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Hveðrungr's Children

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I.

The morning is bleak, gray and cold when Thorin finally leads the battered line of dwarves back to Ered Luin. Their campaign in Moria was a failure, and one that had cost them dearly - they had nothing to show for their efforts but corpses.

He is still exhausted enough not to know grief, even as he greets his sister Dís at the gate with a weary nod. Her smile goes sharp and bright, then it falters, as her gray eyes search his haggard face, then the limping line of wounded behind him, with growing horror and alarm - Thorin strides past, willing himself not to stagger, as he passes the growing crowd of families looking for their loved ones. He knows that far too many of them will look in vain, that his sister will look in vain, and he must show strength, even in the deep well of his own grief. He is King now, after all.

King.

It feels like a curse, or a shackle wound tight around his very soul. Dís comes to him when Thorin is wiping down his battleaxe - it is clean, and already polished to a dull sheen, but his fingers need to be kept busy. He needs to keep busy. He feels poised, on the edge of a knife-sharp precipice, but balance he must, for his people, if nothing else.

"Grandfather?" Dís begins, her hands clenched. "Father?" She demands, when Thorin gives her a half-shake of her head, then another, and now her voice breaks and rises, "Frerin?"

Frerin had been torn apart, by the advance guard of warg riders, but his sister does not need to know how their grandfather and brother had died. "Their deaths were honourable deaths," Thorin lies. He lies because he had not found their father's body, though they had tried, when they had sorted the bodies to be burned. And there was no honourable way to die, not truly. Especially not ripped to ribbons and half-eaten.

Dís snarls at him, wild-eyed, for Frerin had been closer to her - they had both been separated from the cares of learning the reins of rulership, Dís by her sex and Frerin by his birth; on Thorin's shoulders had the expectations of their father and grandfather lain, his younger brother and sister free to be inseparable. Golden-haired Frerin the lion, dark-haired Dís the panther.

Almost inseparable.

Thorin lets Dís rail and shout until his own temper frays, and then they quarrel - they quarrel for three days, despite the palpable grief already permeating Ered Luin and the best efforts of Balin and Dwalin to calm them down. They were young then, far too young, and both half-mad with grief; when they almost come to blows, furious, Thorin sends Dís away to the Iron Hills with Dwalin. He tells her not to return until she calms her mind, and she spits at him and declares that she wishes that he had died in Frerin's place.

That is the last that he ever sees her. Dwarf grudges run deep, even - or especially - where blood is concerned.

Years pass before a raven bears sober word from Dáin, with news of her death, and a formal invitation for Thorin to come and pay his respects. Ered Luin is starting to grow, and Thorin is engaged in strained negotiations with a local township of Men over the land they have resettled over the ridge of arable land west of the mines. He dismisses the raven, despite Balin's gentle urging. His sister made her choices long ago, and he has not forgotten it. Nor has he forgiven her for her words, spoken as they were when she had been maddened with anger and grief.

Dwarves are not a species usually given towards regret.

More than half a century had gone by since Moria by the time that Thorin finally, by chance, has business that takes him by the mines of Dáin, and his kinsman greets him formally at the Gate with perfunctory ceremony. The dwarves of the Iron Hills are a grim and sober lot, and the mines and halls in Dáin's domains are functional in size, almost spartan, without the lofty, vast halls of Erebor or Moria.

"Defensible," Dáin tells him, when he seems to catch Thorin looking about curiously. Even Dáin's dining hall is painfully modest, the table a slab of unadorned granite.

"You have problems with the orc?"

"We have problems enough," Dáin grunts, and a flash of something twisting and dark crosses his face, even as he waves Thorin to a goblet of excellent wine. Dáin watches him keenly over dinner, as though expectant, or waiting, and eventually, Thorin pointedly puts down his knife.

"Is there something amiss?"

"Why do you ask?"

"If you need my aid with some matter," Thorin prompts, trying to guess, "I will provide it if it is within my power to do so."

Dáin considers him for a moment longer, searchingly, then he says, quiet and flat, "I will show you where we laid Dís down to rest, after our dinner."

There is an undercurrent there, something that rings wrong in Thorin's ears, that pushes up his hackles, but Thorin merely nods slowly. Perhaps Dáin found fault in how Thorin had failed to attend his own sister's last rites. Thorin considers explaining, as he eats the rest of his dinner with little further enjoyment, but in the end, he decides not to. As much as Dáin is his kin, this was still far too personal. In a way, still raw.

They walk to the burial chambers in silence, descending in a spiral of evenly cut stairs down an old mining shaft, the struts strengthened and repaired over and over until mottled with bolts and patches. Dáin's lantern bobs reservoirs of light before him over the jagged and unlovely walls, and it feels as though they were descending into the very maw of the earth itself, the air still and dead around them. Thorin finds himself stifling a shiver, even as he unconsciously grips the haft of his axe, as they go deeper and deeper into the earth, further than Erebor had dared to go.

"This is your first visit to the Iron Hills," Dáin states then, conversationally, and the deep echo of his voice nearly makes Thorin startle with surprise as the silence shatters.

"Yes." Thorin feels that he is obliged, perhaps, to make a further comment. "You have dug deep here."

"Our resources are not as plentiful as Erebor's." Dáin says this with no inflection or envy. "Needs must. We have not gone as far as Moria."

Thorin nods slowly, with a shudder. The dwarves had grown careful after Moria. Who knew, after all, what else they might awaken in the heart of the world. "That is prudent."

"Still," Dáin adds, almost as an afterthought, "Some of our miners claim that we are yet deep enough to hear the slow heartbeat of the world." He tips his head up at Thorin, his expression again taut and unreadable. "To hear the whispers of Hveðrungr, still buried in the stone."

"Superstition," Thorin suggests, dismissive, even as his voice carries, the stone further downwards spitting the echo back at him.

He suppresses another shiver. When he had lived in Erebor, he had never ventured into the mines. There had never been any need to. They had also dug new mines in Ered Luin, but the iron and copper seams were closer to the surface, and Thorin had only visited it once. Balin handled mining business.

"Perhaps." The flat incuriosity in Dáin's tone is unsettling, however, and Thorin keeps his peace until they descend into the burial crypts. The stone is chilly here, cut along a natural seam, and the crypts smell of dust and old cloth instead of the rot that Thorin had vaguely expected. He had never had cause to visit a crypt before, either - his grandfather's and brother's bodies had been burned with the rest, at the gates of Moria.

The dwarven kind had a closer relationship to their maker than the actual Children of Ilúvatar, through their carefully preserved language if nothing else, and held a pragmatic belief in their place in creation and in their hereafter, and in the relationship of things in their world. Superstition was anathema to most dwarves, for they were made to be unyielding, made for strength of flesh and of mind, but to live within the deep stone was to be changed, Thrór had once told him (and his sister, and his brother - they had been so young then). The deep miners who dared the endless dark in the heart of their world, who explored new seams and veins and tunnels, checking for deadly pockets of gas or structural problems - they danced daily with death, often a lonely and broken death in the dark.

Sometimes they spoke to the dark, and it sometimes, they said - sometimes the dark would answer them.

Hveðrungr the trickster, the supposed voice of the deep stone of the world, capricious and often cruel. Thorin would have snorted at the thought, but it was difficult not to feel unsettled in a crypt, led past ranks upon ranks of stone coffins, with only the sounds of their boots in the gloom.

"Here," Dáin says abruptly, as he steps into a separate, smaller chamber. The stone coffins here are more ornate, inlaid with gold and gems, with beautifully etched gold and bronze plaques set below their ledges. There are only three coffins, with empty spaces left closer to the entrance, and one placed on a raised dais in the centre of the room, with the most ornate designs on the stone.

The plaque reads only: Grór, First Lord of the Iron Hills.

Without turning, Thorin knows now the name on the next against the wall, and the next; he finds himself standing before his sister's coffin, breathing slowly out. He is not entirely sure, he realizes, dully, whether he feels grief; there is only a conscious sense of stillness. He studies the stone, unsure whether he should say anything at all, then he frowns. Left on the lid, incongruously, is an arrow, expertly fletched, the arrowhead sleek and barbed, the shaft etched with cunning, angular designs.

Confused, Thorin picks it up, glancing to Dáin for an explanation, but the dwarven lord only shakes his head slightly, the wary haunted look open now over his grim features. After a moment, Thorin replaces the arrow on top of the coffin, confused. "An offering?" he asks, and his voice seems to cut through the silence like a blunt knife.

"Aye." Dáin seems to visibly struggle with himself, then he lets out a harsh, low huff, his fingers tightening on the lantern.

"Thank you," Thorin tries, self-conscious and hating how stilted he sounds, "For taking care of my sister."

