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Ghosts of Midwinter

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Dwalin's breath was a fog of steam in the crisp air as they trudged through the heavy snow, the branches of the trees around them still and bowed under their icy burdens.

More snow was falling, settling in large flakes upon them and Dwalin ran a gloved hand over his bald head, regretting yet again the loss of his hat. Ridiculous as he had surely looked with the overly-large, knitted monstrosity that his brother had gifted him last winter perched atop his head, the ugly thing had been warm. He'd worn the wretched thing well into spring, much to Balin's amusement, and its loss to an unlucky gust of wind was a grievous one.

Never did he regret taking a knife to his hair more than on these unending, cold days of midwinter.

Around them was the unsettling silence that came along with snowfall, disturbed only by the occasional cough and their boots breaking through the hard crust of the drifts. The others trudged along much as Dwalin did, heads bowed against the wind, eyes keen as they watched for any game that might be foolish enough to be about in this weather.

All of them but Thorin; he walked with his head high, of course. No piddling wind would slow him and Dwalin lifted his own head defiantly, stepping apace. Coming back to camp empty-handed was not to be considered, their hunting party needed to bring back meat, whatever they could.

It had been Thorin's idea, naturally enough. Their stores in the Blue Mountains were not yet dwindling and none that Dwalin saw had any hollowness to their cheeks, no gauntness of the like he'd seen at times over the years. They'd prepared well for this winter. Even so, Thorin had kept meticulous watch over those stores, consulting frequently with his stewards over the larders and all of them had reluctantly agreed that if the winter stretched, if spring came late, their provisions would be stretched thin. A warrior would forgo a meal for a child without question but a late spring might have babes and warriors alike with grumbling, empty bellies.

Only one mention of the possibility of hungry children and even the hardest-headed Dwarves were lining up to join a hunting party. What game they might find would be winter-thin, nothing but tough, stringy meat, but it would help stretch what supplies they had until spring.

With his feet icy-cold in his boots and his bare head chilled, Dwalin couldn't help but think, with the blackest of humor, that perhaps Azanulbizar had one benefit, for if so many of them had not died on that bloody field they would already be starving. But the thought was fleeting and Dwalin sent up a brief mental prayer to their Maker, asking forgiveness for such dark thoughts.

If the others shared his bleakness, they did not say. Two of their number Dwalin knew only vaguely, though he approved of the way they held their axes and their keen eyes despite the blowing snow. That they also followed Thorin without protest lent them grace in Dwalin's eyes. He had not missed their quickly hidden disbelief when they realized Thorin meant to lead this hunt, though there had been no sign of doubt in his skills. More likely they were simply astonished that he would and there was a sign that they knew Thorin by name only and not of deed; Thror would never have trudged through the snowy fields with these Dwarves but Thorin, ah, he would never have consented to remain behind.

Only Balin had grumbled protests over Thorin's unyielding command that he would join the hunting party and even he had surrendered quickly. None would deny Thorin his right to lead his people in all things, certainly not his brother. Dwalin had known Kings in his time and to his eye, most wore their Kingship like a cloak, allowing their people to soak up the pains their choices made like broadcloth casting off rain.

Thorin did not simply wear his birthright; it was sunk into him as deep as blood and bone. There were times Dwalin caught an occasional glimpse of that, the very shape of a King bound into him. Thror might have tales woven about him and the golden age of Erebor; he would ever be known as one of the greatest of the Dwarf Kings where his grandson could not claim even the simplest of titles.

Yet when Dwalin thought of Kings it would be Thorin brought forth in his mind, even now as they slogged through snowdrifts and brambles, winter-grey branches catching at their clothes and beards.

Thorin stilled so quickly the others nearly plowed into his back, a clear sign that they weren't as attentive as they seemed, Dwalin noted disapprovingly. He stepped out of their line, wincing at the chill air came at him without the barrier of a strong, Dwarven body in front of him. Ignored it in favor of tramping up to the head of the line where Thorin knelt, examining a set of scattered tracks.

There was a frown on his face that Dwalin didn't like; for all that they were good hunters, none of them were expert trackers and whatever Thorin had found, he did not seem to like the sight of it.

He hardly glanced at Dwalin, expecting, as always, for Dwalin to simply be there. Thorin kept his voice low, murmuring only loud enough to be heard, "Do you see?"

"Aye," Dwalin muttered and he did. Those large footprints were not from a stag, but from something a good deal bigger. He tightened his grip on his axe, casting a wary glance around. Nothing but the softly falling snow and a scattering of winter-bared trees crossed his eye. "We should go back to camp. P'rhaps the others have had better luck," Dwalin added, cutting off the protest that would surely come that they had not found so much as a rabbit yet this day. Meat was needed, true enough, but he was not about to risk Thorin on finding it.

Thorin nodded slowly, letting out a cold-fogged breath as he conceded, "Perhaps they have."

