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Your soul calls me to your side

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The day the dragon came to Erebor is a vivid, painful sequence of images for Thorin, forever burnt into his mind. There's heat, desperation, anguish and fire. There's astonishment, dread, silence and the most awful screams he's ever heard. Not even the sounds of the battle of Azalnubizar can compare to those in that horrifying day. Women, children, old men. Their cries and their tears are worse than his soldiers' blood.

He thinks he will remember every second of it 'till his death, and maybe even beyond. He will surely relive it nightly in the nightmares that will plague him without pause.

The days after, though, are a haze: afterwards he won't be able to say what road his father had decided to travel to take them all to safety. Afterwards, he will barely be able to remember how every night little Dís and Frerin slept curled up lightly within the cocoon of his embrace, as if he were their last certainty in the world.

Everything is a mess of confusion and sorrow and pain, but one certainty comforts and helps him go on: that his soulmate, at least, was not born yet and thus has been spared this catastrophe.

A malicious voice, brought forth by desperation and guilt, whispers that maybe his soulmate had already been born, and died before he could be aware of them.

It could be possible. After all, soulmates are rarely born within years of each other and while cases where soulmates are separated by huge spans of years between each other are not normal, they are common enough that types of ceremonies that bind in some way those who cannot be wed exist.

Sometimes a person dies before they can meet the other half of their souls. Sometimes they die before the other is born. The link between them is an awareness of someone else, sometimes a sharing of feelings. If the link is broken, the presence goes away. If they are dead, the awareness never exists.

One of Thorin's tutors once told him that the Breaking happens without pain. The haunted look he saw on some of his soldiers' faces convinced him that while that might be true physically, emotionally it was otherwise.

He has never felt the connection, and indeed his soulmate could be already in the Waiting Halls, waiting for him. The idea had always been frightening before, but, as he flees from his beloved home, the certainty that his One was not suffering as well was a comfort.

He tries to not dwell too much on how he would cope if he never got to feel that connection.

***

Of all his family, the only member blessed with a soulmate is his little sister.

Dís is the baby of the family, and Thorin's mother's last gift to them: Frerin's birth had been quite difficult, but that hadn't dissuaded Rís from wanting another child. A girl, hopefully. Thráin hadn't had the heart to oppose his wife since he was secretly proud of having two sons, considering Dwarves were lucky to have one child.

In the aftermath of his mother's death, with a crying newborn in his arms to comfort and a distraught brother to look after, Thorin uncharitably believed that his father hadn't really tried to stop his wife because Rís wasn't his soulmate. A part of him knew how unfair his thoughts were, but his heart was still a throbbing pain in his chest, and his sister – already precious – was crying out for a mother she would never meet. Frerin's tendency to disappear when upset, didn't help in the matter.

But life went on, and the main focus in Thorin's life became Dís' well-being. He spent most of his day looking after her, so much so that people began to expect to see them together, as rarely was Thorin found away from her.

His father let him at first, but two months after Rís' death, he told Thorin he had to let the maidens take care of his sister and that as the second in the line to succession he had duties to the throne.

What followed was probably one of the worst screaming arguments the walls of Erebor had ever witnessed. Every pain, every resentment that Thorin had poured out. By the end of it he was exhausted, drained, and his father seemed to have aged decades in minutes, face white and worn out and extremely sad.

"Your mother wasn't my soulmate, but I loved her. Truly and deeply loved her. Don't you ever imply otherwise."

Those words, painfully rasped out, broke the silence, and finally settled their argument.

From that day forward Thorin relented part of his hold on his sister's life, and tried to focus on his other duties, but it wasn't easy. His grandfather's madness was worsening, and his father seemed to be slowly relinquishing the power and political influence he had. It seemed to Thorin that his father was making the same mistake he had done, only it wasn't Dís that was the new center of his life, but his own mind. Another kind of madness, and Thorin felt like their lives were slowly, but steadily getting out of control.

***

A few months before Dís' seventh birthday, someone barged into Thorin's rooms in the middle of the night. He woke up with a start and was already on the verge of shouting at whomever it was when he saw it was his little brother carrying their sister, who was clutching at his chest like a lifeline. Frerin was pale and clearly shaken and without a word Thorin opened his arms to cradle his sister to his chest. Frerin gave her to him, lips thinned. Frerin loved their sister, and even if sometimes resented how much she was attached to Thorin, he wouldn't deny her when she clearly needed Thorin so much.

Dís was crying, loud, heart-wrenching sobs almost shaking her from inside out. Thorin was at a loss. It wasn't the first time his sister had woken up from a nightmare, but never had they been so severe, so worrying.

He tried to whisper reassurances and love into her hair, holding her gently, but tightly, as he tried to convey that he was there and everything was okay.

But this time it was different, and she was inconsolable.

Frerin took a seat on his bed, and there they waited, trying to comfort their sister, until dawn, when she finally fell asleep from exhaustion.

***

They had hoped it had been just one, particular occurrence, but it wasn't so. The next time was only a week after the first, and then again five days later in the afternoon. Thorin had been in a meeting with Dwalin and other officers to organize a new roaster for the patrols on the east side of the mountain when his brother came looking for him. Again his sister had been crying her heart out in a corner of her room, the dwarrowdam looking after her clearly at loss on how to deal with this. Thorin hadn't any more knowledge than her, but this was his beloved sister, so he hoped that his presence could help. It took hours this time to calm her, until again she fell asleep from exhaustion. This time, though, Thorin couldn't just tell himself it had been nightmares. The dwarrowdam had been clear: Dís had been practicing her writing when suddenly she had stiffened and began trembling and crying.

After putting Dís to bed, Thorin himself went to the healing wing and asked for the Royal Healer to visit his sister the next day. The dwarf was clearly baffled that Thorin himself had come, but after being assured he wasn't needed immediately he acquiesced. No, Dís needed to rest. Thorin, in fact, had a suspicion on what could be ailing his sister and while it wasn't something of little importance it was something that could wait until the next day. Mahal and all the Valar, he fervently hoped that he was wrong.

***

He wasn't.

At first the healer had been startled, when he had been presented with a very healthy princess. After hearing the symptoms, he gave his diagnosis, and it had been as Thorin had feared.

Dís had a soulmate. A soulmate she had such a strong link to, which meant that every sorrow and pain – and joy – they felt, she felt too.

It seemed, though, that whatever Dís' soulmate was going through was rather horrific, and Dís felt the brunt of it with no warning. It was clear that a seven-year-old couldn't cope with whatever she was experiencing. Her stubborn silence on the matter only worried Thorin and Frerin further.

After a month, the situation became unbearable for all involved: Dís had trouble sleeping and was continuously haunted by whatever she got from her link to her soulmate. Thorin and Frerin were getting more and more frustrated by their helplessness.