"We are kin," Dáin replies, too quickly, guarded.

Thorin wants to suggest that they return to the great hall, and finds himself saying, instead, even more stiffly, "Words were spoken between us at Ered Luin that should not have been spoken." And he realizes then that he did regret the manner of their parting, regrets the angry, too-young, utter foolishness of it all that had him sunder himself from the last of his family.

"Would you have made amends in time?"

Dáin's question is oddly earnest, almost paternal, and Thorin grits his teeth, forcing patience. He wants to tell Dáin curtly that this is personal, but he supposes, with painful angry wryness, that Dáin is now the closest that he still has for family. Lord Dáin of the Iron Hills is next in line to their stolen kingdom, after Thorin himself.

"Yes," he admits finally, and despite himself, he stands a little straighter. He had not loved his sister with Frerin's fierceness, but he had loved her. That had been why their parting had been so bitter.

"Come," Dáin decides then, and his step is brisk as he leads Thorin from the chamber, though he does not retrace their steps, instead taking them further into the crypt, past rows upon rows of coffins, until Thorin is thoroughly chilled even with his furs. They reach a door, left a fraction ajar, and Thorin realizes to his silent dismay that Dáin seems to intend to descend even further into the stone.

He cannot complain without giving offence, and Thorin endures it, absently memorizes the winding route they take through the warren, until the old struts and supports give way to newer ones, and newer ones yet, and then Dáin takes them through a narrow squeeze of a natural tunnel into a massive cavern, almost as large as the treasure hall in Erebor, if he estimates the depth of the shadows correctly. There's the distant sound of water, and judging from the cut of the stone and the uneven steps beneath them, the dark teeth of rock that jut out from the floor, this cavern was naturally formed.

Dáin does a strange thing, then. He makes a hooting sound, like an owl would, pauses, lifts his lantern, then he makes the sound again. It trails off and is swallowed into the dark, and Thorin allows himself to stare with some surprise at the Lord of the Iron Hills. He is about to ask for an explanation, when he hears, faintly, a scrape of rock from above them, and even as he steps back sharply, Dáin grips his wrist before he can pull the battle axe from his belt.

Two sleek figures swing with uncanny, almost prehensile ease down a hidden ledge from above into the pool of light, and for a long, surreal moment, Thorin can only blink dumbly at them in utter astonishment.

The newcomers are dwarves - very young dwarves, by the looks of their sooty, pale faces and their smooth chins, and they are dressed in the overlapping, lightweight leather armour of the deep miners, the thick hoods pulled back over their shoulders reinforced in the front with an apron of specially treated, fireproof scales, designed to protect their wearers from their work. Pouches hang at their belts, and they both wear heavy supply packs.

The one with Frerin's tawny hair and leonine gait wears his sister's blades sheathed at his hip. The one with Dís' panther-dark hair and eyes has her bow.

"Fíli," Dáin greets the first, quietly, then, "Kíli."

The young dwarves - his sister-sons, Thorin thinks distantly, still dull with disbelief- look Thorin over perfunctorily and seem to dismiss him. They smile at Dáin instead, silently, unsettling, showing a faint curve of white teeth, and Thorin realizes with a degree of further shock that the younglings are not smiling at all. They're wary. Baring their teeth, like animals did, when something else encroaches - not quite hostile, not quite friendly.

And Dáin - Dáin just looks painfully tired. "This is Thorin," he says to them, and his tone is gentle, slow. "Your uncle."

The younglings glance briefly at him again, but yet again dismiss him. Fíli starts to fidget, shifting his weight on his feet, while Kíli wordlessly looks back up the rock face, to the ledge above from which they had come, his hands twitching. They look like two wild animals, called only reluctantly to attention, and after a while, when Thorin fails to find his voice and Dáin remains silent, Kíli steps back over to the rock, swarming up it with the ease of practice. Fíli lingers for a moment longer, his eyes flicking quickly between Thorin's face, then Dáin's, before he follows his brother, just as quickly. There's a faint sound of a scrape above them, then another, further away. A tunnel up in the rock. The younglings are gone.

"They are feral," Thorin manages to say then, and he sounds more bewildered than angry. "How...?"

"Dís was... not quite herself when she arrived at the Iron Hills," Dáin says delicately, frowning at the dark beyond the light of his lantern. "I understand that the loss of your family - particularly your younger brother - pained her greatly. Despite our efforts, her grief grew only worse; she became withdrawn, and took to exploring the mines. I set a guard to her, but she soon grew adept at slipping it. She would go deep, past the raw marks, to the stone that only the deep miners would dare."

"And you let her?" Thorin interjects, furious now.

Dáin stares at him, his expression grim. "Let her, Thorin? She - and you - and those two. Your blood is purer in the stone."

It is an old and formal phrase, which would have been laughable, had Thorin been nearer the sky. Here, further in the stone than he had ever been, the flat reminder of the ancient hierarchy of the bloodline of Durin struck a dull chord. According to the custom of their kind, Dáin would have no real authority over Dís, for all that she could not inherit the throne.

And no authority over Fíli and Kíli. But still- "She was not herself. You had a responsibility."

It is a craven thing to say, given the manner of their parting, and Thorin feels his ears grow hot, but Dáin merely stares flatly at him, without pointing out his hypocrisy. "She was waiting for the stone to take her," he says finally, again another old and formal phrase, for those who had been maddened by the deep dark in the heart of the world.

"And the... who is their father?"

To this Dáin would give no answer, though his brow grows furrowed and troubled. When Thorin repeats himself, with an edge to his voice, he mutters flatly, "The deep miners say that they are Hveðrungr's children."

"What are you trying to say?" Thorin demands harshly, his voice echoing in a disconcerting reverberation in the cavern. "Did someone harm my sister?"

"Not that we could tell. We questioned all the miners when we realized that her belly had first started to swell, with Fíli," Dáin states, just as flatly, "Anyone who might have gone into the deep mines and found her. But she would not tell us, and she seemed untroubled. She let us midwife the child, then she lost interest in it the moment she could walk easily again."

"And you did not-"

"She slew the guards who were assigned to keep her in her chambers. After that, I chose not to. She left again for the deep stone and never came back out. The next child she tried to birth by herself." Dáin raises his gaze now, his jaw set, with silent accusation. "She had been dead for a day by the time one of the miners found them."

Thorin held his ground, refusing to look away. "You made no mention of the children to me."

"She instructed us not to. There was a note in her writing, clenched in her hands. You were not to know about them until you came to the Iron Hills, until you had expressed regret over your pride. She said," Dáin adds, wearily, "That this was her revenge."

Sickened, Thorin clenches his hands, as the extent of his sister's grief-sown madness finally dawns on him, but he forces himself to continue, "You should have raised them as they should have been raised, regardless."

"I tried. I have no sons of my own, and you know what we dwarves are like with our younglings. I love them as though they are my own. For the first few decades of their lives, they lived like the princes that they are. Then one day they dressed themselves as the deep miners did, took their mother's weapons from her crypt, and went into the deep stone. I managed to find them. I tried to reason with them, cajole them, and when that failed, I threatened to drag them back up to the city. They told me," Dáin notes distantly, as though at some old and painful memory, "That their blood was purer in the stone."

He should leave the Iron Hills, Thorin thinks, as he glances up the rock. Leave the deep stone and the living fragments of his sister's madness and hatred. His sister-sons are clearly cared for, somehow; they were not underfed, by the look of their skin. Instead, he finds himself clenching his hands so tightly that he pushes his nails into his palms, as he retorts, "And mine is purer."

Dáin sags with visible relief, though his tone is still troubled. "They are wild and unpredictable, even to the deep miners. But they should come, if you hail them so."

II.

Balin is first furious, then horrified, then saddened, when Thorin tells him what he had seen in the deep mines, and his closest friend and advisor paces about in a tight circle in the chambers allotted to Thorin, frowning. Thorin is studying a set of maps of the Iron Hill's deep mines, to keep his mind still, memorizing the tunnels carefully. Where Erebor's mines had been hand-crafted and orderly, the Iron Hills sat over seams upon seams of natural caves, which turned the stretches of deep mines into a still partially undiscovered labyrinth. If the younglings did not want to be found, they could easily disappear.

"Well, there be no choice to it, laddie," Balin says finally, with a sigh. "You have to catch them and bring them back up. Return to Ered Luin with them."

"Should I?"

"They are your nephews," Balin stressed, frowning, "By your count they be barely fifty or sixty years of age, aye? Far too young to choose what they have done to themselves. This is not right, Thorin. These children are innocent of your quarrels."

"Dáin treated them as his own children for decades. They were not born to the deep stone." Thorin corrected, though he traced his finger over the map, looking over the few, known exits. "It is not all that they have known."