That should have been the end of it, for that day. They should have turned back, followed their own tracks back to camp and huddled into the meager warmth of their tents. Food might be growing scarcer but beer not yet so, and a there might be some cheer to be found in the bottom of a mug. The others would be back eventually, with or without their quarry, and they could discuss what to make of the tracks they had found then.

It should have been the end and Dwalin had already stood and turned towards camp, his back to where Thorin still crouched, when the beast fell upon them from the very trees.

Utterly silent even as it dropped and the first sounds that came in the maddening confusion were their own shouts before it let loose its unearthly scream. Dwalin turned to see a beast with fur as white as the snow surrounding them, standing tall as his own shoulder and through his own shock, he could see the others scattering amidst a crimson spray of blood across the snow that was dark and arterial.

Dwalin moved on instinct, honed by years of battle as he hefted an axe, his own shout echoed through the still air as he swung it at the beast's head. It connected with a solid thunk, sinking into a broad skull up to the haft, and the creature shrieked again, a ghastly sound that seemed to tremble in his very bones.

The thing moved with wretched, slithering grace, twisting away, and Dwalin saw with sinking horror a familiar figure half–buried into the blood-stained snow. There was no time for that distraction, not with the foul thing staggering close, his axe still buried into its head. It snapped at him with knife-sharp teeth, yellow eyes maddened, and Dwalin howled his fury as he let his other axe join its mate, sinking it into the side of its bloodied head.

Two axes proved too much for the thing and it collapsed into the snow, legs twitching as its wounds overcame it. Dwalin set a booted foot on its neck, not to aid it in a merciful demise but to keep the thing from giving death a second thought. There was a satisfying crunch of bone snapping and the fell beast lay still, its dripping blood steaming where it fell upon the snow.

Dwalin did not give it another look, falling to his knees next to Thorin, and if his hands shook, he refused to blame anything else than his fear of another lost to him. He grunted with the effort of rolling a limp body that weighed as much as he himself, and the low groan that came from Thorin was as welcome as a lusty tavern song at the end of a long day. Beneath him was one of the others, groggy but awake and the young Dwarf seemed unhurt, only dazed. Dwalin ignored him as he struggled to his feet, staggering away from them.

His hands came away bloody from Thorin's coat but a frantic search showed no wound, though another groan greeted him as his hands skated over Thorin's ribs. Battered, then, but not bleeding and it was only when his knee came down on something hard, a bloodied knife, that Dwalin sank back on his heels in relief.

Thorin must have had time to draw his hunting knife when the creature dropped down on them and he'd lashed out at the thing before it could tear shreds from anyone. A glance at the ghastly thing confirmed it. Small wonder it had shrieked, Thorin had nearly cut the thing's throat.

The crunch of snow made him tighten his grip on the knife and Dwalin shifted to a crouch, casting a look behind him. The others stood close by, weapons in hand, though none approached him too closely. A wise choice, Dwalin noted with bitter wryness, for in this moment he might have sent their souls to join their ancestors on pure instinct. His blood, so chilled earlier, was running hotly in his veins now and he turned his attention back to Thorin.

"Any of you hurt?" Dwalin asked, gruffly. Not that he was so terribly concerned if they were, for not a one of them had struck a blow, but because Thorin would want him to. Careless, all of them, and he himself most of all, for allowing Thorin to take the lead, for letting the cold distract him. He should have been at Thorin's side from the beginning and there was none to blame for that except Dwalin, son of Fundin.

"No," Came a low chorus of answers, though Dwalin eyed the younger one that Thorin had fallen upon, noting the tightness of his lips, the arm held against his chest.

His blistering retort was left unspoken as Thorin took a sharp, snorting breath, lashes fluttering. Dwalin sank back guardedly, braced in case Thorin came up with his fists first. Instead, he only blinked, managing to rise to his elbows before he grimaced, one arm clutched abortively over his ribs.

"Dwalin—" he began, hoarsely, though he fell silent when he saw the carcass lying in the snow. "I should have known," Thorin finished, sinking back into the snow. "Foul creature."

"Me or it?" Dwalin asked dryly and Thorin's low chuckle was broken by a sharp hiss. Even so, Thorin struggled to his elbows again, swearing sharply when Dwalin pushed on his shoulders to keep him down. "Oh, I think not, you'll be staying right there until I know you're not going to be ruining those fine lungs of yours with a broken rib or two."

"I think I would know if I've broken—" Another low hiss as Dwalin gave his ribs a pointed prod. "Stop that, you---where is Farin?"

"Here," The young Dwarf stepped forward, jaw tightening as if he chewed on gristle. "You saved my life," Farin said flatly, though his eyes told another tale. Those dark eyes lay upon Thorin worshipfully, a look Dwalin had seen in others. Whatever else happened, this one was Thorin's yeoman henceforth.