Two months after Dís' first nightmare, a guard came looking for Thorin, saying Dís had been found at the top of the western walls, sitting on the battlements, barely avoiding falling down on the side of the mountain. Thorin decided that that was enough, and called for the healer again.

He knew Dís' soulmate wasn't near. Soulmates were instinctively attracted to each other and tended to gravitate closer and closer if they could. If someone in the mountains had been Dís' One, they would have found a way to get nearer to the Royal Family, but after two months no one had. Clearly her soulmate wasn't in Erebor, nor in the Iron Hills. They could be anywhere, and Thorin couldn't risk the pain Dís was receiving from her link driving her to do something foolish, or dangerous.

There was one thing that they could do, and he hoped Dís could one day forgive him.

There was no way to break a link. Only death could part two soulmates. It was a comfort in a way, but agony in cases like Dís'. People had been driven to suicide due to feeling their soulmates' pain and having no way to help them.

There was only one way to numb the pain, and that was drinking kingsfoil tea every day. The herb could dull the emotions coming from the link, and now it appeared to be the only way to help his sister.

Thorin knew it wasn't the answer, but dear Mahal, Dís was just too little to bear so much pain, and they had no way to find her soulmate. Thorin couldn't just take her sister and go west. Their kingdom was already on the verge of a political crisis, with vultures circling around his mad grandfather and a father who was essentially absent. If all the heirs just took off and went traveling (because he knew there was no way for him to leave Frerin behind), Thorin wasn't sure they would find a kingdom to rule upon their return.

***

"Thorin, we can't! Please, brother, think about this some more! Kingsfoil is.. you've seen the effects it has on people!"

Frerin was right. Thorin was very aware of how people changed when they took the plant. When someone with a soulmate got trapped or hurt in a mining accident, their soulmates were dosed with the plant to keep them level-headed. The plant, however, didn't just numb strong emotions, but every kind of feeling, making people almost apathetic.

Thorin didn't want that for his sister, but what else could they do except that?

He sighed and glanced at his brother.

"I don't like it either, you have to know that, but we have no other options," he pointed out. He'd hoped it would be unnecessary, but maybe Frerin needed to hear it out loud. "I can't... she could do something dangerous trying to find her soulmate, Frerin. I can't... I couldn't bear it," he finished in a whisper.

His fear of losing his sister in a stupid accident won against every other concern Thorin had. He would have preferred to never make such a decision, that was certain, but this was what they had to deal with.

He could see that Frerin had reached his own conclusion. His brother nodded, looking defeated.

"Then it's agreed."

Maybe if Thrór hadn't been completely lost to madness, they could have gone to him. He was sure the dwarf who had fallen in love with his soulmate, with his queen, would have moved the entire mountain, and maybe even all Middle Earth, to find his niece's soulmate. But the man's shadow now sitting on Erebor's throne? No, that dwarf couldn't help them. He wouldn't stop them, certainly and maybe he would encourage them. There would be less rightful claimers to his gold around if they were gone, after all, but again, what would they find upon their return?

Thorin didn't care about the treasure, but he cared about his people and he couldn't in good conscience leave them.

No, his beloved sister had to wait. His heart cried at the idea, but he had to accept it.

***

After a week of taking kingsfoil tea, Dís' episodes disappeared. If his sister's eyes had become slightly dull and life seemed to have flowed out of her, Thorin tried to tell himself it was for her well-being. It didn't work, if his own frequent nightmares were any indication.

Then, three years later, Smaug came and on the run there was no kingsfoil to be had.

***

Dís' nightmares came back as if they had never stopped, but there was no way to tell if it was Smaug's fault or the soulmate bond.

There was nothing they could do now, so Thorin and Frerin took turns caring for their sister, while trying to lead their people to safety through misery and grief. Their grandfather's mind was lost to a grief so blind only madness could explain it, but at least their father was present enough to understand that Thorin could be their only leader and tried to keep Thrór from interfering.

More than once, during their nights under the stars, Thorin had wanted to despair and curse at their fate. They were now a people without a home, with nothing but the clothes covering their bodies, and no goal but surviving. They had been abandoned. The elves had refused to help them against the dragon, and their kin had refused them shelter.

They were too many, they had said, as if it was a fault that so many had survived.

They had to find somewhere to settle, to begin anew, and Thorin was too young, too alone, with too many people depending on him. Dear Mahal, he didn't know what to do.

The stars had no answers for him.

***

Thorin and Frerin had decided to go beyond the Misty Mountains once they had gone through the Greenwood.

That had been the plan, at least. Once they had neared the mountains, though, Dís refused to proceed – thrown a tantrum of a sort Thorin had never seen from her.

He was just beginning to lose his patience, when she uttered something that stopped Thorin in his tracks.

“My soulmate is that way!” she had cried out, desperation coupled with exhaustion, and a trembling finger clearly pointing north towards the Grey Mountains.

She was so distressed that Thorin feared she would collapse at any moment.

However, Thorin knew he couldn't pass up the chance to find Dís' soulmate. It was his duty, as brother and future King, to make certain his sister could find her One.

When he asked, Dís had told him she didn't feel like before – like they were two different people – but rather like they were one. The healer told him that meant her One was very, very near, a day's walk at most. Hearing that, he decided to help Dís.

He had even more pressing duties than he'd had when he had first found out about her soulmate, but he was sure their people would understand. It was still summer, and so far they had kept a good speed. They could afford a few days of rest and a more leisurely pace.

Meanwhile he and Frerin could go and find out what was happening to his sister's soulmate.

***

The healer had been right.

His sister's soulmate was a half day's walk from where they had made camp.

The nearer they got, though, the quieter Dís had grown, and Thorin had started worrying, until he realized he was a fool. His sister had been dosed with kingsfoil for years so she could endure the pain from her soulmate. What kind of hell had her One been living through? What exactly was awaiting his sister?

If finding her soulmate had been possible without her, Thorin would have tried. He didn't want her to witness the evils of the world more than she already had, especially if they were the cause for her soulmate's pain. He believed she had suffered through enough during the years.

Which was why, when she suddenly started forward, wrenching her hand from his hold, he was quick to catch her in his arms, and passed her to Dwalin.

After a quick, but hard look at his friend, he nodded to his brother and they went ahead with the remaining guards they had taken with them.

And he had been right. His sister hadn't needed to witness the hell her soulmate had been living through. Not yet, at least.

***

Víli was just five years older than Dís, but his eyes seemed centuries older. Four years before he had been traveling from Ered Luin through the Misty Mountains with a small convoy when it had been attacked by an orc hunting party. Everyone had died, including his parents and only by a miracle, had he been left alive. Alone to fend for himself, he reached a small village of Men that lived in the area. He had hoped to find safety. He found hell instead.