"Then do it for our people," Balin retorts, quietly. "Should you pass from this earth, your sister-sons inherit. Would you have our people led by the stone-touched?"

"Perhaps it is too late to help them." This is easier to say, up further in the shallow stone closer to the light. "What if we take them to Ered Luin but they remain as wild as they are?"

His sister's revenge would be complete.

"You have not tried," Balin snaps, striding over, slapping his hands down on the map. "Thorin... they are all the family that you have left. Even if you did not owe it to your sister, you owe it to your brother, your father, your grandfather. You must at least try."

He must try.

He takes Balin with him when he descends beneath the crypts, shows him the cavern and the cliff. He tries his best to make the hooting, owl sound that Dáin had made, but there is no response, even when Balin tries it. They wait for a while before trying again, and this time, Thorin grows impatient. "Wait here," he tells Balin tersely.

Thorin isn't used to the mines, but all dwarves born under stone are taught how to make it bend to their will. He hammers loops of steel into the rock as he climbs, to keep himself winched up, rope looped over his waist. He cannot see how the younglings could have climbed it with just their hands and feet; the rock seems sheer, even when he finally hauls himself up onto the ledge.

The lantern hooked to his belt shows a narrow passage, snaking into the dark, and this is not on the map that Dáin had given him. "Thorin?" Balin calls, from below.

"Wait there," Thorin replies, brusque. "I am going to take a look."

The cold stone presses down around him as he pushes himself forward, and Thorin finds that he is sweating a little in his armour. Dwarves are not afraid of narrow spaces, or of the great bulk of rock that lies above and around them, but the dark seems to press in from every side, insidious and thick. There are footprints here and there, where the rock has been ground to sand by time, but Thorin is no tracker, and eventually, when the passage breaks away into two, and from two into three, he knows that he is wasting his time.

He stays for as long as he dares before retracing his steps to the great cavern. Balin is a small pool of light, further away, close to a flat stretch of glass that is probably the underground lake, and it bobs back to the cliff as Thorin lets himself down the stone.

"An uncharted maze," Thorin tells him grimly. "We could look for them in the deep stone for years."

Wordlessly, Balin holds up an arrow. It is almost the same as the one that he had seen on his sister's tomb, but without the ornate engravings over the shaft. "This was shot at me out of the dark. I tried to take a look, but there are three further tunnels out of this place that I could find."

"Shot at you?"

"It was shot to miss. A warning."

Thorin finds that he is angry now, which is a far cleaner emotion than bitterness. "How dare they!"

"We are invading their home, laddie," Balin retorts, untroubled. "The line of Durin would fight like lions to defend their homes. Against a dragon, for example."

Thorin's breath hisses out between his teeth. He does not like being reminded of that day, but he knows that Balin had done it on purpose. They spend the rest of the day groping about the known tunnels, before giving up and returning to the shallow stone. When he dines with Dáin that night, Dáin says little, though he nods when Thorin asks if he could speak to the deep miners.

There are only two who were present in the city itself at this point in time, grim, pale and silent dwarves who had never seen the sun, their eyes constantly darting about the room, small and compact, wearing their shallow stone simple tunic clothes with evident ill ease. Dáin introduces Thorin to them in the barracks room where they had been escorted, and they bow their heads until the Lord of the Iron Hills leaves.

"Rorn and Norn," Thorin starts first, "Thank you for your assistance."

"Aye." Norn is the older brother, his beard already gray with age, and like all deep miners his hair is worn unbraided and hacked short over his shoulders. The deep miners are ghosts, even to their own kin, and they wear their hair and beards like the dead would. None tended to survive long enough to retire, in any regard, especially not in mines like the Iron Hills with its seams of natural deep stone and pockets of dangerous gas, where their function was far more necessary than ceremonial.

"Lord Dáin asked us to tell you of Hveðrungr's children," Rorn continues. His beard and hair is still a deep russet brown, but it too is silvering at his temples. There is a horrific burn scar close to one eye, that has twisted his skin into lakes and pits, likely from setting off a pocket of bad gas too close to even his plated armour for comfort.

"My nephews," Thorin corrects, a little annoyed at the superstition. "My heirs. They are royalty."

"Aye, sir," Rorn nods, unimpressed. The deep miners were always a strange lot, Thorin recalls, forcing himself to be patient. He had met some before, in Erebor; it had been one of them who had found the Arkenstone. He found that he did not know if they had bothered to leave Erebor when the dragon had come. Probably not.

"Do you see them often? Where do they live?"

"We see them when we see them. They live in the deep stone," Norn says patiently.

"The great cavern?"

"Sometimes."

It takes another breath for Thorin to keep a hold on his temper. "Do they attack you?"

"No sir. We leave them things. Food. Gear. Supplies." Norn exchanges a quick glance with his brother. "As we had left things for their mother before them. They speak to the deep stone."

"Who was their father?"

"Hveðrungr," Rorn looks incurious.

"My sister was of the line of Durin," Thorin growls, allowing violence to seep into his tone. "Do you not understand? Whoever it might have been who touched her-"

But the deep miners were shaking their heads, pitying, even, their hands clenched, and Thorin finds himself trailing off into an uncomfortable silence. Eventually, in a murmur, Rorn offers, "She sang, sometimes. Deep in the stone. We would hear her, further away. The sound carries through the rock. It heard her. It sang back."

Superstition. "Where do you leave them things?"

"In the great cavern."

"How often?"

"Once a week. More, if we know that we are about to brave old rock," Norn tries to explain, at Thorin's frown. "When we need Hveðrungr's blessing."

Thorin gives up. He can sense that there's nothing more than he can learn from the deep miners; probably not from any of them. The next that he and Balin brave the deep mines, they bring supplies, leaving them on the rock floor of the great cavern, but the younglings still do not come when called.

The food and water from the crates are gone the next day, but nothing else is disturbed; not even the small chest of gold coin has been touched. Thorin frowns to himself, uneasy. The younglings are truly feral, then.

At the end, how sweetly had his poor, maddened sister understood the nature of malice.

III.

Eventually he bids Balin return to Ered Luin with their people. Their business cannot remain unfinished, and although Balin worries, he sees Thorin's logic. That day, he descends into the deep stone by himself for the first time, annoyed and rather tired of it all, thinking that he is wasting his time. He calls for them the way he had been taught, waits, waits longer, and just as he is about to turn away, there is a faint scrape from above, and the younglings slip down the stone, ignoring the steel hooks and the rope.

They stand on the very edge of the light, and their glances are curious now, at least, flicking from his face to the scrolled map in his hand to his battle axe and back. They do not move, when he holds up his free hand, to show them the crest of Durin on his ring. "Can you both speak? Do you understand who I am?" he asks, gently, and they bare their teeth at him. Kíli glances up, at the stone cliff, as though bored, and Thorin snaps, "Wait."

Kíli moves anyway, and Thorin snarls, dropping the map, striding over to grasp him by his elbow. There's a blink of shock, then Kíli takes a swing at him, with a low hiss of outrage. He blocks it contemptuously, and is about to instruct the youngling to calm himself, when with a growl Fíli lunges, knocking him off his feet with his weight, and a flash of dwarven steel is all the warning that Thorin gets before he rolls, his sister's blade snapping down into the rock where his head had been.

"Stop this!" Thorin commands, grabbing for Fíli's wrist, and he twists it deftly against the rock, slamming it down and knocking the blade from his hand. Fíli lets out a sharp, pained cry, and abruptly, Thorin realizes that Kíli has scrambled into the dark, and he hears the faint, unmistakable sound of a bow being drawn.

Hastily, he drags Fíli up onto his knees before him, forcing his arm behind his back, and as much as he hates that he is doing this, Thorin brings up Dís' blade to Fíli's chin. "Well?" he demands, of the dark, hoping that Kíli hasn't circled behind him, but eventually, there's a scrape of rock, and Kíli walks into the circle of light, bow lowered. He looks frightened and furious, then he blinks as Thorin lets go of Fíli, carefully, and gets to his feet, tossing the blade down by the youngling's knees. "I mean the both of you no harm."

There's a snort from Fíli, though he picks up his blade and scrambles away, up onto his feet. He glances at Kíli, but at some unspoken sign, he sheathes the blade, wary, even as Kíli replaces the arrow in his quiver. Thorin has their full attention now.

"Can you speak?"

There's another glance, then Fíli says, his voice rusty, as if from disuse, "Aye."

"Do you understand who I am?"

There's a shrug from Fíli, but it is Kíli who replies, in a voice equally harsh, "We do not know your face."

"Do you know my name?"

Another shrug from Fíli. "We were told."