"Next time, keep a better eye out," Thorin said dismissively. With his back to the others, Dwalin did not bother to hide the way he rolled his eyes heavenward.

"Aye, you do," Dwalin put forth. "And you can repay him by putting that axe of yours to use. We need a litter and I'd like to have one quickly before we find if this thing has any kin lingering in the branches!"

Thorin's protest was drowned out by the sound of large boots crunching through the snow and axes falling against branches, though his glare spoke volumes when Dwalin looked back at him. "Problem, lad?" Dwalin asked, politely.

"The litter is going to be for you," Thorin gritted out, again rising to his elbows. A single hand was enough to flatten him back to the snow with a grunt and sweat beaded on his brow despite the chilly air.

"Pull the other one," Dwalin grunted. "Now, are you going to make me stay here and play nursemaid or would you like me to find if that blasted thing is at least good eating?"

"If not, take its pelt," Thorin breathed, his lashes falling again.

"Aye," Dwalin agreed, and he tested the blade of Thorin's knife against his thumb before he went to clean their kill, bloodying his hands with a hope that at least this would end with full bellies for their children.

The trip back to their camp was as silent as the trip out, none of the jovial mood that a successful hunt might normally bring though they were all laden with the spoils. They were also laden with Thorin, who was to Dwalin's mind uncharacteristically quiet. Farin had proved better at paying his debts than expected and their makeshift litter of branches and belts had easily borne Thorin across the crisp snow.

It was only after they returned to camp and the healer had attended to Thorin that Dwalin began to suspect Thorin had kept his silence more for dignity than any other purpose. He sat outside the tent, smoking his pipe and listening to Thorin snarl at the healer, who either ignored or simply did not care about the threats his patients made. When a particularly vicious curse was followed by a sharp yelp, Dwalin decided it was the latter.

His pipe was dwindling by the time the healer threw back the tent flap and he gave Dwalin a curt nod as he trudged out into the snowfall. Evening was creeping over the camp, the other parties were returning and with them would come retellings of the tale. Would they speak of Thorin's courage, Dwalin wondered, or at how quickly he had fallen to the beast?

He shook his head at his own dark thoughts. What melancholy lay over him this day? Perhaps nothing more than grey of a long winter with its end not yet in sight and the ceaselessly falling snow against his bare scalp. Once, he might have spent the better part of winter without setting a single boot in the drifts, unless he wished it. The mountain had been warm, it had been home, and their people had never been whey-faced and gaunt by winter's end.

Dwalin snorted aloud, already sick of his own brooding. The past was past and there was no point in living in it. Memories of long-ago winters seemed to haunt him this night. He tapped his pipe out and took a moment to enjoy the vindictive glee of a fat snowflake melting away atop the messy pile of ash. Soon it would be covered, blanketed in white, but for the moment, he took his petty joys where he could.

Then he stood and stretched, groaning at the crack of his spine before ducking into the tent himself.

It was, perhaps, slightly more luxurious than his own in that it had a makeshift chair in the middle. Someone, likely at the healer's direction, had dragged a greying stump in and heavy pelts were lying across it, fresh from the hunt from the smell of it. Thorin was seated upon it, dressed in threadbare robe and through it Dwalin could see the thick bulk of bandages.

His concerns over the injuries had been dismissed at the first round of swearing. No one could be dying and still spouting that sort of language. A wooden cup sat on the ground and Dwalin saw only dregs in the bottom of it. Doubtless half of Thorin's grousing was due to having to drink that foul concoction and Dwalin couldn't help wrinkling his nose at the memory of downing it himself a time or two.

Thorin had yet to say a word, only slouched on his crude chair and again, dour humor rose in Dwalin. His King sat upon a mighty throne this day, did he not? This time, he sent no apology to the Maker for his sourness and instead, sat himself across from Thorin. Watched as Thorin raised the flask in his hand and took a long draught and could not help but ask, "Did the healer give permission for that?"

"He was not able to take it away," Thorin said, dryly, though he offered it easily enough to Dwalin. He took it after a moment's consideration, swallowing enough of the heady brew to blur his vision, if only to keep Thorin from doing the same. The way Thorin gave the flask a considering slosh when he took it back told Dwalin he knew just why as well and Dwalin offered no apology, only a raised eyebrow in the face of Thorin's glare.

The crow's wing of a bruise was spreading up from his beard, swelling one eye and Dwalin reached out thoughtlessly, only just stopping himself from touching.
Thorin caught the movement and shook his head. "The beast only landed on my chest. I did that myself with the back of my hand as I fell."

"You're lucky it wasn't the hand with the knife," Dwalin snorted, shaking his head. Thorin only took another long drink, wiping away an escaped trickle with the back of his hand. Bared of vambraces and gloves, his thick wrists were sturdy and unmarked. Unlike his hands which bore the scars and calluses of both a warrior and a blacksmith, and Dwalin's eye could see the minute differences of each.