Alone, with no one else to defend or care for him, he had been put to work deep in a mine that had become dangerous for the men, too big to follow the last remaining lode of gold the mountain was providing them. They hadn't cared he was just a child. They had only cared for their greed and what a dwarf child could help them obtain. Five years of abuse and beating and starvation had followed.

Some of the men had tried to stop them from taking him, but it hadn't taken long for Thorin and his party to show how good they were with a sword and how determined they were to save one of their own. In that moment, the fact that Víli was Dís' soulmate was almost irrelevant: there was no way Thorin would have left any child in that situation. The demonstration of how low greed could take people made him sick, and he was almost sorry these men didn't try harder to stop them after Thorin killed the first one.

***

Thorin should have felt satisfaction or victorious joy leading his sister's soulmate to her. He was going to give her the greatest joy of her life, after all.

Leading Víli out of that village, clasping his small hand in his, with Frerin and his guards at their back, didn't feel victorious, but hollow and bitter. Thorin felt miserable and looking down at the dwarf child beside him, bruised and dirty and exhausted, he hoped his sister would be happy enough for them all.

Then something strange happened. Víli stiffened and stopped, as if frozen. Then with a sob, he darted forward, letting go of Thorin.

At first Thorin was too startled to react, but then he looked up and understood.

Dís!

He started running as well, Frerin at his side.

They found them closer to where Thorin had left Dís with Dwalin.

Dwalin was glaring at the spectacle before him, but Thorin knew his friend and recognized the protective stance he had taken, and the small, soft smile curling his lips beneath his beard.

Víli and Dís were quite the sight: kneeling on the ground, holding each other so tightly Thorin worried for a moment that Dís would be bruised. He darted forward, but Frerin stopped him with a hand on his arm. He only shook his head and said: "Look."

Thorin did, noticing Víli's hold on his sister was tight, but also gentle. He was caressing her hair, murmuring something in her ear. Dís was crying, but she was smiling as well.

She was smiling. Smiling! Thorin had forgotten what that looked like.

***

Thorin didn't want to interrupt them, but they had to get back to the camp. He didn't believe the men from the village would follow them, but the Misty Mountains were not a safe place.

So, reluctantly, he went to them.

"We need to go." he said softly, not wanting to startle either of them. Dís seemed in a world made of only her and Víli, and Víli looked like a breeze could topple him.

At first they didn't seem to have heard him, but after a while Dís' face, tear tracks and puffy eyes peered up at him, hesitant and happy, and he smiled back at her, hoping to reassure her. The worst was past, but not everything was okay, which Dís probably knew instinctively.

He offered her his hand and she took it, leaving Víli's embrace. At first the other dwarf seemed startled and tried to stop her. Thorin cleared his throat and Víli looked up at him, startled and cheeks flushing. Thorin reached down to squeeze his shoulder to let him know it was okay, that he understood.

He didn't, actually. He didn't have a soulmate, and he didn't know what it meant to someone who had suffered so much, to finally find his soulmate and then let go after so little time together.

Víli let Dís leave his embrace, but didn't relinquish his hold on Dís' other hand. Dís smiled up at the boy, bright and hopeful, and Thorin felt something in his chest start to mend.

They had all lost so much, but this... This was a new beginning for Dís, and Thorin hoped it was a sign that things could change for the better for them all.

***

After wandering for months, they finally settled in a patch of land at Ered Luin, not far from a few villages of men.

The mountains were not very rich in gold and silver, and the men had abandoned the mines many decades ago because it had become too dangerous for them to keep on mining. Dwarves, however, who had a wider and more in-depth knowledge of such things, could honestly live on their craft with those mines.

Thorin was more than aware that this couldn't be a permanent solution. At best they could live there for two centuries without worrying that the veins would run out. Thorin had debated with himself about going to his father with his concerns, but in the end the worn out faces of his subjects and the wary, too tired soldiers had persuaded him otherwise.

They settled and things, while never as before, seemed to improve. Slowly Thorin became the unofficial leader, Thrór too hollowed out by the loss of his gold, and his father too happy to let his son look after everything.

Soon Thorin was almost too busy in organizing their new settlement and their mining, to spend time with this brother and sister. He tried to eat dinner with them every day, though, and he was happy to see that his unwilling distance was helping improving Frerin's relationship with his sister. The fact that Víli was now with them, under Frerin's tutelage, was a big relief for all of them.

Maybe that was why Thorin didn't notice the mad idea slowly taking hold of his grandfather and father until it was too late.

***

"But this is madness, Thorin!" Frerin almost shouted. "You know very well we are too few to take back that infested place!"

His brother was pacing like mad and Thorin could only stare at him helplessly. What could he say to his brother? Frerin was right after all. The idea of taking back Khazad-dûm was madness. Besides the fact that it was now overrun by orcs, Durin's Bane now resided there and only orcs could share space with that.

"I know, Frerin. I agree," he said, softly. "But what would you have me do?"

Frerin stared at him, eyes shining. In a few steps, he was right before Thorin, on his knees, hands clasping his.

"Please, please, oppose grandfather. You're our leader, Thorin. You, not him. The soldiers will follow your lead."

Thorin screwed his eyes shut. It was agonizing to see his brother pleading with him like this, like a common supplicant, and it was hard to tell him the truth while while tears streamed down his face. An honorable dwarf would look him in the eyes as he told him the truth, but Thorin found himself a coward in this.

"I can't, Frerin. Grandfather is still the rightful ruler and he has the support of our father and many noble dwarves. If I publicly oppose him, we could face unrest. I can't allow that."

He opened his eyes just in time to see the sorrow in his brother's eyes turn into fury.

"So you prefer to be slaughtered, and take many valiant soldiers with you, than dethrone a dwarf who hasn't been a proper ruler for decades?!"

Thorin cleared his throat, trying to find a way to talk past the pain seizing his heart.

"I can't ask this of my soldiers, Frerin. Please, try to understand."

Frerin laughed, but it was a broken and bitter thing. Then silence descended on them, interrupted only by the popping of the fire in the hearth.

Thorin thanked Mahal that Dís was already in bed. She didn't need to see this confrontation between her beloved brothers. Her and Víli's nightmares were finally becoming rarer, and they didn't need them to come back. Thorin knew they would plague his sister – and Víli – as soon as he left.

"Fine," Frerin finally said. "Tomorrow I'm going to ask Dori if he can look after Dís and Víli while we're gone."

That was like a bucket of cold water thrown over Thorin's head.

"What?!" he thundered out, suddenly furious.

Frerin just looked back at him, defiance in his eyes and posture.

"I'm coming with you, Thorin."

"No!" Thorin vehemently answered back. "No, you need to stay here."