"I am your mother's brother," Thorin tries to keep his voice even, if not gentle. "The rightful king of Erebor. We are of the line of Durin. Our people have resettled in Ered Luin under my leadership. As her sons, you are my heirs."

He's losing them again; Fíli is starting to fidget. Quickly, Thorin adds, "I want you both to come to Ered Luin with me."

The brothers stare at him with some surprise, then they glance at each other. "That is not our home," Kíli tells him.

"No. It is a temporary one," Thorin agrees. "But I have sworn to someday take back Erebor. That will be your home."

"Our mother's bones are here," Fíli points out.

"I know that-"

"You cared not what became of her," Kíli cuts in, but there is no anger there, or resentment. "Why would you care about what becomes of us?"

Why indeed? After all, despite Balin's words, Dáin would inherit, even should Thorin ever be able to take back Erebor. Despite their lineage, the younglings are stone-touched; their blood could be exempt. They would live the rest of their lives in the dark if Thorin turned his back on them, quite comfortably; the deep miners were supplying them with food and water.

Like animals.

And they would die as his sister had died.

"Penance," Thorin says finally, and there's a raw truth in his tone that surprises himself - that makes the younglings blink at him, startled, and frown in concert. They take a step back from the light, then another, quicker one, when Thorin makes no move to follow, and they slip away in silence. Thorin breathes out, and unclenches his hands. His palms sting.

IV.

Fíli and Kíli do not come when called, not for a week, but Thorin is patient. Besides, although the chest of coin is untouched, they've started to investigate the rest of the supplies, particularly the box of items from Ered Luin, of dwarven crafted toys and tools, a dagger that Thorin had crafted himself, beads and woven cloth. They still take nothing but food and water, but the crates are usually rearranged or in disarray in the mornings.

Thorin had brought work to the Iron Hills, because his fingers can no longer be kept quite still, and he takes to sitting on the crates as he works runes and carvings into a freshly made blade, by lamp light. Once he sings, soft and under his breath, recalling the words from the marketplace in Ered Luin, of the Misty Mountains and of all that his people had lost. His words probably still carried in the dark; at the end of it he hears a faint scrape from above. He calls for the younglings, but they do not come.

Still. They are there.

The next day the dagger in the crate is gone, and when Thorin calls for them, they appear after a moment from the direction of the lake, into the light. The dagger is sheathed at Kíli's hip, and Thorin feels a faint frisson of pleasure, of a craftsman's pride. This time not even Fíli fidgets; they watch him with a careful and wary intensity. Assessing him, but not hostile. Curious.

Thorin keeps his hands to himself as he thinks for a moment, then he beckons to Fíli. There's a moment of hesitation, as the brothers glance at each other, then Fíli takes a couple of steps forward, still out of reach. "Sit down," Thorin waves at the closest crate. "You should not wear your hair unbraided."

This seems to confuse them both - Fíli wavers, and Kíli glances up at the rock cliff, then over his shoulder, but some sort of unspoken assent ripples through them, curiosity, perhaps, and Fíli approaches stiffly, folding himself down on the crate, feet flat on the ground as though preparing to flee at any moment. His hair is tangled but clean, at least, and he makes a low and gasping sound as Thorin picks a brush from the crates and combs out the knots briskly. Still, neither youngling moves, as Thorin works an intricate braid with the ease of practice out of Fíli's unruly mane, capping it with a beautifully carved silver bead from the crate.

He manages four before Fíli starts to fidget, and when Thorin murmurs, "That should be enough," the youngling scoots from the crate quickly and back to his brother's side. Kíli seems openly confused, and he picks at one of Fíli's braids, sinking a nail into the loop of hair just over the bead. When Thorin beckons to him next, he only stares, flat and wary until Thorin drops his hand.

The next day, Thorin doesn't call them; he only sits and works at his blade. He knows that they are there, after a while; he can hear faint noises further away, in the dark, coming close, and it takes all his self-control not to flinch when he abruptly feels fingers in his hair. Kíli has picked up one of the small braids in his hair, from the back, and seems to be inspecting it, while just behind him, Fíli keeps watch, one of the braids closer to his cheeks already undone, the bead missing. Thorin slows his breath and allows himself to be inspected; deft fingers check his other braids, then the make of his mail shirt.

"Practical custom," Thorin comments, and Fíli flinches a little as he speaks, as though startled. "Were you older, you would braid your own. Before maturity, by your kin." He puts away the unfinished dagger, and gets to his feet. Fíli takes a step back, but then he holds his ground as Thorin picks up another bead from the crate. He does fidget as Thorin rebraids the one that had been undone, but he doesn't try to pull away. Kíli, however, quickly steps out of reach when Thorin turns to him, and with another glance at his brother, they both slip out of Thorin's sight.

Frerin the lion had always been quick to trust, friendly and boisterous. In comparison, Dís the panther had been wild and full of mischief. And she had worn her hair defiantly unbraided, even after she had grown into her prime.

He knows how to deal with them now.

Thorin tells them stories, about Erebor before the dragon, about Dale, about their new life in Ered Luin. At first the younglings would just stare at him oddly and slip away, but after a day or so, they stayed on, listening, and on one such day, when Thorin indicated that they should sit on the crates beside him, Fíli obeys, settling down, knees almost brushing Thorin's. Kíli hesitates, but eventually, partway through another story, he shuffles over to sit close to his brother, circling his arms around Fíli's waist and propping his chin on his brother's shoulder.

It's startlingly, unsettlingly intimate, and Fíli acts as though this is normal - he even drops his palm with splayed fingers on Kíli's knee, in a show of unconsciously casual possessiveness. Thorin's words falter, but as the younglings frown at him, he forces himself to continue. Perhaps this is nothing. The younglings have no one but each other.

The day that he tells them of Moria and the failed battle, of the deaths of their uncle, their grandfather, their great-grandfather, they sit without prompting at his feet, on the stone, one on either side of him, and although Kíli sits a pace apart, Fíli folds his arms over Thorin's lap and rests his chin on it, his eyes half-lidded, lulled by the story. Frerin had always loved stories.

Thorin strokes his long and unruly tawny hair, gently teasing out the knots, and it's only when Fíli dozes off that Thorin catches Kíli's eyes. There's a wildness there, a wariness, but below the jealousy that Thorin had expected there's also still a vein of unbroken curiosity. Kíli raises his chin when Thorin watches him, defiant, and when Thorin raises an eyebrow at him in playful challenge, he growls.

Thorin doesn't expect what happens next.

Kíli pushes up onto his feet, and leans over, grasping Thorin by his shoulders and his hair, and the kiss that he plants on Thorin's mouth is bold, all teeth, more like a bite than a kiss. Thorin jerks, with a muffled gasp of shock, his hand tightening in Fíli's hair, and Fíli flinches with a soft yelp, looking up. He snorts when he sees what his brother is doing, and he gets to his feet as Kíli pulls away. Yawning, he accepts the far gentler, disconcertingly tender kiss that Kíli brushes against his mouth, then Fíli is padding away back beyond the light, still stretching, his brother at his heels. Kíli shoots a glance over at his shoulder at Thorin just before they're swallowed by the light, and in his smirk is all of his mother's unholy mischief.

At dinner, a still stunned Thorin tries to obliquely breach the subject with Dáin. "They are close," he tells Dáin.

Something of his shock must have shown; Dáin watches him with a sober and melancholy sort of knowing, and he sighs. "Yes. It is forbidden. We had words. Strong words."

"Was that why they left for the deep stone?"

Dáin avoids his eyes. "I believe so."

V.

Thorin stops calling for his nephews; he lets them come to him now instead. Kíli seems surprised when Thorin is there the next day, but Fíli simply pads right over to sit at his feet. Kíli growls, but is silenced by a glance from his brother, and he sits beside Fíli instead, leaning heavily against his flank. Fíli pushes at him, and they tussle briefly, scratching and growling like wolf pups, and Thorin forces himself to ignore them, to work at the blade until they finish snapping at each other and resettle back beside him. He tells them another story, of Balin and Dwalin - or rather, he tells Fíli a story. Kíli clearly isn't listening; he simply watches, staring hard at Thorin. The jealousy has ebbed, at least, leaving mostly that odd curiosity.

Fíli allows himself to be petted, but Kíli jerks back when Thorin reaches for him - it's another day or so by the time Kíli finally submits to Thorin's touch, if with clear ill grace, and another day or so before he's comfortable enough to curl beside Thorin in his brother's arms and doze off during the story. The brothers touch each other as though they've known no one else their whole lives, less of sexual intimacy but something oddly far more damning. They seek each other always, as though they are feeling across a lifeline that is soul deep.