"Lucky," Thorin repeated, low, "Aye. That I am."

Something in his tone met an answering call in Dwalin's chest, an ache, and Dwalin raised an absent hand to rub at it. For all his fierce protectiveness of his people, here in this tent with nothing but flickering candlelight to cast them in shadow, it seemed Thorin might understand Dwalin's dark humor, were he to share it. Luck, aye, Thorin had luck, the black luck of his line, carrying them from under mountain and over mountain, across Middle-earth to settle in the rocky heart of the Ered Luin. Alive, they were alive, that Dwalin agreed. Whether they were living, now, was another question entirely.

It was a question that Dwalin did not share, despite Thorin's mood, not even in this darkened tent that was barely warmed by the glowing coals in the iron heater in the corner. There was enough weight stretched across Thorin's shoulders, enough people desperate and in need of him. Plenty of them were just outside this tent, his brother included, speaking of this afternoon in hushed tones and Balin would likely have questions of his own when Dwalin told him his version of the tale.

Perhaps he should be out with them even now, sealing the cracks in doubts as they formed. Instead, he stole Thorin's flask again, plucking it from his grasping fingers and taking a long draught before passing it back. If he left, Thorin would be alone, and that was something Dwalin loathed to allow just yet.

The silence between them seemed heavy with things unsaid and Thorin turned the battered flask in his hands over, studying the runes as though he would not have known them by touch alone, filling the quiet with a low, "I owe you my life."

Dwalin scoffed aloud, "Are we counting now? I'll not hear this, Thorin, not from you. My axes are yours and always have been."

"I owe you my life," Thorin said, a touch sharper, "And I repay my debts."

"Aye? Then try to do it in some way that you don't incur another."

That earned him a faint smile that was shown mostly at the eyes and Dwalin swallowed a touch thickly, enchanted at the lines that creased the corners. Rarely did Thorin smile these days and the sight of it was always something to behold. It took him from merely handsome to....ah, but those were not thoughts to be entertained. Not this night with his melancholy heavy in his throat, darkness crowding into his thoughts and Thorin's smile was a warmth that he could not be trusted with. Not this night.

"Get some rest," Dwalin said gruffly, trusting that weariness and drink would explain any hoarseness, and he made to stand. Something made difficult by the fact that Thorin caught his wrist with strong fingers, gripping just at the point of pain.

That flummoxed him. Certainly he could snatch his hand back but something of his brother's teachings must have stuck to him, like a burr dearly clinging to a galumphing pony. A touch uncomfortable, Dwalin sank back on his heels, blinking at Thorin warily and ignoring the rising tightness in his throat.

Instead of releasing his hand, Thorin took it into both of his own, turning it to examine his knuckles. He rubbed a broad thumb over each rune, tracing the marks left by the scribe. A sharpened boar's tooth and ink had made them, along with a fair amount of ale between them both, so many years ago. The feel of Thorin's strong fingers against his own made his breath catch in his throat.

"You have always been a good friend to me," Thorin murmured. There was a circle of scars around one of his fingers, left by a particularly toothsome Orc and had Dwalin not been blessed with bones like rock, he might have lost the finger down the vile thing's gullet. To feel Thorin stroking them with such tenderness brought thoughts to mind that were neither dark nor melancholy, more along the lines of desecration and with no small desperation he pushed those thoughts aside, Thorin was his friend, his King, he--

"A friend, aye, I have," Dwalin blurted around the thickening in his throat that refused to ease, no matter how he tried to swallow it away, "Aye, my brother and I both."

"You have always given me your unquestioning loyalty along with your axe," Thorin continued as though he had not heard. His thumb slid lower, down the press against the thin skin at Dwalin's wrist and he wondered, a touch wildly, if Thorin could feel the rabbity throb of his heartbeat betraying him.

"I....both are yours, Thorin. Always," Dwalin whispered, hoarsely.

Dwalin watched, entranced, as Thorin wet his lips, left them gleaming softly in the candlelight. Watched his lips form hushed words, a quiet demand, "Do not go. Stay here with me tonight."

Dwalin took a hard, shuddery breath, his hand clenching reflexively in Thorin's implacable grip. "I am your friend and your yeoman, Thorin, I am would not be..."

"Proper?" Thorin finished his foolish stuttering. "No. No, it would not. And we both know my position as leader is tenuous at best. A scandal of that sort would be yet another ugliness atop it." He raised Dwalin's hand to his mouth, his breath warm and damp in the cup of his palm before he pressed a kiss to it. "Stay anyway."

Dwalin only knelt frozen, watching with eyes that were achingly wide as Thorin set another soft kiss against his palm, another, his beard prickling maddeningly as he slid his mouth up Dwalin's first finger, drawing the tip into his mouth, uncaring of any blood or grime that might yet linger.