Frerin crossed his arms, and Thorin could see he hadn't won the battle yet. He tried with the only strategy he could think of. It was a low blow, but everything was fair in this instance.

"Think of Dís, Frerin," he said, voice gentle, "Almost all her family is going. How would she cope if we were to all die? And what about Víli? If we died, someone could try to separate them. Dís would be the only, rightful heir and they're still too young to bond properly."

The last part was too true for Thorin's comfort. They had publicly claimed Víli as kin – him being Dís' soulmate – but if they were all to die, both Dís and Víli would be too young to defend their bond. After seeing where ambition was taking some of their grandfather's court dwarves, Thorin was certain Víli was still alive only because he was constantly in Thorin, Frerin or Fundin's brothers' presence. It was both a terrifying and sobering thought. Thorin had his hands tied in this, and Frerin needed to understand that and stay here to supervise everything.

By the grim look on his brother's face, Frerin was all too aware of that.

“And our people need you as well.” Thorin added.

"Okay, fine, I'll stay," he said begrudgingly. "But, Thorin, I swear, if you dare to die, I will find the Waiting Halls and kill you all over again."

Thorin grinned, relieved.

"I wouldn't have it otherwise, little brother."

At that, Frerin punched him in the shoulder. Seeing his brother smiling was worth the pain.

***

Leaving Dís and Frerin was just as painful as he had foreseen it to be. More than fifteen years had passed since they had left Erebor, but the scars were still there, and as much as he pretended, Thorin couldn't convince himself that this was different. His death was almost certain, after all, and he hadn't had the heart to blatantly lie when Dís had asked when he would be returning. He had just hugged her for a few, long minutes. By the end of it, Frerin had helped him in prying their little sister away.

Hugging Frerin and Víli hadn't been much better. His sister's soulmate had warmed up to him immensely over the years, and he often called him 'big brother' to Thorin's delight and Frerin's chagrin. To this day Thorin couldn't say if Frerin's reaction was out of jealousy because Thorin was his big brother or because Víli just called him 'Frer'.

Frerin's hug had been brief, but his little brother had held him so tightly he nearly bruised a rib. Somehow, Frerin's goodbye hug had been the worst: despite his being younger, Thorin had very early on seen his brother as a strong and independent person. He was only five years older, after all, and Frerin had been strong-minded since he'd been a child. Thorin often teased him about being his little brother, but the truth was that he thought of Frerin as his equal rather than someone who needed his guidance or protection like Dís. He had only seen Frerin deeply worried when Dís had been plagued by nightmares. Feeling how his brother was worried about him now, touched Thorin so greatly that he wondered again if what he was doing was the best course of action, or if he should have risked civil turmoil in their community.

But it was too late now. The first battalion had already left the day before and, anyway, he'd already thought long and hard about all this. The desperation he'd felt coming from his brother was born out of concern for his safety, not for other reasons. Thorin was already set on his path.

With a final, lingering look at his family, he closed the door behind him and took a deep breath. War was waiting for him.

***

Slaughter had been waiting for them in the end. The orcs were even more plentiful than their scouts had surmised months before. They'd had no chance at all. They shouldn't have worried about what kind of horrors Durin's Bane would have unleashed on them, because the orcs had been more than happy to not let them get the chance to find out.

Thrór was dead, slaughtered like an animal by Azog the Defiler, and Thráin was missing—probably dead as well. Thorin could only hope his father's end had been swift, and not some slow, agonizing death buried under a dead comrade or the carcass of an orc.

What he brought back to Ered Luin was not the news of a new home, but the of the deaths of almost every dwarf who'd gone to war with him. He knew that with all the Breakings that must have occurred, his people would've had a very clear idea of what had happened before his arrival. He was only glad of the fact that he'd been able to persuade his father not to take every able-bodied dwarf, but just half. Otherwise their–actually his people now (and wasn't that what he'd wanted since leaving Erebor, the chance for his people to have finally a real leader?) – would probably die out in the next two generations.

Despite the grim sight his remaining warriors must have been, his people had been more than happy to greet them. Thorin didn't think he would ever be able to forget the crushing hug Frerin, Dís and Víli together bestowed upon him, uncaring of the blood, grim and dirt still covering him. With a throat closed by emotion and relief, he realized they couldn't have known if he'd survived or not until they'd seen him.

Suddenly all the pain and guilt, the death still weighing him down, were washed away by the warm embrace of his family. He let himself enjoy the moment, while it lasted. He knew the nightmares would soon come back with a vengeance.

***

Patching his people back together after such carnage, so soon after losing Erebor, was hard and Thorin didn't think he could have managed it without Frerin and Víli. He'd been right, after all: despite being bone-deep tired (they'd been away for more than six months), his nights were plagued with nightmares and what-ifs, and in the morning he was more exhausted than the night before. Dís had tried to sleep in the room with him. Thorin didn't know if it was her way of convincing herself he was finally back, or if she was just trying to help him as she claimed, but after being startled awake and instinctively fighting, almost hurting her in the process, he banned everyone from his room at night.

***

“Thorin, you haven't slept through a whole night since you've been back.” Frerin said, his tone serious. “This situation can't go on, you're barely on your feet!”

Thorin couldn't look him in the eyes, as he looked around their little home: very little had changed in the months he'd been away, and that was both comforting and painful. Víli and Dís had been sent to bed almost an hour earlier. Thorin had known his brother wanted to talk to him about something by the looks he'd sent him all evening. He knew this confrontation had been due, and now that his brother was talking, he still didn't know what to say.

He'd thought his nightmares would lessen or at least become less vivid as time went on, but after three months, they were as vivid as ever and Smaug had started to creep back into them as well.

“I think you should go to a healer.” Frerin finished, and Thorin's head snapped up.

“There's nothing a healer can do, Frerin,” he stated firmly, but Frerin was already shaking his head.

“You're wallowing in guilt, Thorin, and not sleeping. How can you start getting better if you're exhausted all the time?”

Thorin glared at him, but Frerin just looked at him, unrepentant. Then he sighed.

“Please, Thorin, at least try. Dís and Víli grow more and more worried every day. Please, do this for them. It can't hurt.”

Thorin sighed, suddenly worn out.

“Fine. As you say, it can't hurt.”

***

The healers didn't have a miraculous cure, of course, but they gave him some herbs to help him sleep. It didn't last through the whole night, but at least Thorin was able to sleep until dawn was near.

Getting rest improved his mood and helped him in dealing with the aftermath of the battle of Khazad-dûm. It wasn't easy of course. He was still overwhelmed with grief and guilt, and even if he recognized that there had been no way for them to win, the loss of so many of his soldiers – some of them ones he had trained personally in Erebor – was still a constantly aching wound. Getting back to a daily routine, organized by Frerin, so that he could help the settlement while having time to be alone when he needed it, was a godsend.

