He was old. His eyesight had been declining for years, and for the last three months he had been almost completely blind, peering out into a world made up only of shadows. Luckily, his hearing had never faded, which was an unusual blessing. Dwarves were prone to deafness; he had never known why, and the best person to ask probably would have been Oin, so he had lost his opportunity to learn. All Dwalin knew was that his hearing was particularly good, and that he knew the voice speaking to him. Even if it was impossible.

"You aren't here," he said.

"Where am I, then?"

"In a stone tomb deep beneath the Mountain."

"Have you checked it lately? It's been over a century. Maybe I have moved."

"You're dead."

There was a pause.

"Yes I am," Thorin said calmly.

"You aren't here," Dwalin repeated, and then he coughed violently into his fist and shook against his blankets.

After a few minutes, he took in a deep, shaking lungful of air and threw himself back against his pillows. He had had that damned cough for a month. It was a miserable way to die, and he envied Dain for dying with an axe in hand. His fingers were weak with arthritis, and he could no longer carry an axe. Dwarves did not typically get arthritis--their bones were stronger than most--but again, he had no explanation as to why, and he had spent a lot of time cursing his own longevity.

"You're ill. I should get someone."

"They know I'm ill," Dwalin snapped irritably. "I'm dying, of course they know--and you're dead, so you couldn't fetch them anyway."

"I could try," Thorin said, with the same note of sulkiness his voice always took on when he was told he couldn't do something. Dwalin pictured his half-shrug, the determined knitting of his eyebrows, and closed his sightless eyes with a weary sigh.

"Why now?" he asked. "It's been two hundred years. Why now?"

"Because you're dying. You never heard me before. You wouldn't hear me."

Then, impossibly, he felt a hand touch his cheek. Dwalin opened his eyes and saw the shadowy silhouette of a dwarf standing over his bedside. He wet his lips nervously and asked, "Gimli?"

The figure looked over its shoulder.

"I don't see him. Do you need him?"

"Who is here?" he asked, even though he could smell the tinge of leather-wrapped iron and old parchment and sweat. "Who's touching me?"

"I am, kurdel," Thorin said, and kissed his forehead.

"I'm dying," he muttered to himself. "Imagining things."

But even so, he reached out one trembling hand and rested it on the back of Thorin's head. Could he imagine that? He twisted his fingers in Thorin's loose curls and trailed his fingers down to rub at the small raised scar on the back of his neck. His hands still remembered that touch, as surely as they knew the voice, and the way that Thorin shuddered and let out a small breath at the luxury of being touched like this.

"I had stopped trying to contact you," he said as he knelt beside Dwalin's bed and rested his head on his shoulder. "You wouldn't listen. I tried again during the War in the North, in case you needed me, but you never did. You were never even afraid, were you?"

"Afraid of what?" he scoffed dazedly. "A few miserable Orcs? We drove them back. I knew we would."

"Afraid of dying. You weren't then, but you are now." He reached up and brushed his fingers lightly over the tattoos on Dwalin's skull. "There's nothing to fear, kurdel. The guchûr were not entirely right, but they were not entirely wrong, either. You have gone through much worse than dying."

For a moment, Dwalin indulged in the pleasure of Thorin's touch, and then he sighed and reached up to wrap his fingers around his wrist. He lowered his hand to the bedspread.
"I'm imagining things," he repeated regretfully. "Thorin wouldn't say this--any of it."

"Why not, Dwalin?" the voice snapped, and finally it was sounding a bit fed up. That was more familiar, and Dwalin's mouth quirked in a bittersweet smile.

"He would be angry at me."

"For what, kurdel?"

"Don't--" Dwalin said. He swallowed thickly and shook his head. "Don't call me that."

Thorin had not been one for terms of endearment; on most days, he showed his affection in other ways, more subtle ones. It was only at his happiest that he ever called Dwalin kurdel. Only when they were in bed together, curled up and warm and cut off from the rest of the world. He remembered each of those moments, the hot puff of Thorin's breath against his forehead. Those moments were precious and treasured, and he didn't like the way this vision bandied the word about, as if it was happier now than Thorin had been then.

"All right," it agreed. "Why would I be angry?"

"Because I didn't see," he growled. "I should have seen the sickness and stopped it. I should have saved him." His voice was louder than he had meant it, and he was overcome by coughing again. The vision was silent and immobile. "Or at least the boys," he said weakly. "He would have wanted me to save the boys."

There was silence. He wondered if the vision had gone. Then it took his hand in both of its own, and said, "Shomakhâl."

A shiver ran down Dwalin's spine, and suddenly he squeezed the hand holding him tightly, ignoring the pains in his bones. He knew his own Name, and he knew the way it sounded in Thorin's voice. There could be no denying the way it felt, the way his whole heart shuddered at the sound.

"Thorin?" he whispered.

"Yes, kurdel," Thorin said softly, and tears began to prick at Dwalin's eyes. "I do not blame you for the boys' deaths--I never have. You made them strong. That was all I ever asked of you."

"I could have saved you."

Thorin kissed his fingers.

"Perhaps. Or perhaps I could have saved myself from my own foolishness, and spared you these long years of fear. I am sorry, Dwalin."

"No, I--"

"Do not apologize to me. Ever." He leaned over and kissed Dwalin lightly on the lips. "And do not be afraid to die. I will not be angry."

They did not speak again. The day grew long, and Gimli stopped in to check on Dwalin; he stayed for some long minutes, sitting beside Thorin and never noticing that he was even there. He bid Dwalin good night rather solemnly than usual, which was not surprising. Gimli had always been a thoughtful sort, even more so following his Quest. Out of all the descendants of the Company, he seemed the most aware that Dwalin's time was drawing near, and had visited him the most. But eventually Gimli, too, left, and the dark night stretched on. Thorin remained.