"It is selfish of me, I know," Thorin whispered, his lips moving against Dwalin's fingertip. "And our people can little afford indulgence. Yet, this night I find I do not care. I would indulge myself, indulge in you, for this one night. If you would allow it."

Dwalin was hardly aware of the low growl rising in his throat and so intent was he at watching the wet, pink gleam of Thorin's tongue against his skin that he only realized he'd forgotten to blink when his eyes ached with gritty dryness.

Abruptly, his hand was dropped and flopped unceremoniously back into his lap like a puppet cut from its strings. Thorin met his eyes unwaveringly, saying softly, "Or you might simply tell me nay and go, and we will not speak of this again."

Still Dwalin could not find words and his hand lay limp as if it had forgotten it did indeed belong to him and was not always Thorin's. He watched as Thorin's mouth tightened, his lips thinned, and the blue eyes that had only held his own flicked away, lashes lowering.

"My apologies," Thorin murmured stiffly, "I think…you were correct, I should have some rest." His mouth twisted in a grimace as he shifted in his makeshift chair, bracing an arm over his ribs as he made to rise. Only to fall back with a startled grunt as Dwalin surged up and took his mouth in a harsh kiss, their teeth clacking and noses crushed until he found the angle he sought.

Dwalin caught only a moment of blue-eyed startlement before Thorin met his kiss with a fierceness of his own. Teeth worried Dwalin lower lip sharply, dragging a snarl from deep within his chest and their kiss was heady with drink, tainted with blood, tasting just as a kiss from Thorin should, must, taste.

The only barrier between his hands and skin was Thorin's thin robe, and it parted easily to reveal the layers of bandages beneath it. He made no sound when Dwalin laid an ungentle hand against his side, his fingers rough against the edges of the torn linen strips. Only the faintest catch of his breath but it was enough for Dwalin to ease the severity of his caresses, trailing his fingers down the soft cloth binding and lower, to his lightly furred belly.

A low moan fell from Thorin's mouth, captured in their kiss, and Dwalin offered a hushed growl of his own, breath hissing from between clenched teeth as he gave Thorin's hips a tug, shifting him to sprawl back on his hands, his knees parting to allow Dwalin between them. He gave a last hard kiss, thrusting his tongue between Thorin's lips to lick at the bloody sweetness within before dropping to his own knees.

"One night," Dwalin rasped out, burying his face into warm skin. Curls of crisp hair tickled enticingly at his nose and he inhaled deeply, drawing the cleanness of soap and the sharp, herbal aroma of the healer's ointments. One night, he could allow that much. Thorin had spoken of selfishness but it was no small greed of his own that had him kneeling at Thorin's feet. Against his throat he could feel the heavy line of Thorin's cock, already hard and eager, and Dwalin took a long moment yet to breathe in the rich smell of him. Something else to tuck into the memories that were all he would have of this night, another layer to wind through his darkened dreams.

Hands settled on his head, winding into his hair entreatingly and Dwalin obeyed their silent plea, twisting his head to rub a bearded cheek against damp, bare skin. Beneath him, Thorin shuddered, a moan rumbling up from deep within his chest and again, Dwalin nuzzled the thick length of the shaft. He paused to tug down the loose skin at the tip, allowing the crimson head to peek out at him, begging for the touch of his mouth. Dwalin obeyed gladly, wrapping his lips around the tip and giving a hard, wet suck. A muffled shout greeted that and a hand wrenched free from his hair, surely covering Thorin's kiss-swollen mouth.

It was for the best, he knew, they could not be heard, no others could know of this. Yet he regretted the loss of those desperate groans, only offered to him through the muted clench of fingers. It was for the best and still, he couldn't resist the urge to take Thorin deep into his throat, cheeks hollowing as he sucked strongly, urging more stifled cries to fill the air. Reverently, he drew his hands down Thorin's thighs, testing their breadth in his palms, the strain of thickly muscled limbs as he arched his hips into Dwalin's restraining grip.

Dwalin was far less concerned about Thorin shoving his prick down his throat than he was of Thorin hurting himself; his neatly bound ribs didn't need that aggravation on top of being pounced upon. He kept his grip firm, relishing the strength that pushed back against him.

The hand at the back of his head clenched abruptly, pulling his hair sharply in warning and Dwalin had the presence of mind to take the thick cock as deeply as he could, swallowing against the swell of the head even as hot spending fell over his tongue, spurting in pulsing throbs. He let the slippery mess of it fill his mouth, sliding his seed coated tongue along the shaft, swirling it over the tip until Thorin was twitching beneath him, his legs jittering beneath Dwalin's hard grip.