His whole family was a godsend, in their own special way: Frerin was always at his back in meetings and dealing with the most bothersome of their nobles; Dís and Víli tried to eat with him at every lunch, often taking him to a meadow outside their settlement to let him unwind. And of course, they all dined together, as they had before. Except that after dinner, when they all retired in front of the fire, Dís and Víli didn't ask him to tell them stories about their old home in Erebor, but just let him sit in front of the hearth in peace. He noticed the worried looks out of the corner of his eyes, but didn't say anything. What could he say, after all? The horrors of battle had no place in their home, and even if they'd asked, he didn't think he could share. Everything was still too painful.

So time passed, as it is wont to do, and soon winter became spring, then summer and so on. Calmly, years went by, and Thorin healed, even if never completely. And Dís got older, as did all of them.

Then, almost ten years after the battle of Khazad-dûm, while talking with his brother about Dís' intention of bonding with Víli that summer, Thorin felt something painful blossom in his chest. A distinct awareness of something, someone other than him formed in his mind, and he stopped mid-sentence. He ignored Frerin's concern.

He'd often wondered how the soul-link forming would feel to him. Now he had an answer: he felt like he wasn't alone in the world anymore.

***

It was strange to think that somewhere out there, his One was just a baby, taking his first breath, feeling the embrace of their mother for the first time, and the love of their father. Thorin felt so old, so burdened, so damaged, that the idea of having an open link to someone so young and innocent was horrifying. How could he subject someone to the maelstrom of dark emotions of his nightmares?

He just couldn't.

He toyed for a while with the idea of taking kingsfoil, as his own sister had done for years, but the idea wasn't appealing. He still remembered the ill-effect it had on Dís and while he had a duty to his One, he also had one to his own people. He couldn't take a cure that would make him apathetic. His people were a very tight community, but Thorin couldn't ignore the discontent still running under the surface coming from some of the nobles.

It was also a very delicate moment for his family: Dís and Víli had no intention of waiting any longer for their bonding ceremony, and while Thorin couldn't blame them, he also couldn't ignore that Víli was not accepted as a member of the royal family by some of the more traditional dwarves. Thorin would have liked to smash their heads against a rock. He acknowledged that they were still the royal family, they didn't have a kingdom anymore, and therefore could indulge in a slightly less formal style of living.

And Víli was Dís' soulmate: he didn't need any more pedigree than that in both Thorin and Frerin's opinion and that was that.

In the end, his personal healer just advised him to take a new, more potent herb to sleep peacefully at night. Thorin took it, vowing to keep his mood and general disposition the calmest he could be, hoping it would be enough.

***

Thorin had always thought it would be strange to feel someone else's emotions, that it would take him a while to get used to it. In truth, it was the easiest change Thorin had ever gone through. Soon feeling a baby's cravings of sleep or hunger, their emotions, like joy and curiosity, was the mightiest cure he could have taken. It was difficult to slip into sad thoughts and regrets, when you could feel simple, uncomplicated joy. It was like the rays of the sun: they wouldn't let you fall into the shadows.

Frerin, who had at first been worried possibly even more than Thorin, was the first to notice how his link was actually helping him, and he was glad.

The news that Thorin now had a soulmate was carefully kept between them, though.

***

Dís and Víli finally bonded that summer on a beautiful, sunny day. If they'd still been in Erebor, they would have celebrated the bonding deep inside the mountain, in a hall decorated with every precious material their home would have provided them with.

This bonding, however, was the first one in their new home. They were still dwarves, people who liked to live inside the mountain, instead of on its surface, but Thorin believed they needed new traditions, even if inspired by the old ones. Therefore, he had proposed to hold it outside, in the shadow of the mountain who now sheltered them and provided them with work.

Dís and Víli had liked the idea, and so it was in the shadows of Ered Luin, with the sun shining just above them, that his little sister and her One swore to live their lives together and honor the gift given to them by Mahal himself.

***

Thorin didn't know where his One lived, but wherever they were, they were happy, and knowing that was enough. He'd never thought much about the passing of time, but one thing surely showed him how time went by: his One was growing up, and while at first their main feelings were just sleep and hunger and contentment, now another emotion was slowly but surely emerging. Now he felt a sense of joyous wonderment, often peppered with fearless curiosity. Wherever his One was, they were exploring the world and liking it very much.

Sometimes Thorin felt young again through his link and it was delightful.

Then Dís announced that she was pregnant, and Thorin felt the joy of a future uncle and the pride of an older brother.

***

Fíli had his father's hair and overall coloring, but he was a Durin to the bone. He was by far the most stubborn dwarf Thorin had ever encountered.

Frerin had fallen in love with his nephew at first sight, and took advantage of every opportunity to hold him and dote on him. Not that Fíli made it easy, stubborn little thing that he was, but it was endearing to see later how he would toddle on unsteady, little legs after his 'Frer'. Thorin's brother had frozen the first time he'd heard Fíli utter the nickname, then glared with all his worth at Víli, but their brother-in-law insisted Fíli had come up with that name on his own. Since Thorin had been declared 'Hor', the older Durin believed it very well.

***

Dís had announced her second pregnancy just a few days before, when Thorin felt a gut-wrenching pain coming from his One.

Thorin had almost chocked on his dinner, taken by the surprise. The pain was acute, and deep – an emotional pain rather than a physical one. It was the first time his One wasn't just upset, like children are wont to be, but really suffering.

Feeling pain wasn't a novel experience for Thorin, but the worry that that pain elicited in him, that was new and terrifying. In his memory, Thorin had only felt this worried once in his life: when Smaug had attacked Erebor, during those first, agitated hours when he hadn't known if Frerin and Dís were alive.

He tried to calm himself: it was probably nothing to worry about. Perhaps his One had had a pet, and it had just died, or maybe someone his soulmate knew had been hurt. There was no need to fret, or start wandering around looking for them, right?

He tried to convince himself of this, to stop himself from doing something impulsive, but the worry was overwhelming.

His brother tried to talk to him, but when he saw that nothing he said got him an answer, he just made him the infusion the healers had suggested when he had come back from battle. Thorin, recognizing it was a good temporary solution, took it and went to bed. His sleep was restless and full of nightmares.

***

Time should have alleviated his One's pain if whatever had happened had been something minor, right?

It seemed logical, but six months later, when his One was still feeling that pain – powerful even under the layers of other, more usual emotions – Thorin decided he had had enough. The worry that was now a constant in his life was making him miserable, and the fact that he didn't know what was happening, that he could know if he just went searching was maddening.

He was going to search for his One, and no one was going to stop him.

