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The Hands of the King

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Eight

When Fili is eight years old, Kili falls ill.

It isn't normal for dwarves to suffer from illness. They are hewn from stone, although they are made flesh, and sickness cannot penetrate their stony hides except when they are weakened by injury or adverse circumstances. But Kili seems to carry adverse circumstances with him, for he is born too soon in the midst of a bitter winter, and it takes him long, long years to recover from that, if indeed he ever truly does. All through his infancy he brings worry to his mother's face and trouble to his uncle's, for he will not sleep and will not eat and does not grow the way he should, but it is not until Fili is eight that he understands what it is to be not irritated that his brother constantly steals all his mother's time and attention, but terrified that his brother will die.

The house becomes quiet and grim, only Kili's wailing cries and his mother's soft sobs breaking the silence. Then the cries are gone, too, and Fili sits hunched up in the dark kitchen and thinks that if he listens hard enough, he can hear his brother's breath rasping and wheezing in his chest. He knows Kili is going to die when Uncle Thorin comes out of the bedroom and sits silently at the kitchen table for long, long minutes, for it is the first time he has ever seen his uncle cry.

Fili goes into the bedroom and sits on the bed beside his mother. Kili is cradled in her arms, still small enough that she can hold him in one, though at three he should be too heavy now. His eyes are closed and his little face looks grey in the dim light.

“Can I hold him?” Fili asks. He is not normally interested in holding his brother, but he thinks he might not get the opportunity again, and something sharp twists in his chest.

He thinks his mother will refuse, for her arms tighten around Kili, but then she seems to think again, and she holds the little body out for him to take. Perhaps she thinks it is his last chance, too. He takes Kili from her carefully, in both hands, for although the baby is tiny for his age, Fili is only eight himself. He brings him to his chest and cradles him, feeling the way he struggles for breath even though he seems so still. His mother wraps her arms around him and presses her cheek to the top of his head.

“My boys,” she says. “My darling, darling boys.” Tears drip into Fili's hair, and Fili looks down at his brother and does not want him to die.

She falls asleep like that, wrapped around Fili. She has not slept in days, Fili knows, so he does not wake her. He presses Kili to his chest and whispers to him, half-remembered stories that his mother and Thorin and Mr. Balin have told him, mangled in the telling, mostly with extra orcs added. Kili's breaths grow more and more laboured, and Fili thinks about how it will feel to be alone again, like he was before, not a brother but only a son and a nephew.

He does not want that.

“Don't die, Kili,” he whispers to his brother, closing his own eyes.

----

And Kili doesn't.

----

Thorin finds them hours later, and Fili is awakened by his great, warm hands taking Kili from Fili's arms. He tries to sit up, but he feels heavy, his limbs leaden and his head full of fog. He wants to ask Thorin if Kili is still alive, but he cannot seem to get his mouth to work properly and he's not sure he remembers the words anyway. He wonders if he is dying himself.

Then his mother stirs above him, then sits up herself, anxious breath catching in her throat.

“Kili--?” she says, and Thorin turns and smiles at her.

“He is better,” he says.

Fili drifts off to sleep again to the sound of his mother's joyful, hiccuping sobbing.

----

Twenty-seven

Fili has never seen so much blood. It's coating the grass in a wide circle, splashes and splotches on the nearby vegetation, and it's still coming, still pulsing out of his brother's leg. He doesn't know how this has happened. Yes, Kili took a fairly deep cut landing on his own knife after falling out of a tree, but it shouldn't be bleeding this much. It shouldn't be spreading his brother's life all over the forest floor.

“Fili,” Kili gasps, one hand clamped over the wound in his leg, the other wrapped tight in the front of Fili's shirt. He doesn't seem able to say anything else, and even though Fili's hand covers his on his leg, the blood's still pulsing out between their fingers, slippery and too bright. Kili's eyes are growing glassy and his face is so pale.

“It's only a scratch,” Fili insists, although he knows Kili can see all the blood as well as he can. “Don't be such a baby.”

Kili just stares at him, his eyes starting to cloud over. He is a baby. He is a baby, and Fili thinks that maybe now, he's never going to grow any older.

“Don't do that,” Fili says urgently as Kili's eyelids flutter closed. “No, come on. Don't do that.”

But Kili does do it, his eyelids looking almost blue, he is so pale. Fili clutches at his shoulder and holds him close, feeling the faltering breath against his neck.

“No, no,” he says, though his voice is wavering. “Don't die.”

He presses his face to his brother's neck. Kili's pulse flutters against his closed eyelids. He feels it stutter -- stutter -- and he thinks no no no, all of his vocabulary narrowing to this one word. He must be crying, because his brother's neck is wet, but he cannot feel the tears. He cannot feel anything except that stuttering pulse,

And somewhere along the way, he cannot even feel that any more.