The cobbled-together seat was not a large one, already filled to the brim with Thorin, and Dwalin did not hesitate to struggle to his feet, pushing his clothed knee between Thorin's bare ones until it was tight against Thorin's balls and softening shaft. Their warmth was already seeping through the cloth as Dwalin roughly unlaced his trousers, pulling his aching cock free from their confines. Dwalin leaned forward, bracing a hand on Thorin's shoulder. He guided his cock with the other, rubbing the slick head against Thorin's lips, his breath hissing through his teeth as he growled, "Open up."

It was entirely possible Thorin had never done this, Dwalin supposed. As a prince, Thorin had been scrupulously quiet on any affairs he might have had, as befit heir to the throne and one of Durin's line, and if Thorin had taken any lovers, they had matched his discretion. After the fall of Erebor, privacy and discretion had been hard-won prizes. Dwalin was not aware of any Dwarves who might have fallen into their leader's bed and if any would have known, it would have been him. Nothing would have kept him from sitting just outside a tent flap or an inn door, no amount of discretion would have kept him from listening in, ignoring cries of passion in favor of seeking those that might speak of betrayal.

That he might be virgin could not keep Dwalin from guiding his prick between those soft lips, grunting as Thorin's mouth closed around him. Lovely, wet heat around him and Thorin sucked him strongly with either experience or enthusiasm. It mattered little to Dwalin which and he gave over his cock to Thorin, threading his hand instead into the still-damp tangle of Thorin's hair, cupping his nape to guide him.

A brief fantasy fluttered through his mind, of him sitting whilst Thorin knelt at his feet with that long, cool hair spilling like silk over his thighs. The idea was tantalizing enough to send a hearty throb through his prick, though Dwalin resisted it. It was enough, this was enough, and better perhaps for he could watched the stretch of Thorin's mouth as his cock speared it, the length of it sliding wet through his bitten, swollen lips.

Both of Thorin's hands groped at his thighs, fumbling through his gaping flies and beneath his smallclothes to grasp his arse. His grip was a demand, fingernails digging into the meat of it, and Dwalin choked on a grunt, obeying the unspoken command and he pushed into Thorin's greedy mouth, fucking that perfect, hot cavern, riding the lush curl of his tongue.

By the Maker, it should not be such a pretty sight, watching Thorin take the thick length of his cock. Dark lashes fluttered against flushed cheeks, hiding the ice-blue of his eyes, and his beard invited a hand to cup his chin, allowing Dwalin to feel him swallowing against the blunt head nudging at the back of his throat. Handsome was a fine enough word, but there were none in Westron to describe the sight of Thorin as he was, none that could contain what Dwalin wished to pour into their feeble confines.

Had he tried to give voice to it in Khuzdul, the entire camp would know in moments what Thorin did behind closed doors and tent flaps with his guardsman. He was forced to settle for a groan, concealing words behind clenched teeth and when his pleasure finally took him, Dwalin allowed only one to escape, a guttural, clotted whisper as he spilled hot over a too-clever tongue.

"Thorin," he sighed out, catching his weight with a hand on Thorin's shoulder. The other he kept beneath Thorin's chin and he felt Thorin startle, swallowing convulsively against the abrupt pulse of seed. Almost, he thought Thorin might choke and he watched through narrowed eyes as a thin stream of pearl ran down Thorin's chin, the wet ribbon widening as he slipped free.

Too-wide eyes lifted to his own and Dwalin took a moment to savor the expression of a King who was utterly debauched. Cheeks flushed, his reddened, chapped lips wet with seed, and his hair rucked up and tousled in wild tufts. Deliberately, Dwalin ducked his head and licked sloppily at the rill of pearl that was running into his beard, savoring the bitterness of his own spill as it tasted from Thorin's mouth.

Hot, wincing kisses shared between them, broken only by messy licks as Dwalin cleaned away every trace. Too quickly, he felt Thorin's kisses going slack and lazy, drowsily meeting Dwalin's mouth when it slid over his own. His eyes held a certain familiar haze, the pupils widening until only a thin rim of blue remained. The healer's potion was finally taking effect, likely enhanced by the strong drink they had shared and sleep would be dogging Thorin's heels in moments. Better that he make it to his bed before that.

"Come along, now," Dwalin whispered, bracing his weight to tug Thorin to his feet. He came willingly enough, though with a grimace and an arm pressed over his bandaged ribs. It was only Dwalin looping Thorin's free arm over his shoulders that kept him standing. Between the two of them, they managed to shuffle to the bed, hobbling like crippled old dogs until Dwalin could settle Thorin on the threadbare sheets, the ropes creaking against the timbers.

For all that the linens were worn, there were blankets aplenty and Dwalin didn't have to wonder at how many of their kinfolk had offered their own coverings to their wounded leader. Perhaps Thorin had more of their faith than either of them had believed, for his people were showing it in what ways they could.