"Show me where you sleep," Thorin tells them, after the story, and Kíli wakes up reluctantly, rubbing his eyes. Thorin repeats the question, and the brothers exchange a long and silent glance before Fíli pushes at Kíli's shoulders, and they get to their feet, uncurling with animal grace. Kíli climbs up the rock face, but Fíli waits until Thorin works his way up, using the ropes, then he follows.

Kíli leads them past several twists and turns before he abruptly climbs up another wall, in a passage that Thorin had not thought to check too closely. Thorin inspects the rock uneasily, but after a moment's hesitation, he follows, checking for handholds that would hold his weight, wishing that he had thought to bring more rope. Kíli is waiting for him above, on a flat ledge to another natural cave, and as Thorin hauls himself up, he pads away into it. Crates have been stacked neatly against a wall, along with a few books, and there's bedding in a nest of blankets and quilts in one corner.

This is not, Thorin realizes slowly, where they would wash and relieve themselves, or where they would eat - they likely have other tunnels and chambers for that, the way animals would. Kíli has dropped his helmet on a crate, and pulls off his boots, then his armour, and behind him, judging from the noise, Fíli is following suit. The brothers curl up on the quilts, ignoring Thorin further, then Fíli glances up when Thorin starts to pull off his bracers.

It is far too warm even in the chill of the rock around them, but the younglings drop off into sleep surprisingly quickly, knees and elbows everywhere, making it far from comfortable. Still, somehow, Thorin sleeps, an arm under Kíli's shoulders and the other pinned by Fíli's outstretched hand, and for the first time in a long while he sleeps the dreamless sleep of the dead.

He eats from their stores in the morning - dry biscuits and salted meat - and the younglings follow him as Thorin retraces their steps to the great caverns by memory. They halt just before he walks out onto the ledge, however, fading back into the tunnels, and Thorin looks out to realize that Dáin and a couple of others are looking around, evidently worried.

"Up here," Thorin calls to them, and Dáin glances up, relaxing, managing a smile.

"Thorin! You did not show for dinner. We grew worried that you might have had an accident."

"I was busy." Thorin sifts his hand through his hair, stifling another yawn.

"You have made progress?" Dáin sounds hopeful. For all that Dáin had seemingly left his sister to her madness, he did care about the princelings, if not overtly. During their meals together, he often did ask Thorin about them.

"I have." Thorin is proud of that, at least. "I will come back to the shallow stone in my own time."

"We will leave more rations here," Dáin nods, then adds, solemnly, "Good luck."

Fíli and Kíli reappear out of nowhere when Thorin winds his way back into the tunnels, and they watch him curiously, until Thorin instructs them, "Show me your day."

They take him further into the deep stone, until he has to reluctantly put out his lantern at their gestures. He isn't sure why they wish to walk in the dark, but he supposes that he wants to understand. This is their world.

The darkness around them is so absolute that Thorin feels a slow pulse of panic that he fights to control. He stumbles along, feeling against the rock, listening to the scrape and rasp of the younglings' feet before and behind him, the occasional touch in the dark as they guide him around obstacles. He doesn't ask how it is that they know exactly where they are going, without light. This deep under the mountain, in old stone, Thorin can almost believe that the stone speaks back to them in the silence.

To his surprise, Thorin realizes that the younglings are, in fact, checking on the deep miners. On occasion they would peek out into a tunnel where a solitary bob of light was fading away, and once they stopped, Fíli sniffing, before Kíli brushes past them and pads away alone. After a while, Thorin hears the distant sound of a gasp, and the murmur of conversation, then Kíli returns, and they retrace their steps. Gas, Thorin guesses, and fights the urge to walk more quickly. Somehow the younglings had sensed it, without the canaries that the deep miners usually used, and had ventured forth to warn one of the deep miners.

Despite his sister's intentions, Thorin thinks, with a broad degree of satisfaction, Fíli and Kíli have risen towards leadership nonetheless; they are, in their own way, caring for their own subjects - the deep miners in the great stone beneath the world. Their blood had spoken true.

Their unashamed intimacy is a harder thing to face. Once the younglings grow used to his presence, they reach for each other far more often, far more boldly. Sometimes Thorin starts away from a soft moan close before him, or the sound of flesh against flesh in a kiss, the whisper of a laugh touched with hunger that was not innocent in the least. It's maddening, but he forces himself to say nothing. The trust he has built between them is still fragile.

The day that he wakes to Fíli's hungry mouth over his and Kíli's mischievous fingers working at his breeches, however, is still an utter shock, and with a snarl Thorin reacts blindly, rolling and pinning Fíli under him, twisting his arm up and around with enough force to make Fíli yelp and twist. Kíli jerks back, but then his eyes drop, and Thorin realizes with belated shame that his body is aroused, pressed against the pert swell of Fíli's rump, and his breath shakes and stutters behind his clenched teeth.

"How dare you?" Thorin snaps, as Fíli stills beneath him, even as he makes a whining sound, half buried against the quilts, "Not until I say so."

It isn't what he meant to say. He meant to scold them, to lecture them, but it seems that he had said the right thing after all, Mahal help him; Fíli relaxes, even tipping up his chin, and Thorin realizes with dull shock that Fíli is submitting, baring his neck. When he doesn't move, Kíli presses behind him, tentatively, rubbing his cheek against Thorin's arm with a low and rumbling purr, as though trying to placate him, and awkwardly, Thorin lets Fíli go, shivering. He can't.

Unfortunately, his statement has the effect of turning the two younglings into little monsters, and they torment him for the rest of the day during their rounds, always brushing up against him, or puffing a tickling, teasing breath near his neck. At one point in a narrow tunnel Fíli even stops abruptly, with no warning, and Thorin stumbles blindly into him with a yelp, only for Fíli to purr and rub back against him, wanton and inviting, while behind him Kíli presses against his back with a breathy moan. Furious, Thorin snarls, but when that only makes a hitch edge up Kíli's breath, Thorin finds himself reaching out to twist his fingers hard against Fíli's groin, snapping harshly, "Keep walking."

Fíli jerks against him, with a shocked whimper that is part lust and part pain, and he stumbles as he obeys, the shift of his feet uncharacteristically heavy. Thorin pointedly steps away from Kíli, and the younglings' uneven breathing follow them for some time, their desire both palpable and so very forbidden. Thorin shivers. He isn't immune, Mahal help him.

He needs to clear his head.

This time, when he slips down into the great cavern, heading towards the tunnel that would take him back up to shallow stone, the younglings follow him almost all the way, up until the tunnel's mouth, then Fíli impulsively reaches over to grasp his wrist, while Kíli begs, "Do not go."

Thorin frowns, surprised - usually the younglings are quick to disappear the moment he gets this far towards the exit. Fíli misunderstands, and he adds in a rush, "We're sorry. Please."

Thorin realizes with a dull start that he doesn't remember when he last went up to the shallow stone, and he says, curtly, "I have business above. I do not belong here, Fíli, Kíli." When Fíli drops his grip, Thorin adds, more gently, "And neither do the two of you. Come with me."

It was too abrupt, too sharply handled; the younglings are backing away, if with open reluctance, to the very edge of the light of the lantern that Thorin had lit, and it is Fíli who makes a short, harsh sound, like loss, like frustration, before they slip away and run back into the dark. Thorin's shoulders slump. He had been so close, he thinks.

VI.

Dáin is surprised and relieved to see that Thorin is well - it seems that Thorin has stayed in the deep stone for slightly over a week with no word - and Thorin spends a day in the shallow stone composing a letter to Balin with a short update of the situation and further instructions with regards to other matters in Ered Luin, handing it to a raven for transport. He sits outside the Iron Hills in the last two hours of the morning sunlight, soaking up the warmth over his skin, then he returns to the mines with the heavy pack that Dáin has prepared for him.

Climbing up the stone cliff with the pack is dangerous, but Thorin makes his way through the tunnels through memory, a lantern attached to his belt, then he goes up the second cliff under the sleeping cave with more care, though he slips once, and his heart nearly drops all the way into his boots until he catches himself by jamming his fingers against an outcrop. When he hauls himself up, cursing to himself, he finds the cave empty. That isn't surprising - the younglings keep no real schedule, not in the dark with no daylight or clock to guide them, and he sets the pack in a corner and starts removing his bracers.

Thorin is just about beginning to doze off when he hears a faint scrape of stone, and a gasp, then he grumbles as Fíli and Kíli crowd against him with a joyous laugh. He pushes at their leather armour with mock irritation until they leave off, and when they settle against him again in their undershirts it is far more demure, though he feels how tense they are. Fíli snuggles against his flank, while Kíli curls against his shoulder and buries his face in Thorin's neck. He pets them until they relax and go to sleep, then Thorin spends some time staring sightlessly up, into the dark.