----

Fili awakes to the sound of his mother singing. His entire body feels numb and weighty, as though he is made of stone. He can hear his mother, but he cannot open his eyes to see her, nor lift his hand to gain her attention. After a minute or two, though, he becomes aware that someone is holding his hand, stroking it gently.

There is the sound of a door opening and closing. A murmur of voices. His uncle.

“I do not know,” his mother says. She sounds tired and hoarse. “Both of them still sleep.”

“'m awake,” Fili manages, and twitches his fingers against hers with the greatest of effort. His mother draws in a breath, and a moment later he feels a warm hand on his shoulder.

“Fili?” says his uncle. “Can you open your eyes?”

Fili tries, truly he does, but it is as though they are sewn shut. Finally -- finally -- he manages to winch them open a crack. He sees blurry shapes moving, and his uncle makes an encouraging noise.

But it is too much, and Fili passes out again.

----

The next time Fili awakes, he feels stronger. There's a warmth all along his side, and he manages after some effort to roll his head to one side and half-open his eyes. His brother lies in the bed beside him. His face is too pale, and his eyes are closed, but he breathes.

“Fili,” comes his uncle's voice then, and Fili turns his head to the other side and sees him seated beside the bed, watching him closely. There is a deep frown on his face, and his eyes are shadowed as if he has not slept in days. “You are awake,” he says.

Fili doesn't feel very awake. He swipes at his eyes with a hand that won't co-operate. “Kili?” he croaks.

“He will live,” Thorin says, and Fili thanks all the Valar for his uncle's habit of coming straight to the point. “What happened?”

“Blood,” Fili says, trying to get it across in as few words as possible. “Lost blood.” Surely they must know this -- they must have found them both passed out in Kili's blood.

“Yes,” Thorin says. “Kili lost a great deal of blood. But what happened to you?”

Fili tries to shake his head, then decides that's a terrible idea. “Don't know,” he slurs. Did someone hit him on the head? Kili was dying in his arms, and then -- nothing,

“Oh,” comes another voice then, and Fili moves his head as little as possible to see that his mother has come into the room. She flies to his side, grabbing up his hand and pressing a kiss to it. “Oh, my darling boy,” she says. “Oh, you scared me so much.”

Fili blinks at her and Thorin leans forward, serious-faced.

“Fili, you must be able to tell me something.”

“Don't bully the boy, brother,” his mother says. “They are both alive. That is all that matters.”

Thorin looks troubled, but he does not ask anything more.

Fili is grateful, for he has no answers to give.

----

It turns out he has been asleep for a day and a night. His mother feeds him soup -- which almost makes his stomach rebel -- and fusses over him, and Thorin tells him the parts of the story he does not already know. They found them in the forest, covered in blood, surrounded by blood, both of them unconscious. They thought they were dead, but it was not so. Kili's skin was cold to the touch, and although they could find no wound on him, it was clear that the blood must have been his. But Fili was simply sleeping, and would not wake, no matter what they tried. Now, Fili is awake -- though still exhausted, his limbs heavy, his hand barely able to hold the soup spoon -- and Kili is improving slowly. It will, Thorin says, be some time before he awakes. In the meantime they must keep him warm and get water and broth into him if they can.

Fili lies in the bed beside his brother and wraps an arm around him, pressing into his side. He feels warm, but not warm enough. Fili will gladly lend some of his own warmth. Would lend all of it, if it meant his brother would open his eyes again. He lies there for three days, claiming to be too tired to get up, although in fact his own strength has mostly returned. He feeds Kili broth and massages his throat to make him swallow. He thinks about how much blood there was. How Kili's pulse stuttered. How it stopped.

He answers all Thorin's questions with I don't know, until Thorin snaps at him and is summarily banished from the house by his mother.

Fili doesn't know. He doesn't know what happened. He just knows his brother is alive, and that is good enough for him.

----

On the fourth day, Kili wakes. At first, he drifts in and out of consciousness, as weak as Fili was when he first awoke, but decidedly less aware. Finally, though, his eyes seem to focus, and he stares at Fili lying beside him.

“What happened?” he asks, his tongue stumbling over the words.

“You didn't die,” says Fili.

Kili frowns at him. “Why not?” he asks.

But Fili doesn't know.

----

“I had a wound,” Kili insists in the face of Thorin's sceptical look. He has rolled up the leg of his breeches and is staring at the unblemished skin in some confusion. “I had a wound.”

“There is no wound,” Thorin says. Kili shakes his head and rolls up the other leg, although Fili knows perfectly well he had the right one to start with.

“Where did it go?” Kili asks, as if he is talking to himself.

“There could not have been a wound,” Mr. Oin says. “There is not even a scar.”