In any case, Dwalin piled the blankets high, swaddling Thorin in their billowy depths until only his hair was visible, spread across the pale linens in a dark swath. He hummed beneath his breath as he did it, wordless snatches of song that he'd learned here and there, from cradle to pub, and when he was done, Dwalin could only resist the urge to press a last kiss to Thorin's temple. They'd had their moment and it was done, and tomorrow they must be as they had always been.

The hand that snatched his wrist told him that Thorin had a differing opinion and sleepy though his eyes were, they held a fire in their depths yet.

"Stay," Thorin murmured, slurring the word even as his grip was implacable.

"I cannot," Dwalin covered Thorin's hand with his own, trying to coax his grip to loosen.

"You can," Thorin insisted, lashes falling then rising again stubbornly, "You can, stay with me."

Dwalin left off arguing, only sat and waited for the inevitable. Dwarven stubbornness was legendary and Thorin was the sort that would set his will against mountains, but even he could not resist the pull of a sleeping draught for long.

Though it gave Dwalin no little exasperation to wait for it, for his impatience was likely a legend of its own.

Dark lashes drifted lower, lower still, and the lines slowly left Thorin's face as he relaxed, making him look much like the youth that Dwalin remembered despite the silver threading his hair. He made to pull free, noting the resistance was feeble at best. It took a last soft whisper to halt his flight.

"Please," Thorin whispered, and the lashes against his cheeks were damp. Nothing so sharp as tears yet Dwalin could not unsee the faint wetness that left his lashes spiky and damp. "Please stay."

Dwalin blew out a sharp breath and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. It was that blasted potion, that he knew, having taken it a time or two himself. It eased the discomfort and brought on a peaceful sleep and yet, it could also bring any inner pains to the surface, pressing old hurts blade-sharp against the mind and into dreams and Thorin had more hurts than most.

Or perhaps neither of them needed any brews or tonics to give rise to the darkness of their thoughts, this night.

"Aye, I'll stay," Dwalin murmured, low, taking a moment to shuck his trousers and shirt, the bed creaking anew as he added his weight to it. That Thorin promptly slid into his arms like a mangy, needy pup brought a grim smile to Dwalin's lips, but he tucked Thorin against him easily, combing through his hair with a gentle hand. Song came to him again, this time a soothing, tuneless hum and finally, Thorin gave in and slept, as peacefully and as silently as a well-fed babe.

He'd just stay for a time, Dwalin decided, just until he was sure Thorin would remain asleep. It was the last thought he had before his own drowsiness overcame him and soon enough the both of them slept beneath the blankets, only the occasional snore breaking the silence.

It was the chill that woke him, his bare scalp exposed to the icy air. Dwalin was not awake past the thought he'd lost his cap, a half-memory of the old, manky thing tumbling away on an unlucky breeze seeping into his dream. He burrowed deeper into the blankets and pelts, inhaling body-warm air as he pressed the cold tip of his nose between shoulder blades. His bed companion made a noise of complaint, squirming in Dwalin's arms, and he relented, rubbing his cheek against pliant skin.

Memory was sluggish, trickling in through his sleep-haze but when it arrived, Dwalin snapped awake. The light creeping in through the tent flaps was only tinged with dawn, a rare blessing, for he could not be found here in Thorin's bed. Leaving it, though, offered him more than simply a tooth-rattling chill as he snatched up trousers and shirt from the ground. He ignored the dull ache rising in his chest, grinding his teeth to keep them from chattering as he quickly stoked up the fire in the iron heater. The coals took to the offering of wood gladly and flames were already rising by the time he shut it back up. Soon enough the tent would be pleasantly warm, probably just in time for Thorin to rise.

The healer's medicines would likely keep him asleep yet for some time, Dwalin knew from past experience. Long enough for him to wake alone, with nothing more than the warmth of the fire to greet him and the blankets next to him long since cooled. Thorin would wake alone as he had always done and Dwalin would be out with the others, crowded around one of the campfires and listening to the snow falling.

There was nothing to be done for it. One night, Dwalin reminded himself. One moment of selfishness was all that could be allowed. Even as he thought it, Dwalin stole one last indulgence, turned to face the bed as he struggled with numb fingers over buckles and ties.

Thorin was mostly buried in the heavy blankets and furs, hardly visible at all. His tousled hair was spread around his head in a dark, messy pool of curls and Dwalin caught his breath at the memory of those silky strands spilling over his hands, remembering the redness of his lips as they surrounded him, the way his lashes had fluttered against his cheeks.

Only a memory, another bittersweet ghost to haunt him on endless midwinter nights, and Dwalin would hoard it as jealously as he did any other, guarding it fiercely amongst the shadowy remains of Erebor in his thoughts.

He drank in the sight of Thorin sleeping in the furs and then he turned away, striding out of the tent and into the growing light of morning.