Perhaps his sister's final vengeance is more insidious than he had even suspected. In the deep stone, it is easy for things to be simple, and Thorin finds, wryly, that he is already finding it difficult to bear to begrudge his nephews anything. Perhaps this, rather than the dragon, rather than Azog, is what will ruin him.

During the next day, Fíli and Kíli seem to be taking particular care not to annoy him; Kíli even allows Thorin to put one braid into his hair, though he ends up picking and picking at it until it comes undone. Sheepishly, he hands the bead back, and laughs when Thorin merely snorts and ruffles his hair. Kíli had looked strange with braided hair, and if he chose to use a bow, as his mother had, then he would not be able to keep a beard at all.

It still takes him a couple of days to cajole them into the armour that Dáin had supplied: proper clothes, befitting scions of the line of Durin. This time, Kíli caves first, clearly still anxious to please, and he beams when Thorin absently straightens his belts and his patterned sleeves. Fíli has had slightly less trouble, though he replaces his scabbards with reluctance, and his expression is tense with unhappiness. Fíli, Thorin thinks, is a little smarter than his brother. Or perhaps a little more worldly. He knows what Thorin is trying to do.

Thorin tries praise, something admittedly banal - "Good," perhaps, or "Better," but Fíli is stepping deliberately into his personal space, and the press of his mouth is more of a challenge than anything remotely intimate.

Fíli is trying to unnerve him, Thorin realizes, trying to make him lash out again; and the clumsy manipulation irritates Thorin far more than the act itself. He growls, curls his hand into Fíli's hair, and finds himself kissing the youngling properly, if roughly, licking into his mouth and holding him still - Fíli muffles a squeak of astonishment, going absolutely frozen, then he stifles a whimper and pushes eagerly against him, trying to kiss him back, turning it sloppy and wet. Thorin realizes dimly that he has his thigh up between Fíli's legs, and Fíli is whining now, scrabbling at his shoulders, his neck tipping up and bared and the temptation is too great. Thorin bites down, works his teeth into it until Fíli lets out a high, shocked sound of lust and shakes.

It takes Thorin a horrified moment to realize what he has done, and he lets go too abruptly; Fíli squeaks and stumbles back against the wall, flushed and breathless and wide-eyed, sated, Mahal help him, and before Thorin can stutter some sort of apology Kíli is in his arms, begging for a kiss, for the same treatment, by the Valar. Thorin holds him firmly close instead, too firm for Kíli to rub against him, and Kíli whines "Please, please, please Thorin," but he only takes in a shaky breath and ignores him.

"Clean yourself up," he tells Fíli curtly instead, then to Kíli, "Calm yourself."

Fíli still looks stunned, though he pushes away from the wall, and Kíli makes a low reproachful sound, clearly unhappy about the perceived favouritism. Thorin presses a pointedly chaste but apologetic kiss against his forehead, and climbs down from the cave before they can shake his resolve again. He sits at the crates in the great cavern, finishing off the detail on the blade, and he's nearly done by the time the younglings reappear, Fíli placid, Kíli pouting. The reddened mark on Fíli's neck is all the reproach that Thorin needs.

He doesn't know what to say to them, which is why he decides to teach them basic footwork instead, to learn how to circle their enemies, to keep their feet always steady on the rock. It's clear that they've already had lessons, however - likely when they were still living with Dáin - and they relearn the basic idea of it quickly, Kíli with more haste than his brother, clearly still angling to please.

Thorin tells himself to be careful. Save when they sleep, Thorin doesn't touch them for days, until the hungry look in Kíli's eyes has faded.

This time, when he makes as if to head back up the tunnel, the younglings glance at each other quickly before Kíli asks, uncertainly, "You will come back tomorrow?"

"This time, yes. Tomorrow," Thorin assures them, and now he pulls them both close, allows Kíli to rub his cheek against Thorin's furs and Fíli to worm himself closer with a sigh. "But not always. Not soon."

"But you will return? Eventually?" Fíli murmurs, without looking up.

"No," Thorin lies, and feels them stiffen against him. Even if he left for Ered Luin, Thorin knows that he would come back; he would always come back for them. But they should not know that, not yet. "I do not live here, Fíli, nor should the both of you. Come with me."

"We love you," Kíli blurts out then, and it is Fíli who finishes his sentence with a rush, "Up above, they will keep us apart."

"Shh, shh. You already have my love," Thorin assures them, and it is both true and untrue; he cannot love them as they want him to, not without destroying them all, he thinks. "Who has the right to keep us apart? My blood is purer in the stone. As is yours," he adds, although he dislikes the phrase, it seems to calm them down; they settle against him quietly. "But this is a private thing between us. I would not share it with the world, even if I could."

They hold on to Thorin as though he is their lifeline, now, and it frightens him a little.

Fíli and Kíli mull this over with all due solemnity, and Fíli makes a choked noise when Thorin gently pulls away from them, hardening his heart. The gamble pays off when Thorin is only partway up the steps - behind him, he can hear the younglings following him. He tries to let out the breath he's been holding in silently.

VII.

Fíli and Kíli keep on their best behaviour as Dáin fusses over them, although Thorin senses that they are getting impatient and wary. Before they change their minds about following him, Thorin manages to persuade Dáin to provide ponies and supplies on as short a notice as possible, and he's glad to see that the younglings know how to ride, even if they're obviously rusty and awkward.

Thankfully, they fail to panic when they emerge out of the Iron Hills into the dulling light of the evening sun, though they shade their eyes and look around uncertainly and keep as close to Thorin as their ponies would allow them. Thorin remembers to praise them, relieved. He isn't sure what he could have done if they had reacted with fear to the sky. Dáin had told Thorin that the younglings had never left the Iron Hills before, never seen the world outside the stone.

They huddle against Thorin when they make camp and won't budge - this surprises Thorin at first, that the growing dark has only seemed to make Fíli and Kíli more frightened rather than less, then he recalls wryly that after all, this isn't the sort of darkness that they are used to, full of noise and grades of shadow. No stone speaks to them here to calm them.

The morning is better; Fíli and Kíli grow used to the light quickly, and their wariness is quickly replaced by boyish curiosity. Everything is new to them now, the grass, the trees, even the great stretch of blue sky above them, and Thorin is painfully relieved to see that they are still young enough to delight in everything. The sunlight makes them noisy and boisterous - they laugh and shout at each other and sometimes nudge the ponies off the road to peek at unusual rock formations, or fleeing deer, or a resentful crow perched high up on a branch.

This is courage, in a way, and in that Thorin is unsurprised. They are, after all, of the line of Durin. He is proud.

It lasts until the first night that they spend out of sight of the Iron Hills. They skirt the valley of Erebor, but Thorin can still see the distant peak of what was once his home, and it makes him melancholy enough to have trouble sleeping. He wakes to the sound of some animal breaking a twig, or the hooting call of an owl - he isn't entirely sure, afterwards - but the younglings are gone.

They're hidden on an outcrop, still in the relatively safe forests south of the Iron Hills, which is why Thorin hadn't thought to start turns at watch, not yet. Where could they have gone? He picks his way as silently as he can out of camp, looking around sharply, in case they had been lured away by some sort of trouble - and hears a soft snatch of laughter, breathless. Hungry.

He knows he should turn back, but Thorin edges closer instead, almost holding his breath, and as he comes up behind a thick copse he can see, beyond, wedged with his back against a tree, Fíli's arched body, as though locked in pain.

Thorin knows better - Ash and Stone, he does - even without looking further towards how Fíli's hands are buried down between his splayed thighs, where Kíli's hands are clawed over his breeches, his head moving in an obscene rhythm between Fíli's legs, his own frame tensed tight with lust. Fíli is already close - he jerks, with a final shuddering breath, and Kíli - Mahal help them - Kíli only lets him thrust home, his throat working urgently. Fíli stills, with his fist in his mouth to stifle his cry, and then he's pulling at his brother's shoulders, laughing silently, and Kíli smirks and slinks up Fíli's body; they kiss as though the world exists only between the both of them.

Thorin shivers and forces himself to turn away. He should confront them, but he can only feel uncomfortably ashamed at stumbling on this, and worse - he had felt a filthy pulse of lust wash through him that had burned against shock and left only an unclean sense of want. Shuddering, Thorin curls up back in camp, into a troubled sleep. At some point he stirs briefly as two warm bodies snuggle back against him, but he does not wake.