“Then where did all the blood come from?” Kili asks, swaying a little. Fili puts an arm around his shoulders, and Kili turns to him. “You saw it, didn't you?”

“I don't know,” Fili says, and Thorin growls in frustration.

“Perhaps it is dark magic,” Mr. Oin says gravely.

“It is not dark,” his mother says. “My sons are alive.”

“You need to rest,” Fili says to Kili. There is no need -- Kili is already falling asleep in his arms.

Fili lays him down in the bed and thinks about another time he held his sleeping brother. Another time that Kili didn't die.

But no. It is absurd.

----

Thirty-six

Perhaps it is absurd, but that doesn’t stop Fili from remembering it when Kili -- reckless fool that he is -- chases a wild boar he has wounded with an arrow and ends up gored in the stomach. They aren’t even supposed to be taking their weapons out into the forest, and they certainly aren’t supposed to be shooting at anything. They’re too young, too young and too foolish, that’s what Mr. Dwalin says.

He is right, as always.

“Kili,” Fili says, trying to breathe as slowly as possible, though his heart is hammering as though it would like nothing better than to break free of his rib-cage, “it’s all right. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.”

Kili has that terrified look in his eyes again, and he clings to Fili as he tries to stand. “I keep doing this,” he mumbles, sounding only semi-coherent.

“You do,” Fili agrees. And he remembers the last time Kili did this, and what happened then, as he tries -- and fails -- to shoulder Kili’s weight, or at least to help him get his feet under him. Kili’s doing his best to help, but his knee buckles and suddenly his whole weight is hanging off Fili’s neck. It’s unexpected, and Fili staggers and falls to one knee, Kili collapsing beside him.

“You have to get up,” Fili says. He’s doing his best to sound calm, but his voice is high-pitched and rough with anxiety. “Kili. Kili, get up.”

“I’m getting up,” Kili says, pressing one hand to his side. “I’m -- I’m getting up, I am.”

And he does, miraculously. He stands on his own two feet -- though leaning heavily on Fili -- and makes it four steps before landing hard on his knees with a grunt. Fili slides to his own knees, grasping the front of his brother’s tunic and holding him up, watching his eyes rolling in his head.

“Stay awake,” he commands. “Stay awake.”

Kili blinks and stares at him, widening his eyes as if they wish to close of their own accord. And Fili thinks of the miles between where they are and where the nearest help is, and no longer even pretends to be calm.

“Don’t die,” he says, shifting his grip so that he’s holding Kili by the shoulders, shaking him a little. He remembers last time, every horrible detail is clear in his mind as though carved there for all time. Last time, Kili didn’t die. It is absurd. But he is far from home, and he is not beyond a little absurdity if there’s any chance, any chance at all.

“Don’t die,” he says again, and draws Kili into his arms, pressing his face into Kili’s neck. “Don’t die.”

“I’m not going to die,” Kili says. His voice sounds hoarse, ragged, and there’s a pained sound to his breathing. “Fili?” he says, sounding like he’s moving away, although he cannot be doing so, for Fili has him in his arms and is holding on as though his life depends on it. But when Kili speaks again, he sounds like he’s at the end of a long tunnel, though his mouth is right beside Fili’s ear.

“Fili?” he says.

----

When Fili wakes up, he’s sitting up with his back against his brother’s chest. There is very little else he is sure of -- his head is buzzing and his thoughts seem to swim and blur around the edges -- but he knows that the warm breath he feels against his neck is his brother’s, that the hand pressed over his heart belongs to Kili. He knows this even before Kili’s voice murmurs in his ear, asking him if he’s awake. He knows Kili. And Kili is alive.

He tries to ask if Kili is all right, but his tongue seems too large for his mouth, and the words come out garbled. Kili’s arms tighten around him. “You’re all right,” he says, a little too shrill and too close to Fili’s ear to be comfortable. “You’re all right, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Fili says -- or, at the very least, he makes a noise that contains some of the same sounds as yes -- and Kili’s grip relaxes just a little. They sit in silence for a while, then, Fili concentrating on trying to open his eyes, and Kili just sitting and holding him. At last -- and he has no idea how long it’s been, but when he thinks about it later he thinks it must have been a long time, long enough that he’s amazed Kili managed to keep still and silent for so long -- he feels his thoughts begin to clear a little, and he remembers what happened, what happened to Kili. He sits up sharply, pulling away from Kili’s arms, and then wishes he hadn’t when the world tilts sickeningly.

“Hey,” says Kili. “Hey.” He’s suddenly in front of Fili -- how did he get there? -- holding him by the shoulders, stopping him from falling. When Fili manages to get his eyes open again, Kili is staring at him with a look of worry on his face that Fili’s never seen there before. There’s a smear of blood across his cheek, and Fili raises a shaking hand to it.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

Kili nods, and then lifts the hem of his tunic. The skin of his side is stiff with dried blood, but the wound is gone. Fili blinks at it. The wound is gone.