***

No one really tried to stop him. Or at least, no one of importance. Frerin gave him his blessing without reservation, although he had probably known since Thorin had first felt the connection that one day they would get to this point. Dís was so happy to learn that Thorin had a One (after she had screamed at him for having kept her in the dark) that she told him fiercely to send every dwarf her way who would oppose his course of action.

Thorin wasn't so cruel. Oh sure, there were some dwarves who more than deserved to face his little sister's fury, but Thorin didn't want any of them to ask questions or try find out the reason for his trip. They wouldn't get an answer anyway.

So, one beautiful morning, when spring was just starting to show its signs in the mountains, Thorin said farewell to his family and started the slow journey down the mountain. He hoped that once at the bottom, his connection would be strong enough to lead him to the other half of his soul.

***

He'd been a bit worried that once he'd reached the bottom of the mountain, he wouldn't know where to go, but he shouldn't have worried. At the foot of the mountain an instinctual part of him suddenly just knew he had to go south, and so he went, following the course of the River Lhûn, where an age ago the Elves had been able to hold against the progress of Sauron's army.

The landscape was made of green hills, covered in forests and wild pastures. Despite that, Thorin was surprised to find very few villages of men along his path.

He didn't hurry, but he tried to keep a good pace. The weather agreed with him.

In less than a week, the land started to change and the wilderness of the lands near the mountains gave space to soft, green hills, and the evergreens slowly disappeared as willows, oaks and birches took their place.

He crossed the Lhûn and instead of continuing south, he followed his instinct and turned west. Soon, Thorin started seeing that the wilderness of the trees and meadows was tempered by the appearance of fields and orchards. There were even small doors nestled into the hillsides, but Thorin didn't see anyone. It was as if the inhabitants knew someone from the outside was passing through their lands and wished to avoid them at all costs.

The call of his soulmate, though, that was becoming overwhelming. If at home the link was clear, but distant, now the emotions coming from the connection felt as if his One was just a few steps away.

He didn't want to admit it even to himself, but Thorin was slowly becoming nervous. Had he really done the right thing by coming for his One? They were just a child. How were their parents going to react, finding a stranger with a claim to their child at their door?

Thorin was an adult and, by the looks of it, from a different race altogether. He was pretty sure by now that whoever his soulmate was, they were probably one of the inhabitants of this beautiful land and Thorin couldn't imagine a dwarf living here, surrounded only by trees, flowers and fields.

He shook his head. He was here now and if something had become clearer over a shortening distance, it was that his One was in pain, deep, and all-encompassing. Maybe it wasn't entirely appropriate of him to come, to barge into a family who didn’t know anything about him, but he had a duty to his One before anyone else, now that his people were safe and settled.

He was going to find out what was happening, and then he would decide if the trip had been futile.

***

He soon found himself at a crossroads: the road on his right was wide and clearly well traveled, while the other two were smaller and looked rarely-used, the latter heading into a small patch of trees. His mind would have chosen to go right, where he could probably meet – finally – other beings, but his heart.. his heart was clearly telling him to go left, that he wasn't far now.

He turned left and, after a few steps, was entering a small wood. The sound of running water reached his ears. He kept walking, until he was in a small clearing, where a stream was happily running through creeks and brushes. In an inlet a few yards from Thorin, a small child was playing with something in the water, his back to the dwarf.

A powerful mix of relief and joy and finally! surged through him, and Thorin paused, overwhelmed by his own emotions. The child, as if sensing his turmoil, froze for a moment and then whirled around.

Deep brown eyes pinned Thorin where he was.

The child was tiny. He – because whatever he was, Thorin was sure he was a he – should have been more or less Fili's age but, despite his more fragile appearance, he seemed older. He had a mop of curls atop his head, and their color reminded Thorin of fields of wheat under the sun.

The child stood and before Thorin understood what was happening or had a chance to think of something he could say, he started running, crying out in delight:

"I knew you were coming!"

It was only because he'd had almost seven years to get used to Fíli's sudden 'attacks' that Thorin had enough sense to crouch down and pick the child up before he slammed into his legs.

In a moment the child was in his arms and arms clutched tightly around his neck, with his head pressed against Thorin's cheek.

Thorin held the boy close, careful of his own strength. For the first time in his life, he felt at peace, like everything was finally in its proper place.

Beneath their peaceful surface, however, Thorin's emotions were a raging whirlwind. His and his One's emotions fused together in a way that made it almost impossible to distinguish whose were which, but the dominant ones were relief and safety.

After a while the maelstrom began to quiet down and Thorin realized he was caressing the child's soft curls. With a small sigh, he stopped and rearranged the boy in his arms, to be able to get a look at him. The boy was looking back at him with slightly red eyes and a hopeful smile.

 photo 01_zpswxhrpy9o.jpg

Thorin realized how ridiculous it was to keep thinking about his One as 'the boy' and decided to do something about it.

"Thorin Oakenshield at your service, little one," he said.

The child scrunched his nose at being called 'little one', which was most adorable.

"Bilbo Baggins at yours, Mister Thorin," he replied, and Thorin was surprised both at the properness of the introduction and that he hadn't said anything about being called 'little'. Fíli definitely would have.

"What are you?"

The innocent, curious question surprised Thorin even more.

"I'm a Dwarf, Master Bilbo," he replied, smiling.

"Wow, a Dwarf! I've never seen one before!" Bilbo exclaimed, and ran a hand through a lock of Thorin's hair. "Your hair is very thick. And long."

"Yes, Dwarves traditionally keep their hair quite long," he said, and let the child play with his hair. He seemed quite fascinated.

Thorin would have stayed there probably for the rest of the day, enjoying the air and the quiet, good emotions flowing back and forth between him and Bilbo, when hunger started creeping into their link. Thorin frowned.

"Are you hungry?" he asked. Bilbo flushed and nodded, looking away as if embarrassed and while it was endearing, Thorin wanted him to feel at ease with him.

It was nearing midday and it was nothing strange for a child to be hungry. Thorin smiled and squeezed Bilbo one last time before setting him down. Bilbo immediately grabbed his hand, almost desperately – in fact there was a hint of desperation now coloring the hunger coming from the link.

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 "You are not going away, are you?"

Thorin frowned, but tried to concentrate on only light, positive emotions.

"No, no, I'm not,” he said, looking down. “But you're hungry. Don't you want to eat something?"

Bilbo nodded, looked straight ahead, and started walking. Thorin obligingly followed his little guide.

"I told Ma you were coming today!" Bilbo exclaimed as he looked up at him with a joyful expression. The joy, though, was tampered by a sudden spike of pain and worry. It was harder for Thorin to hide his reaction to that. Why did talking about his mother worry Bilbo? He hoped the woman had no problems with the fact that her son had a soulmate.