In the morning he cannot meet their eyes, and it's evident that this puzzles Fíli and Kíli - they exchange glances often, and they stay soberly in step beside Thorin for all of the morning, on their best behaviour. Their sobriety lasts until they reach the tributary that would eventually snake its way to join the River Running, and they laugh and point at the distant, bulky form of a great brown bear in the pools where the white water grows slower, waiting for fish. During the break for lunch, they splash about in an icy pool, their boots on the shore and their breeches rolled up to their knees, trying to imitate the bear at catching fish and failing, laughing at each other, grinning as Thorin half-heartedly scolds them for the delay that they cause now that their clothes have to dry out.

Thorin can't help but smile at their unashamed and joyous wonder. The wide world has called them at last, and Fíli and Kíli are running to meet it.

At night they torment him. He knows better than to go looking for them now, but the sounds carry, and he can guess exactly what they are doing. When day breaks Kíli is walking gingerly, and when he mounts his pony with clear reluctance he shoves and growls playfully at Fíli, who shoots a smug grin back at him. The next day it is Fíli who limps, and Kíli who looks smug, but thankfully for Thorin's sanity they quickly understand how utterly uncomfortable this would make an entire day's worth of travel on ponies and leave off more vigorous and noisy night-time ventures.

This settles into an unspoken sort of understanding. Thorin turns a blind eye, or tries to, and the younglings do nothing overt around him. He tells himself that things will change in Ered Luin, when Fíli and Kíli have to live among many more of their own kin, their future subjects. Perhaps this maddening phase of theirs will be over.

It's a comfortable thought to hang on to as they cross the River Running and make their way into the Greenwood south of the Elven King's realms; as much as Thorin has no love for forests, there is a benign presence that permeates these woods, that makes the trees and grass lush with life. Their packs are full from one of the trading stops close to the River, and Thorin warns his nephews, "Kill nothing here."

"But-" Kíli had been watching the sleek forms of white deer ambling past in the distance, among the trees, his hand on his bow.

"The Greenwood is home to a wizard," Thorin replies, recalling an old memory, from Erebor, of a discussion between his grandfather and the then-welcomed Elven King. "We are safe here only if we respect it."

"A wizard!" Fíli breathes, and they pepper him with questions before riding off to roam about the wood in excitement. Thorin keeps to the path; the wizard folk are known to be kindly to the young, and if the younglings are not foolish they will come to no harm.

This bears true - eventually Fíli and Kíli return, later at night when Thorin has set up camp off the road, looking slightly embarrassed, following a very strange hunched Man in tattered robes, more grizzled than whiskery, and although his seamed face speaks of age, Thorin senses that the wizard is old beyond time itself, beyond flesh. He lifts up his bent hat, absently, and birds sweep down from the trees, settling under it, as he ambles over to Thorin and frowns at him. He smells of the earth and of the grass.

"Your nephews, I presume."

"I hope they have not been trouble, O Wizard."

"Well," the wizard huffs, "The young will be young, even if they did give Noel and Agean quite a fright. I am known as Radagast the Brown," the wizard adds, as an afterthought.

"Pleased. I am Thorin Oakenshield." Thorin inclines his head. "I have met Gandalf the Grey before, in Ered Luin. He was passing by."

"He passes by the world and the world passes him by," Radagast settles down by their camp without invitation. "Do you have a pipe?"

Thorin does, and thankfully, whatever trouble his nephews has been up to has exhausted them - they fall into a deep sleep curled up near the small campfire, leaving the wizard to keep Thorin company. Thorin tries not to look too closely at Radagast. Sometimes lumps would move under his ragged robes, and once, Thorin could have sworn that two small, black eyes peeked out at him from under the wizard's unkempt mane of hair.

"Thorin, Thorin," the wizard muses, after finishing half a pipe of smoke in silence. "Any relation to Thrór?"

"His heir."

"Ah. Bad business that one, with the dragon," Radagast does not say this with any sympathy, only a vague and absent-minded air. "Gandalf told me about it, when he was last on his way North."

"Aye."

"Hum!" Radagast breathes out another puff of smoke, and disconcertingly, smoke whistles out of his large ears as well, his eyes fluttering briefly closed. "Best to let sleeping dragons lie. Nasty creatures. They set fire to everything."

"I am quite aware of that," Thorin noted dryly, keeping his temper mellow. It is not wise to annoy the guardian of the Greenwood, and wizards are known to be eccentric. They are not mortal, after all, Thorin supposes, and the dragon is but one in a long string of calamities. "But I cannot leave matters be. Someday I will have to return to Erebor."

"Your lives are already short," Radagast lifted a narrow shoulder into a shrug. "Why spend it on dragons, eh?"

"For the future of the lives who will come after mine," Thorin points out, a trifle annoyed that the wizard would even ask.

"Not for the gold?" Radagast retorts, with a surprisingly knowing look under his ragged hat, and when Thorin does not answer, he sniffs. "Mortal folk have short lives and yet must complicate everything."

"None of us have the lifespan with which to waste on simplicity," Thorin shoots back, a little sharper than he intends, but the wizard only seems amused.

"Walk with me for a while, Master Thorin."

Thorin hesitates for a moment before he nods. A pair of birds have settled on a low branch of the tree under which his nephews are curled. The wizard will be watching them - they will be safer here than they have been all their lives. He follows Radagast out into the warmth of the forest night, where the sparse canopy has mottled the ground with pale moonlight.

Radagast murmurs and huffs to himself for a time, as though forgetting that Thorin is even there, and when Thorin finally prompts, "Wizard?" with a touch of impatience, he blinks up, as though surprised.

"Eh?"

"What did you wish to speak with me about?"

"Eh..." Radagast frowns, as though confused, then he raises a finger as though a thought strikes him - then he lowers it, then raises a finger again, and then bows his head and mutters again to himself. They walk for an awkward while longer before Radagast straightens up, beaming. "Ah! I remember. Yes, yes. Your nephews. They broke into my house."

Thorin stifles a groan and pinches at the bridge of his nose with his hand. "Please accept my apologies on their behalf."

"Oh, nothing too seriously broken," Radagast assures him blithely. "We had a nice chat over tea after the flowerpots had been swept up. They wanted to talk about you."

Thorin had been on the verge of schooling another apology for the things that Fíli and Kíli may have flagrantly destroyed in the wizard's house, but startled, he asks only, "They did?"

"They know very little of the world," Radagast observes, and at Thorin's nod, he adds, a little sadly, "As do you. As do most mortal folk. From the smallest child of the fisher people to the greatest King of Men, you must all learn how to live. Most of you do not. Most only exist. Do you see my meaning, Master Thorin?"

"No," Thorin admits, a little bewildered.

Radagast sighs. "Gandalf is better at this," he mutters, crabbing along with his staff. "May I have your pipe? I lost mine a few years ago, never got around to getting another one."

"Certainly. Please accept it as an apology for my nephews' behaviour," Thorin hands over the pouch of tobacco as well. His grandfather had always respected the Maiar, eccentric as this one seemed to be.

"Very kind of you. Now. You and the other dwarf kind were forged by Aulë," Radagast begins, then he frowns a little to himself, raises a finger, then mutters in a tongue that Thorin does not remember, before blowing out another sigh. "Oh...! This is hard! How does Gandalf do it?"

"How does Gandalf do what?"

"Give counsel of course," Radagast explains, morosely. "Let me try again. Do you know why most of you only exist?"

"No?"

"Because you are flesh-made-spirit, not spirit-made-flesh," Radagast says earnestly, "Not like the Maiar, or the Valar. So the spark within you, the true gift of Ilúvatar to all of the Children - is the seed of creation. It is the ability to reach outside your flesh shells. It is spirit-outside-flesh. True-life. Most of you will never know it. Those of you who do, now, those are the ones who accomplish great things."

Thorin has never been fond of riddles, but this one is an old one. "You speak of love."

"Yes, yes," Radagast looks relieved that he understands. "Most of you will only know a shadow of it. It is a blessing and a tragedy. You see, for those of you mortal folk who do touch it, you choose to turn your backs on it. That is when Ilúvatar's gift becomes a curse instead. Do you see?"

"No," Thorin says, though he does, and under Radagast's lifting eyebrow, he mutters, "Why did you counsel them to accept it? It will destroy them. What they do between themselves is wrong. They were born as royalty-"

Radagast makes a tutting sound, and waves a limp hand in dismissal even as within his hat, birds twitter in response, muffled and strange. "There will always be kings. There are very many of you. Many, many. Not so many mortals who touch true-life. And of those, far too many who will look away. Do you see?"

The way Fíli and Kíli put their hands on each other, like grasping a lifeline. The way they clung to Thorin. "I do see. But," he tries to add, "It is still a breach of trust. Of duty."

He is their uncle, he wants to tell the wizard, they are his heirs. But Thorin holds his tongue. The brothers had grown towards each other in the stone even when they had all of the Iron Hills at their fingertips, and as to Thorin, they had never met or known of him save as an outsider whom they had chosen to draw into their midst, after they had already known life itself for decades. Perhaps it is truly that simple, came the quiet thought in the deep warmth of his soul.