“How--” he asks, but then something shifts in his head, and he feels himself falling forward.

----

When Fili awakes, he’s in his own bed, at home, and Kili is still staring at him. He blinks, resolving the blurriness -- he feels better, so much better -- and Kili leans forward, planting his elbows on his knees.

“Are you going to be sick?” he asks.

Fili considers this question. “No,” he decides.

“Good,” Kili says. “My boots still stink from the last time.”

Last time? Fili doesn’t remember being sick. “Your boots were already in a sorry state,” he mumbles.

“Never mind that,” Kili says, and now his eyes are intent. “Did you know? Did you know you could do that?”

Fili doesn’t need to ask what Kili means, but he does anyway. “Do what?”

“Don’t play the fool,” Kili says, then glances around and lifts his tunic, untucking his undershirt to reveal clean, unblemished skin, the blood all washed away now. “It’s gone,” he said. “And you’re sick. Just like last time.”

“Last time?” Fili asks. It is absurd. It is, and yet, it is real. Kili was dying. And then he wasn’t.

“You did it,” Kili said. “You did it.”

Fili swallows. Kili is alive. He reaches out to touch the skin of his side, and Kili winces.

“It’s sore,” he says. “Shoddy workmanship.”

Fili stares at him, and Kili stares back. “How’d you do it?” he asks.

But Fili doesn’t know.

----

Kili wants to talk about it. He mentions it again and again, whenever they’re alone. He pushes and pushes, asks and asks. I don’t know, says Fili. I don’t know.

“But you did,” Kili insists. “You knew to do it. You did it twice.”

“I just hugged you,” Fili says. He’s exhausted by Kili’s questions -- always the questioner, so young, their mother says he will grow out of it but Fili cannot wait that long -- and feeling cornered and tense. “I just hugged you. You were dying, what else do you expect?”

He says this sharply, but Kili is thick-skinned and cheerful to a fault, and it is not Fili’s tone that has him sitting back, wide-eyed.

“I wasn’t dying,” he says.

But Fili knows better. “You were,” he says. “You were dying in my arms.” And he feels a surge of anger, that Kili should have done this again, that he should have had to hold his dying brother for the third time, and neither of them yet forty years old.

Kili frowns at him. “I don’t remember,” he says, and then shakes his head. “I thought -- when I woke up I thought you were dead. You looked dead. I couldn’t -- hear your, your heart.”

And this short speech, which began as a simple statement of fact, ends with a stutter in his brother’s breath and a twitch in his hands. He was frightened, too, Fili realises. He was frightened, too.

“We’re both of us alive,” Fili says, ever the eldest, pushing aside his own anger and fear to comfort his brother in his. He puts an arm around Kili’s shoulders. “There was no harm, in the end.”

“Apart from my boots,” Kili says. He sounds scared and small, but brave, so brave. “They’ll never be the same.”

Fili laughs and holds him close. But he wonders if Kili’s boots are the only thing that will never be the same again.

----

Forty-One

Kili is accident-prone. He has always been so, since he learned to crawl -- late, so much later than he ought to have done, so that Fili sometimes wonders if the reckless, headlong way he throws himself into everything is some strange attempt to make up for those years when he was sickly and small and too weak to throw himself anywhere. Even after he skirts the edge of death for the second time, he does not learn to stop and think, but only seems to push himself further, faster, and look where he is going less and less often. On some days, Fili hears his breathless laugh up ahead and laughs himself, follows behind, and thinks that surely there is nothing in the world so wild and free and thrilling as his brother.

On other days, he wishes that it were not so.

It is no surprise, then, that Kili is the one who dares a swollen river to reach a prize. The prize is a mountain sheep, fat at the end of a good summer, that will feed them for weeks, and clothe them into the bargain. Kili’s arrow has brought it down, but the river stands between them, and the early autumn rains have left it brown and writhing like a deadly snake. Dwarves are heavy, hewn from stone by Mahal, and they do not swim well, even in the best of circumstances. And yet, Kili is Kili, and will not be stayed. Before Fili can reach for his arm, he has thrown himself into the water with a cry of glee.

Fili makes a cry of his own, but there is no joy in it. He sees Kili’s head surface, sees him strike out for the other side, into the fastest part of the current, the very mouth of the snake, and he cries out in fear and anger, calls his brother’s name.

But Kili is pulled into the current, swirled around and flung against a rock with a crack that makes Fili’s heart climb into his throat. He disappears under the water, and he does not hear his brother’s cry.

Dwarves are made to endure. But Fili cannot endure this: to see his brother gone. He cannot endure this. And so he runs. He runs down the river bank, racing the water, watching for any sign of his brother amid the foaming rage of the river. He cannot enter the water himself -- he would be swept away just as surely as Kili, and how would they find each other then? And so he runs beside the bank, his heart pounding and his lungs aching, a race that he cannot hope to win.