Among Dwarves Ones were considered a gift, but there were instances where parents weren't happy with the age difference, that an adult soulmate wanted to have an active part in their child's life. He hoped that wasn't their case. Thorin had come only out of worry for his One.

They were walking on a large path when Thorin began to see other doors nestled into the hillside, and then finally other beings of the same species as Bilbo. They were all quite small, smaller than dwarves, with soft curls and no facial hair whatsoever. Their feet, though, were quite big and hairy and always kept bare.

And what Thorin noticed as well were the subtle and not-so-subtle disapproving looks aimed at his presence – and at his hand clasping Bilbo's.

Thorin expected someone to stop them sooner rather than later, and was surprised when no one actually did. Instead they soon found themselves in front of a small wood gate that led uphill a little, to a small green door.

Bilbo opened the gate and let him pass, before carefully closing it behind them and then leading Thorin up the stairs.

Sooner than he'd have liked, Thorin was in front of the door, and he didn't even have time to think about how to introduce himself or anything, before Bilbo was opening the door and crying out: "Ma! I'm home!"

Thorin winced at the shrill tone and heard someone moving towards them from down a corridor.

A woman appeared then, with dark curls and intelligent, brown eyes – the same color as Bilbo's – that pinned him to the spot. She was dressed in an elegant, light purple dress. She looked tired, with bags under her eyes and a shawl draped over her shoulders, despite her long-sleeved dress and the warm air in the house.

"See, Ma! I told you he was coming!" he exclaimed and, relinquishing his hold on Thorin, ran towards the woman to hug her. The woman carded her hands through his hair and smiled down at her son.

"That you did," she replied softly. If her appearance was tired, her voice sounded exhausted.

Thorin frowned slightly, his concern doubling at feeling Bilbo's.

"Thorin Oakenshield at your service, ma'am," he introduced himself, with a bow.

Bilbo's mother smiled faintly at him.

"Belladonna Took at yours," she replied. "Why don't we move to the kitchen? Are you hungry, Bilbo?"

Bilbo nodded and started leading his mother towards a door to the left. He tried to take Thorin's hand as well, but the corridor wasn't wide enough for the three of them, so Thorin shook his head. Bilbo pouted briefly, but the smell of something cooking soon distracted him, and he ran ahead.

Belladonna was smiling at her son and Thorin's heart was relieved to see the love shining in her eyes.

"He's a precious child. Too perceptive, sometimes."

"Madam?" Thorin asked, confused.

"Oh, you made garlic bread!" Bilbo's delighted voice came from up ahead.

Belladonna shook her head. "We'll talk about it later."

Thorin nodded and followed her into the kitchen.

***

The meal was a delight. Thorin enjoyed Bilbo's excited chatter, recounting what he'd done during the day, the plants he'd seen and the animals he'd found.

“...and then I tried to catch it, but it ran into a hole and...”

Belladonna smiled and hummed in all the right places, since Bilbo talking didn't require any actual contribution.

Thorin ate little, his stomach a bundle of nerves now that he finally found himself in the presence of Bilbo's mother. He had known it was coming, but now that he was here with Bilbo right in front of him, he didn't know how he would cope if Belladonna forbade him from seeing Bilbo until he was an adult. And that was definitely something a parent could do.

In Dwarven communities it didn't happen often since soulmates usually had only a few years of an age gap. However in cases like Thorin's, the parents were often opposed to the fact that their child saw their adult soulmates, therefore a very complex negotiation would begin, arbitrated by an elder dwarf trusted by both parties, and continuing until they reached an agreement.

But here, amidst these strange people, Thorin was an outsider and didn't know what traditions they followed and if, as a soulmate, he had any kind of right towards Bilbo.

Belladonna had been hospitable enough, and he didn't sense any kind of aversion from her, but being in the dark was nerve-wracking.

Someone started knocking against the door as they had finally arrived at the last dish of the meal, an apple pie that Thorin swore Bilbo was inhaling instead of eating, so fast was the piece disappearing from his plate. Mahal be his witness, but Thorin didn't understand where so much food had disappeared: Bilbo was just so tiny.

His mother, on the other hand, had touched almost nothing, which was even more worrisome, in Thorin's opinion. Belladonna didn't appear as if she could skip a meal.

At the sound of knocking, Bilbo's eyes shot up and, after a brief look towards his mother, jumped up from his chair and darted for the door.

“I'll open the door!” he called, rushing out of the kitchen.

Thorin looked at Belladonna, but the woman just smiled a bit sadly in the direction Bilbo had disappeared to.

Before Thorin could even consider asking anything, Bilbo was back, almost dragging another child of the same age into the room. Another person, an adult, followed closely after them.

“See, see, Ham, he's a dwarf! I told you he wasn't a hobbit-”

Amidst Bilbo's excited chatter to his friend – who was looking at Thorin as if he were the most strange and unusual thing he'd ever seen (and maybe he was, Thorin reflected drolly) – Thorin finally learnt what these people called themselves. Hobbits. Thorin frowned. He was pretty sure he had never heard of them, not even when he and his people were wandering around seeking a place to settle. It was quite peculiar.

“Is everything alright, Mistress Belladonna?” a voice interrupted his musings, and Thorin focused on the male hobbit who had accompanied Bilbo's friend.

He felt a spike of worry and fear at the words, definitely not coming from him. Thorin's eyes sought out Bilbo immediately. The child was looking between the stranger and his mother with wide eyes.

Thorin chanced a look at the stranger and he could see the hobbit was looking at him with clear distrust, eyes narrowed and hard. His straight posture and clenched fists screamed discomfort and protective aggression. Against Thorin.

“Everything is fine, thank you, Hobson. You didn't need to worry.” Belladonna's voice was kind, but had an edge of steel beneath.

Hobson cleared his throat.

“I hope we aren't disturbing your lunch. Primrose Boffin insisted I checked on you, and Hamfast wanted to play with Bilbo.” Thorin could see a slight blush on the hobbit's cheek.

Belladonna smiled, but it was a small thing, as if even smiling tired her.

“Thank you for coming, but you know you and Hamfast are always welcomed here. This is Thorin Oakenshield, Bilbo's soulmate,” she added, and at her words, silence settled upon the room fast as lightening. Even Bilbo and Hamfast, who so far had been whispering to each other, heads bent together as if sharing some big secret, stopped speaking and looked up at the adults.

Thorin had the feeling that some kind of battle of will was going on between Belladonna and Hobson, and it wasn't his place to interfere.

Only when Hobson muttered “I see” and turned towards Thorin, did the tension in the room start to dissipate.

“I'm Hobson Gamgee, Mistress Belladonna's gardener,” he said, nodding to Thorin.

“And my irreplaceable factotum,” Belladonna added smiling.

Since whatever struggle had happened between them was settled, Thorin stood up and, placing his right hand over his heart, introduced himself.