The first step outside nearly sent him sprawling into a snowdrift, arms pinwheeling as he tried to keep from tripping over his very own brother. Balin was sitting just outside the door, wet stone in hand and he stroked it over the blade of Dwalin's axe with a practiced swipe, the scrape of stone against metal loud in the morning quiet. There was a fair dusting of snow on Balin's shoulders, large flakes scattered over his heavy cloak and Dwalin could very well imagine how long he had been sitting there.

"Good of you to join me, brother," Balin said evenly. His eyes were on his task, the stone gliding rhythmically over the axe blade. "I trust that Thorin is well?"

"...aye," Dwalin coughed out and the snowy morning did not ease the sudden rush of heat of his cheeks.

"Good to hear," Balin nodded and his keen gaze lifted to his brother, one snowy brow raised. "Rudgar has been by a time or two to confirm that, but I assured him that the two of you were in conference over yesterday's attack and should not be disturbed."

"Ah, yes," Dwalin mumbled, feeling ever like a lad caught creeping home in the wee morning hours. Of course the healer had been by to check on Thorin and he'd been a fool to think otherwise. If the black luck of their Kings were shared with the people, Dwalin could thank his piece of it that Balin at least had had the presence of mind to keep watch for him. Small favors swimming like silvery shoals of fish in the dark rivers of Fate.

Balin's stern countenance softened, his words hushed as he asked quietly, "He is well, isn't he, brother?"

It was not his wounds that concerned Balin, Dwalin knew, and he gave a curt nod, "Aye, he's well enough."

"Good," Balin said crisply, and he held out a hand imperiously, grunting as Dwalin helped him to his feet. "Come along, then, and we'll break our fast before luncheon." He trudged on through the paths worn in the snow, giving Dwalin little choice but to follow. They were still a fair enough distance from the others that none would hear as Balin added in a low mutter, "I trust he will stay well, my brother, or if he does not, it will be through no fault of yours."

Dwalin snorted like an insulted mule, "I would give my life for him."

"Not the assurance I was looking for, but it will have to do," Balin said dryly. He sighed heavily and his hand on Dwalin's shoulder was firm with brotherly affection. "You can never do things the easy way, can you?"

There was nothing to be said to that and Dwalin kept his silence as they made their way to the meal line. Others stood and sat around a blazing warm fire, their bowls filled and Dwalin took his own with a grunt, the savory richness of the stew already sending his stomach to growling. His mouth was full by the time he heard the low rumble whispers and he glanced up with cheeks bulging to find awed eyes upon him, Farin at the lead.

With his mouth full, Dwalin could only offer his brother a questioning look and received an answering shrug back, his brother's eyes filled with mirth, "Farin has been singing your praises since last night. Aye, yours and Thorin's, alike. To hear him tell it, the two of you fought a massive beast with teeth the size of my arm and the battle raged on for near an hour before you slayed the foul thing," Balin gave him a sharp nudge with his elbow, almost making him spill his stew as he asked slyly, "Is that how you remember it, brother?"

Dwalin only swallowed down his mouthful, mumbling out, "I would not call him a liar."

Balin's laughter carried through the camp and Dwalin could see answering smiles though the others could not know what had caused Balin's mirth. "Ah, well," Balin sighed out, scooping up his own spoonful of stew. "Whatever sort of beast it was, it makes for a fine enough meal."

On that they could agree and Dwalin took to enjoying his breakfast heartily. It was not until his bowl was nearly empty that Dwalin abruptly realized that his poor, exposed scalp was free of the tingling chill of snowflakes and he blinked up at the sky. The snow had stopped and the greyness of the clouds was parting, the rising sun casting its rays over the snow, sending the drifts and frozen branches glittering. It was cold still, none of its heat could reach them and yet, it held a promise of warmth, of a spring to come. Last night's bitter-ash melancholy seemed on the precipice of turning to meltwater, ghosts sent back to their graves.

"Thorin should wake soon," Balin murmured low and Dwalin gave a short nod. He would, indeed, the claws of enforced sleep loosening their grip. Balin was silent a moment, waiting patiently, before he added, with a sense of prompting, "He'll likely be hungry."

"Aye," Dwalin replied, slowly, and the wheels turning in his head clicked. "I should take him a bowl."

"You should," Balin said agreeably and as a true brother, there was no hint in his tone that he wished to add the word 'fool'.

He finished his own meal quickly before taking up another bowl for Thorin and the cook only added another dollop to the bowl when he mentioned who it was for. The stew steamed in cold air, the rich aroma of it would wake any with an empty belly and Dwalin was not hurrying back to the tent or if he was, it was only to be out of the cold air. Perhaps he and Thorin would talk, of many things, perhaps they would not, but either way, Thorin would not be waking alone.

Still, Dwalin paused outside the tent flap and took a deep breath of the chill air. He imagined he could smell the sunshine, the faint promise it held that spring would yet come, to all of them. He held the cold air in his lungs, let it warm inside him before he let it out, and then Dwalin ducked into the tent. He left his ghosts at the door.