He cannot hope to win, and yet the river takes pity on him, so it seems -- or perhaps it simply cannot abide to have a soul such as Kili entombed within it. Whichever is true, it throws him back, and Fili finds him sodden and still, face-down on a crescent of pebbles where the river makes a sharp turn. He gasps, stumbles down the bank, landing heavily on his knees. He seizes his brother by the shoulder and turns him over, and he sees that his face is white and his lips are blue, and his chest does not rise or fall.

Fili’s own breath stops in his throat. He has the strange, dizzy thought that he should not breathe, so that there is more air for his brother, who needs it so much more. And then he thinks about something else. He thinks about what he has done, before, and whether perhaps he can do it again. And he pulls Kili up into his arms -- he is so cold, so cold -- and holds him tight. He opens his mouth to say the words that he has said three times before.

Kili chokes. He convulses. He twitches and jerks against Fili’s chest and throws up copiously, great gouts of muddy water gushing from him as though he has become the river itself. And Fili -- soaked from holding his brother and soaked more from the contents of his brother’s stomach and lungs -- feels light, as though he might float away.

He holds Kili, lets him finish his convulsions, and then shakes him a little and seizes his face in both hands. He’s still so pale, so pale, but he is breathing. He is breathing and he is awake.

“Did you get the sheep?” he asks, the words slurring together, the breath wheezing in his throat.

Fili laughs, shocked. Then he slaps Kili. It is not what he meant to do, but it is what he did. And Kili stares at him, startled.

“I’m awake,” he says. “You don’t need to hit me.”

“Yes, I do,” Fili replies. He needs to hit his brother, more than he ever has before. He needs to beat some sense into him, to show him that he has one life, one, and it does not belong to him alone that he can squander it so thoughtlessly. But his breath is still shallow in his lungs and his eyes are blurred, and he finds himself hugging Kili instead, holding him close and feeling the warmth of his breath against his neck.

They sit like that for some time, until Kili’s breath begins to ease a little.

“I’m cold,” he mutters against Fili’s shoulder.

“We’ll go home,” says Fili. He manages to get them both to their feet, but Kili seems reluctant to leave the river.

“The sheep,” he says.

“Let the wolves have it,” Fili replies. His voice is steady, but his heart is not.

“But--” Kili starts.

Fili does not allow him to finish. He grips him by the shoulders and shakes him. “You could have died. You could have died,” he says. “No sheep is worth that. Nothing is worth that, nothing.”

Kili stares at him. “But you would have brought me back,” he says. “I -- I thought you did bring me back. Didn’t you?”

Fili’s mouth drops open. “Is that what you think?” he asks. “That it doesn’t matter, because I will always bring you back?”

“I--” Kili starts, and Fili sees from his expression that that is indeed what he thinks, that it has not even occurred to him that anyone might see it differently. He is a child, still, only a child -- but Fili is a child, too, and yet he still manages to have an ounce of common sense. Fili wants to walk away from him, but Kili is leaning heavily on him, and he thinks if he lets go, Kili will fall. He walks away, but he drags Kili with him, walking just a little too fast for his stumbling steps to easily keep up.

“But you did, didn’t you?” Kili says after a long, tense silence. “Didn’t you bring me back?”

“No,” Fili says. He does not look at his brother when he speaks. He is too angry for that.

“I thought--” Kili says. It is one word too many.

“You did not think,” Fili says. “You do not think. And now you tell me there is no need to think, because I will always be there to save you?” He stops walking, holds Kili by the upper arms. Kili looks as though a strong breeze will turn him to dust. He blinks blearily at Fili, and he looks confused and a little lost.

“Won’t you?” he asks.

Fili’s anger does not abate, but something else joins it, something more familiar. He pulls Kili into his arms and holds him close. He’s a child, Fili reminds himself. Just a baby. Just his little brother. And no matter that Fili is a child himself -- Kili will always be the younger. He will always be the one who needs saving.

And Fili will always be there to save him.

----

It’s a long way back to the village, made much longer by the fact that Kili can barely keep his feet. He leans heavily on Fili, head hanging, until at last Fili finds a sturdy tree and sets him down.

“Your legs are betraying you, brother,” he says.

Kili’s eyes are narrowed against the afternoon sun. “My head hurts,” he mumbles.

“Aye,” Fili replies. “You did not think you could tussle with the river and come away with only a bellyful of mud, did you?” But he sits down himself and runs his hands carefully over his brother’s head until he finds a lump behind his left ear. Kili hisses when Fili brushes his fingers over it.

“A bump, no more,” Fili says. “You hit it on a rock.”