Simple ideas are often the most insidious, he tries to remind himself.

"You," Radagast tells him, though not unkindly, "You speak of destruction but do not know what it is like to be destroyed. Have a care, for you will not like it. Thank you for the pipe, Thorin Oakenshield."

In the morning, out of what Thorin tells himself is the spirit of inquiry, he wakes Kíli with a careful, chaste brush of their lips, and Kíli blinks at him, with a soft gasp, and then he smiles, even as Fíli curls against the both of them with a laugh; in the brilliance and fierceness of their joy Thorin feels his resolve begin to crumble further.

VIII.

They take rooms in a stolid little trading town next to the Greyflood, and as unassuming as the township of Men is, again everything is exciting to Fíli and Kíli. He keeps a close eye on them during the barely acceptable dinner in the inn, and is tired by the time they finally retire to the room that they had purchased for the night. At least the inn has washing facilities, and Thorin uses them before leaving his nephews to it. Tomorrow they'll reach the Greenway, which would take them to the gentle lands on the foot of the Blue Mountains. A week or so more to Ered Luin.

He misses his pipe.

Thorin has almost finished cleaning his gear by the time Fíli and Kíli return, stamping about and laughing about something or other as they close the door behind them. He frowns at them pointedly, but they're not paying attention, peeking out of the window out over the town, then tackling each other onto one of the beds. They wrestle for a moment before kissing, play biting at first before their arms entwine and Thorin has to look away, his ears heating up.

When they start to moan, Thorin snaps, "Keep your voices down," and there's a blessed silence for only a moment before Fíli abruptly slips into his field of vision, and surprises Thorin with a kiss, bold and hungry, while behind him Kíli breathes, "Thorin," as they balance back in an awkward sprawl of limbs onto the bed. Thorin tries to pull back, but he's pinned under them; Mahal, they've learned so quickly - and Fíli kisses him until Thorin feels himself growing dazed. His breath is harsh and over-loud when they part, then Kíli is growling and pushing his brother aside to have his turn, his hands tight in Thorin's hair, just as insistent.

They strip him quickly of his clothes despite his best attempts before attending to themselves, then it seems easier to give, to let himself wake to their radiant joy when he stops trying to shove at Kíli's shoulders. He entwines his hand in Kíli's wild, damp hair and thrusts his tongue into the youngling's mouth, roughly enough that Kíli shakes and groans and ignores his brother when Fíli whines and pulls at his shoulder, wanting a turn.

He pulls away only when Thorin pushes at him, and even so only reluctantly, then the brothers kiss, sloppy and nipping at each other - Ash and Stone, but they are beautiful - before Fíli squirms up within reach. Fíli's fingers rake over him and he quivers as Thorin licks into him to taste him; distracted and twisting as clever hands reach and pinch his nipples, Thorin doesn't see Kíli settle behind them both until an oil-slicked hand strokes boldly and wetly over his filling cock.

Thorin snarls, but the sound is muted against Fíli's grin, then he's bucking instead, to the tight little circle of pressure, while Fíli laughs and bends to graze his teeth over Thorin's neck. Thorin jerks him away, with a clench of his hands in Fíli's mane of hair, and sinks his teeth in Fíli's neck instead, over the first mark he had ever left on the youngling's skin, and he smirks - Mahal help him - smirks as Fíli squeals and stutters his hip against Thorin's flank.

"Silence," Thorin growls, and he sucks another mark lower, closer to Fíli's collar bone, only to hiss and bite harder than he had meant when a tight, wet heat sinks down around him - oh Valar - and only the sudden digging crescents of Fíli's nails into his shoulders anchor him from coming instantly. Over Fíli's shoulders, Kíli smirks at them both as he sinks down with filthy ease - they must have been busy while washing, brats, they had planned this.

Impatient as ever, Kíli rolls his hips tentatively, winces, then leans over to accept a kiss from his brother, a languid and tangling one, their fingers skating over each other's skin as though learning and relearning a map that they could read even if blinded. Thorin feels dazed; he must look as wrecked as he feels - when the brothers part they grin at him, smug little demons, and Thorin reaches up to drag down Fíli's head. He will be damned for this but he cares little now, not when Fíli merely moans and licks a wet stripe up Kíli's cock, causing the tight clench of muscle around him to squeeze more sweetly.

They start a rhythm that is just as damning in its urgency, with Kíli straining against Thorin's thrusts and into his brother's throat. Soon he is impatient with the awkward angle, and he pushes at Fíli's shoulders until Fíli pulls back, then he turns Kíli and himself about on the bed, shifting. At the first deep thrust Kíli arches and cries out, clawing at the bed, and Thorin frowns, glancing over to Fíli, gesturing. Obediently, Fíli climbs up, to swallow Kíli's next cry with a kiss, and the next, until Kíli is spent, shaking and untouched, panting, his face slack with stunned pleasure.

Thorin drags Fíli up against him, the youngling's slick cock pressing over his belly, and they kiss as he works his hand roughly over Fíli's arousal. It doesn't take long, and Fíli has his arms over Thorin's shoulders, breathless and dazed, as Thorin snaps his hips again into the clenching muscle around him, then again, before he too feels shattered.

The wizard was right after all, Thorin thinks, blinking as he tries to slow down his breathing, right and wrong at the same time. Now Thorin finally knows what it is like to be destroyed, and he welcomes it.

IX.

The younglings react to Balin and Dwalin with amusement and curiosity rather than suspicion, much to Balin's delight, and Thorin leaves them to it, spending the day attending to Ered Luin's many problems and disputes, which seem to have accumulated almost to critical mass during his departure. Balin and Dwalin have tried their best, which is to say, in some cases they have only poured oil onto the fire.

"They are good lads," Balin tells Thorin afterwards, when Thorin finally gets around to reviewing his letters.

"That they are," Thorin agrees absently, trying to concentrate on the trade agreement with Forlond. Elf-built as the port might be, the colony of Men who have built a healthy economy as fisher-folk and farmers on the outskirts seem to have finally agreed on terms.

"We assigned them rooms, but they refused," Balin adds. "They say that they are staying in yours."

It takes all of Thorin's self-discipline not to react outwardly. Balin only sounds vaguely puzzled, amused, even. "Coaxing them out of the deep stone took time."

It is not quite an answer, but Balin seems satisfied with it nonetheless, to Thorin's relief. "I will have their things moved to your chambers then."

"No, have rooms set aside for them both. I will indulge them for now, but not forever." Explaining the necessity of this to Fíli and Kíli, Thorin senses, is possibly going to be difficult.

"They have not lived apart from each other for much of their lives," Balin disagrees. "Perhaps we should ease them into this, laddie. One room first, then two."

"Do what you think best." Thorin manages to sound neutral, but internally, he relaxes a fraction. This makes things simpler. Thank Mahal for Balin.

Balin snorts, and reaches over, clasping Thorin by the shoulder. "Those lads worship you, Thorin. They're young now, but you might want to be a wee bit careful about how it all looks, when time moves on."

His oldest friend is wearing a wry smile that is far too knowing, though there is no judgment in his eyes or in his tone, and Thorin freezes in shock before he forces a laugh. "They'll grow out of all that soon enough."

"I would not be so sure, laddie."

Somewhat to his surprise later, Fíli and Kíli only shrug when Thorin tells them that they soon have to use their own rooms, though he has to trade them breathless kisses before they acknowledge his instructions. "For you," Fíli agrees, with one of Thorin's braids curled around his clever fingers, and Kíli echoes, "For you," as he smiles a lopsided and wicked little smile, his hands rucking up Thorin's undershirt.

For him, Thorin knows, they will do anything now, follow him into the dragon's lair and beyond if need be. It's a humbling thought.

He wrestles them with a growl instead of answering, manages to pin Kíli briefly before he's tackled by Fíli, and they end up in a sprawl of elbows and knees on the precarious edge of the bed; their laughter silent, their adoration luminous in their eyes as they kiss him and each other and then kiss him again. This is, Thorin thinks, the start of something impossible, but for better or for worse, he has wrested them from the memory of his sister and from the heart of the deep stone; this path is now his and theirs.

"Tomorrow-" Thorin begins, only to be interrupted by a brushing kiss from Kíli with just a teasing hint of teeth, and as he growls, distracted, Fíli works out the buckle of his belt and tugs; he forgets the doubt curling in the corners of his mind and drags them both into the circle of his arms.

Tomorrow, Thorin thinks, as they settle against him, light and shadow both, still for only a moment before their hands skate up his ribs, over the quickening beat of his heart - tomorrow can wait its turn.