“Thorin Oakenshield.”

“Mom, mom, Ham found a bird with a broken wing,” Bilbo interrupted them. “May I go and see if we can help it?”

“Sure, sure, go,” she told him, and then Bilbo was hurrying towards the door, full of excitement. He stopped on the threshold, and turned to look at Thorin.

His eyes pinned Thorin, and anxiety began spreading. Thorin knew what Bilbo wanted from him.

“I'll be here when you come back, Bilbo.”

Bilbo bit his lip, uncertainty screaming from his body and their link.

“Sure?”

“Sure.” Thorin smiled, trying to convey as much reassurance as he could, and hide everything else he was feeling for the moment.

Bilbo nodded, and after one last, look at Thorin and his mother, he darted for the door, following his friend.

Thorin sighed and chanced a glance at the other occupants of the room. Hobson was looking away, but Belladonna, still seated at the table, was looking in the direction Bilbo had disappeared, her face once again full of sadness.

Thorin needed to know what in Mahal's name was going on, because his patience was steadily running out because of feeling Bilbo's emotions swinging up and down.

“I'll go and keep an eye on the boys,” Hobson said, disrupting the silence.

Belladonna nodded.

“How is Bell's pregnancy going?” she asked.

Hobson smiled, eyes full of joy and pride.

“Very well. She's due very soon.”

“Good. Say hi to her and Halfred for me.”

“Sure, Mistress Belladonna. I'll see you tomorrow.” Hobson stood and, after a small bow towards Belladonna and a nod towards Thorin – who answered in kind – he turned and left.

Silence settled again, and Thorin was left floundering, not knowing how to proceed in finding out what he needed to know.

“Please, sit.” Belladonna asked him softly and Thorin, who had been on the verge of fidgeting, sat in front of her at the table.

Belladonna seemed relaxed, and only her hands, clenched together in her lap, betrayed her real state of mind.

“I think-” she started, but stopped almost immediately. Thorin, who had never been the most perceptive and tactful person (Dís often despaired for the male dwarves in their family, and most of all for Thorin), knew he had to keep his silence and wait for her.

“I think I know why you are here,” she finally said. “But I don't know where to begin.”

This time it was harder for Thorin not to blurt out what was running through his mind, but after a moment, he decided on one of his own questions.

“What happened six months ago?”

Belladonna's eyes first widened in surprise, and then closed. She swallowed.

“My husband – Bilbo's father – died,” she whispered. “But you... you felt him.” She looked straight at Thorin.

Thorin nodded.

Belladonna shook her head.

“No, it is-no. It can't be.”

Before Thorin could ask what couldn't be, Belladonna spoke again.

“Where do you live?”

The question confused Thorin, but he answered all the same.

“In the Blue Mountains, at a week by foot from here.”

Belladonna almost gasped.

“Oh sweet Yavanna, a week from here?” she asked, and her words brought Thorin's patience to an end.

“Yes.” he said, voice harsher than he wanted. “Is that a problem?”

Belladonna shook her head.

“No, no, it's not. It's just that..” she cleared her throat. “It's not usual for hobbits to feel their soulmates from such a distance.”

Thorin arched an eyebrow.

“I don't think it's usual for hobbits to have dwarves as soulmates either,” he said dryly.

Belladonna chuckled.

“No, no, it is not, but I've known-” She shook her head again. “I should have realized your connection was so strong. I can't count the number of times Bilbo's tried to leave the limits of Hobbiton, and then the Shire itself. I knew you could not possibly be a hobbit.”

Thorin felt nervousness creeping up again, but when it started to double back from his link to Bilbo, he tried to rein it in.

“Is that a problem?” Thorin asked, heart in his throat. It was probably his biggest fear at the moment.

Belladonna's eyes widened.

“No, no, it is not. Not for me, anyway.”

It was almost too clear what she meant, but Thorin needed to know.

“It is for the others, though.”

Belladonna grimaced.

“Hobbits are very kind people, but not open-minded, I'm sorry to say. That's why I want you to take Bilbo with you when I die.”

Thorin's heart froze.

“W-what?”

Belladonna smiled sadly.

“I'm dying, Thorin, and no one can take care of Bilbo like his own soulmate.”

***

Belladonna Took was dying. Because of her broken link to her husband.

It was very rare, but hobbit soulmates could be so tightly linked together that one could die at the death of the other. Belladonna had kept it together as long as she could for Bilbo's sake, but it was a battle she was quickly losing.

“Wouldn't you prefer that a relative care for your child?” Thorin asked, still unable to completely believe what he was hearing.

Belladonna grimaced again and shook her head vehemently.

“No. My grandfather is the only one who believes I'm dying because Bungo is gone. The others...” She swallowed heavily. “The others don't believe my bond to him was that strong. They didn't believe Bilbo had a soulmate at all.”

Thorin frowned.

“What do you mean?”

Belladonna sighed.

“Bilbo started trying to leave the Shire as soon as he could walk, and said it was because he was going to find his soulmate. No one believed him. Hobbits don't usually have strong links to their soulmate. The children are gathered together every few years to allow them to find their soulmates. They don't feel each other outside of a very limited range. Bilbo's case is unheard of. When it became apparent that his soulmate, if they existed at all, was of another race people started to call him delusional behind our backs. But Bilbo heard.”

Thorin could see the fury in her eyes as she spoke, the agony at the idea that her son had suffered and that she couldn't prevent it.

Thorin was feeling boiling fury as well at the cruelty of these people against Bilbo, but especially at his relatives.

"I don't want to think what he would go through if he went to stay with them, when 'm gone, especially now that it's clear he was right all along,” she added, voice trembling, as she closed her eyes. “My grandfather is the only one, besides me and Bungo, who always believed him.”

Thorin didn't know what to say. It was not as if he didn't know about awful relatives. His grandfather with his gold-lust and madness and his father leaving him and Frerin alone in dealing with Dís' nightmares, then supporting Thrór's mad ideas about reclaiming Khazad-dûm and not listening to him... Oh yes, he knew what he meant to not be considered and having to deal with people who should love you, but didn't.

He was also starting to understand why Bilbo seemed so unsure of himself around him. He was still grieving the loss of his father, but years of hearing others belittling him must have fueled his insecurities and his fear of being left alone.

So for Thorin it was easy to understand Belladonna's point of view, but there was still something niggling him.

“But you don't know me. How can you trust me with him?”

Belladonna looked at him.

“Your link is strong, Thorin. Maybe stronger than what I had with Bungo. Yavanna and Mahal made you for each other. I trust that.”

Thorin swallowed and reached across the table to take Belladonna's hand in his own. Her skin was cold at the touch – too cold. Thorin squeezed it reassuringly.

“I will take care of him, I promise.”