“Did I?” Kili asks. “I don’t remember that.”

“I do,” says Fili. He will never forget the sound of it, echoing above the roar of the river. But dwarf heads are hard, and his brother’s harder than most, and if a goose egg is the worst he takes away from this day, then they are all truly beloved of Mahal. “Can you walk?” he asks. The day is drawing in, and Kili is already shivering. He does not want to spend the night out here, but he is not strong enough to carry his brother far since they became of a height.

Kili closes his eyes a moment, then starts to struggle to his feet. “Aye,” he says, “I think I remember how. One foot in front of the other, is it not?”

And Fili, who has never had the good sense to remain angry with his brother for more than a few hours at a time, smiles and agrees.

----

They reach the village as the sun is setting. There is no hope that they can slip home unnoticed -- they have taken no more than two steps from the cover of the trees when someone is running to find their mother. Kili’s clothes and hair are largely dry now, but he is caked in mud and barely conscious, hanging so heavily on Fili that Fili is afraid he may drop him. Five more stumbling steps, and then she is there before them, taking most of Kili’s weight from Fili’s arm.

“Kili,” she says, and then, when it becomes immediately clear that she will get no sense from her younger son, she turns to her elder. “Fili.”

“He fell in the river,” Fili says. “He hit his head.”

“I shot a sheep,” Kili slurs, well past the point of deception now.

Their mother regards them both narrowly. “Fell?” she asks.

“He’s always falling over,” Fili says, which is true enough, but he cannot quite meet her eyes when he says it.

Their mother purses her lips. “I see,” she says. And then she lifts Kili into her arms as if he were a babe still.

“I can walk,” Kili mumbles.

“You are a foolish child,” their mother replies, though her voice holds only a hint of the reprimands that will no doubt follow when Kili is well again. “Foolish children will ever be carried by their mothers.”

It is a dwarvish proverb, ancient as the rocks themselves, though normally it speaks of fathers. But their father is long gone, and their mother is quite capable of carrying Kili where Fili cannot. And glad he is of that.

----

Mr. Oin tuts over Kili’s head. “It could be a fracture,” he says. “I cannot tell until the swelling goes down. Have him stay in bed.”

Such an order would normally have Kili objecting. But Kili is asleep -- has been asleep since he was laid on their bed by his mother -- and says nothing. He stayed awake at least long enough to have a bath, and for that Fili is grateful, for he has no desire to wake with a mouth full of dried mud.

Thorin arrives a little later, frowning to see Kili asleep in the early evening. His frown deepens when their mother explains what has happened -- and what she has guessed.

“And you allowed this?” he asks Fili.

Fili opens his mouth to defend himself, but the words will not come. There is no need, though: help comes from another quarter.

“Leave him be, brother,” their mother says. “Kili has a mind of his own, and none can stop him when he wishes to do something foolish, as you very well know. I will not have you spend your wrath on Fili simply because Kili is not awake to be subject to it.”

Thorin growls, but subsides. “Something must be done,” he says. “He is too reckless.”

Their mother sighs and sits down, then. Fili does not know if it is because he is a little older now, or because she is at her wits’ end, but she does not shoo him from the room as she normally would for such a conversation.

“Aye,” she says, and she looks suddenly more tired than Fili has ever seen her. “But telling him makes no difference. It’s as though he believes death cannot touch him.”

Thorin glowers. Fili feels a twist in his stomach. He is the reason Kili believes this. But in truth they do not know. He has brought Kili back three times, so they think (though Kili does not know about the first). But does that mean he can always bring him back? He was never truly dead, only on the brink -- what if Fili had been too late? And will it work with every type of wound, or only some? There are too many questions, too many to risk what Kili is risking.

“All the young feel this way, I suppose,” their mother says.

“Then they are as foolish as he,” says Thorin.

----

In the middle of the night, Fili wakes to find Thorin sitting beside their bed, asleep. He stares at him a moment, surprised, until he realises that this was not the cause of his waking.

“Fili,” Kili whispers again beside him. “Are you awake?”

“I am now,” Fili replies, not trying to keep the annoyance from his tone. “What do you want?”

“I feel strange,” Kili says. And then, with no warning, he sits bolt upright and throws up over the side of the bed, not river water now but the soup they had for dinner and then bile and nothing, heaving and shuddering over and over though there is nothing left to expel. Fili’s sitting up himself, his heart thudding. But it isn’t the first time he’s seen Kili vomit -- not even the first time in the last day and night -- and he gathers his hair in one hand and lays the other between his shoulder blades.

It takes a minute or two, but at last Kili sits back. His eyes are wide in the dim light.

“Fili,” he whispers. And then his eyes roll back in his head and his whole body stiffens. Fili stares in horror as his body begins to convulse. He feels frozen, paralysed. But then Kili’s head hits the wall behind the bed with a crack, and Fili lunges forward, pulls his brother’s thrashing body into his arms and drags him down onto the bed, curling around his back, wrapping himself around Kili as tightly as he can. He hears Thorin’s voice as though from a great distance, feels heavy hands trying to pull him away. But he holds on. And, as Kili jerks and twitches in his arms, he closes his eyes and feels himself slipping away.

----

There are low voices in the room when Fili awakes. He is accustomed to the feeling, now -- as though every part of his body were pinned with great, leaden weights. He does not open his eyes. He knows what has happened. He cannot bear to face the questions. And yet he does not yet know if he succeeded. If he saved his brother.

This question is answered quickly, for there is a slight shift in the bed beneath Fili and then his brother’s voice comes from very near by.

“I told you, it’s nothing. It was just a lump on the head.”

“A lump, aye.” This is Mr. Oin’s voice, a little further away. “A lump that could have been very serious, by all accounts.”

“It wasn’t serious,” Kili insists. “It’s gone now, isn’t it?”

There’s a long pause, and then Mr. Oin speaks again. “Gone, indeed,” he says. “And never in my born days have I seen a swelling go down so fast. And you say he was seizing?”

This last is slightly muffled, as if Mr. Oin has turned away. It is Thorin who answers the question.

“He was,” he says. He sounds calm, but there’s a thread of something unsteady in his voice that Fili does not remember hearing there before. “For several minutes.”

“Just a passing headache,” Kili protests. Fili, through the fog of exhaustion in his mind, remembers something quite different.

“Well, there is no swelling now,” Mr. Oin declares at last, though he sounds entirely baffled. “And no fracture, either. But seizing and vomiting -- you will stay in bed, young master Kili.”

“But--” Kili starts, and then stops suddenly. Fili can picture Thorin’s glare.

“And Fili?” This is their mother’s voice, the first indication that she is in the room. She is on Fili’s other side. Close.

“Fili’s fine,” Kili says quickly. “I told you, he’s just tired from carrying me home.”

“You will keep your mouth closed,” their mother says. Now that Kili is apparently well again, she does not trouble to hide the anger in her voice.

“The lad’s right,” Mr. Oin says. “Nothing wrong with him that I can tell. Just exhaustion, it seems.”

Exhaustion. Yes. Fili is exhausted.

He drifts off into sleep.

----

When next he wakes, he’s alone but for Kili, sitting up in the bed beside him. It’s dark outside the window, and the lamp is turned low. Nonetheless, Kili has a book on his lap, but he is not looking at it. He’s looking at Fili, as if he knew he was about to wake, and when he sees Fili looking back, his shoulders slump a little.

“I’ve been waiting for you forever,” he says.

Fili struggles to sit up, and Kili moves to help him. He’s still unutterably weary, but his mind is clear now and his limbs feel lighter, more like they belong to him. He glances again at the window. “How long was I asleep?” he asks.

Kili shifts restlessly. “All day,” he says. “It’s almost midnight.” He shakes his head. “Mama made me stay in bed. All day.”

Fili cannot help but smile. Their mother knows exactly how to punish each of them. “You deserve it,” he says.

It seems that the thought had not occurred to Kili. He considers it with a frown. “I’m better, though,” he says. “You made me better. I don’t need to stay in bed.” He looks twitchy, as though he can’t quite stand to be in his own skin. Fili remembers how he jerked and thrashed and swallows down bile.

“You were very ill,” he says. “It’s no surprise they’re worried.”

Kili stares down at his hands. There’s something that seems not quite right about him, not quite Kili. “Thorin says I had a seizure,” he says. “I don’t remember.”

“I don’t remember, either,” Fili says, although he remembers each moment as if it were encased in crystal, never to be lost. He does not care to hear his brother’s questions.

“But you made me better,” Kili says, turning to him. Fili finds a word for the odd expression in Kili’s eyes. Haunted.

“It’s just as you said,” Fili says. He has long since given up on his anger. “I will always be there.” He laughs a little. “Foolish children will ever be carried by their brothers.”

“I’m not--” Kili starts, and then apparently thinks better of it and closes his mouth. He frowns down at the book on his lap. He is not quite Kili.

“What did Uncle say?” Fili asks. Perhaps it is better for both of them to think of something else.

Kili shrugs. “I told him you were exhausted,” he says. “He believed me. Mama, too.”

“Well, then,” Fili says. “There is no harm.”

But looking at his brother, he is not quite sure that is true.

----

Things change, after that. It takes Fili some weeks to understand quite what it is that has happened, but at last, he is able to pin it down. Kili no longer races into everything with a whoop and a cry for Fili to follow. He is quiet, cautious. At times he starts to speak and then stops, as if holding himself back. He twitches, as he did that first night after his seizure, as though he is uncomfortable in his own skin. And he is unhappy.

This last is what brings Fili to act. Kili has been many things in his life, but he has never been unhappy, not for very long. It tears at Fili’s heart to see him thus. And, if he is honest with himself, he is unhappy, too. He does not like this new, cautious behaviour of Kili’s. He does not like to see the wildness gone, though he has cursed it at times in the past. Kili does not seem more mature, more thoughtful. He seems diminished.

He does not know how to approach it, and this is why it takes their mother’s intervention to move him to action. She waits until Kili is outside cleaning his boots on the step, and then turns to him with a serious expression.

“Have you fought with your brother?” she asks.

Fili stares at her in surprise. “No,” he says. “Has he -- did he tell you that?”

“No,” their mother replies. “But I can think of no other reason for him to be so -- quiet.”

“At least he is not throwing himself into danger at every turn,” Thorin says. He is seated by the fireside, smoking. “Perhaps he is finally learning some common sense.”

Their mother is silent for a long moment, but she does not look at Thorin. She looks only at Fili. At last, she turns away.

“If this is how he is when he has common sense, then I hope he is ever a harebrained fool,” she says.

Fili does not disagree.

----

 

He speaks to Kili the next day. Their lessons are over, and Mr. Dwalin is away, so that their only training is sparring with each other in a field on the edge of the forest. When they sit to catch their breath, he turns before he can lose his courage.

“Has something happened?” he asks. “Why are you so sad?”

Kili turns to him in surprise. “I’m not sad,” he says. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Fili says, and then gestures helplessly. “You are so -- quiet.” He can think of no other word for it, no other word that so well describes everything that Kili has never been before.

Kili opens his mouth as if he intends to argue, but he does not speak. He would have done, before. Now he is not quite Kili, and he stays silent.

“The seizure,” Fili says, “I thought I made you better but perhaps -- do you still have headaches?”

Kili only stares at him. “I’d forgotten,” he says at last. “I’d forgotten what you looked like.”

Now it is Fili’s turn to stare. “When?” he asks. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Last time,” Kili says. “When we were in the woods, and the boar -- I woke up and you were so still. I thought you weren’t breathing. I thought you were dead.”

“That was years ago,” Fili says. He still does not understand.

“It was the same, though,” Kili says. “When I woke up after the river. You were -- it wasn’t just me, Thorin thought so, too.” He shakes his head. “I’d forgotten,” he says again. “I thought it was easy, that you’d save me whatever stupid thing I did. But I’d forgotten what it was like, when you saved me before. I was so afraid.”

“But I didn’t die,” Fili says. “I’m alive, just as you are.” He wraps a hand around Kili’s wrist, so that he can feel the warmth of him.

Kili does not look at him. “I won’t be stupid any more,” he says. “That’s all. I’m not sad. I’m just doing what you and Mama and Uncle Thorin want, anyway. I don’t want to be a fool any more.”

“Oh,” says Fili. He understands, now, something, at least. “But if you are not a fool, then how will I keep my reputation as the clever one?” He smiles at Kili, but Kili does not smile back.

“Don’t mock me,” he says. “I can be serious, you know.”

Fili sobers. “I know, my brother,” he says. “You are serious all too often, of late. I do not like it. It does not suit you.”

Kili looks stricken. “Are not you always telling me to take life more seriously?” he asks. “You and Mama and Mr. Balin and everyone. I thought you would be happy.”

“Am I always telling you that?” Fili asks. “Then perhaps I am the foolish one, after all.” He puts his arm around Kili. “It is not all or nothing, my brother. You can be carefree without constantly endangering your own life. Only a little more caution is required, not a barrelful. None wish for you to become another Thorin.”

“He would like it if I were,” Kili mutters.

Fili laughs. “He would not,” he says. “And Mama would like it even less. She has enough with one Thorin on her hands.”

Kili smiles at this, the first smile he has worn all day. It disappears far too quickly. “I don’t want for you to have to save me all the time,” he says. “I don’t want to see you like that.”

Fili feels his breath suddenly stolen by how much his brother has grown up in a few short weeks. “Then think a little before you act,” he says. “Only a little, mind, not a great deal. It would not do for you to be the clever one.”

And Kili’s smile returns, brilliant, this time, as if a shadow has lifted from his face. He is Kili, all of Kili, for the first time in weeks.

“Can you imagine?” he asks. “Mr. Balin would make me learn all those genealogies properly.”

Fili laughs. “A fate worse than death,” he says, and then raises his head. “Is that Mama calling?”

Kili bounds to his feet, catching up his wooden sword. “Race you!” he cries, and is off, tearing across the meadow, halfway to the first houses before Fili has even made it to his feet. A joyous whoop echoes back through the warm summer air.

Fili lets out a whoop of his own and follows his brother.