Three years later...
Briallen Baggins was dying.
Nori had begun to suspect something on their journey home, but he'd dismissed it as melancholy. She was quiet, to be sure, and her songs had a warble to them they had not had previously, but wasn't that normal? After what they had been through, what she had been through, he couldn't very well expect her to be the same hobbit he had bet all his money on back in the Shire, fire and pluck and compassion, all rolled into one tiny package that seemed fairly bursting with life. It was normal to be sad, Mahal knew he was sad. He had gone on this thrice-cursed quest hoping for a new life, a better life. For himself, if possible, but mostly for his brothers, who deserved better than anything he could have provided them on his own. And he had gotten it for them, certainly, but at a much higher price than he'd bargained for.
When they'd stopped for a time in Rivendell, he'd gotten the first nigglings of real concern. She was so… small. But that was ridiculous, of course she was small, she was a hobbit! She was no bigger than a dwarfling, Ori had probably outweighed her in his toddling years (Nori ignored the ache in his chest to think of Ori's toddling years, of all the years he had missed, the years he would miss…). But somehow she had always seemed bigger than her size, larger than life. Even at her fussiest and most hobbit-like, she had never seemed small to Nori. Until now.
But when they'd finally reached the Shire, just in time to see all the Baggins' worldly possessions being hauled off in boxes and wheelbarrows and carts (he still did not regret breaking that Otho bloke's nose, no matter what Bofur said), Brie seemed to rally, filled with the fiery indignation that was such an integral part of who she was, who she would always be to Nori, and he had put his worries to rest. She would be alright. She just needed some time.
Time, it turned out, was something they had in great supply, and Nori was not frugal in his spending of it. Summer mornings were spent in the garden, more often than not begging the Gamgees to come rescue the poor, victimized plants the next day. Winter afternoons were spent baking breads and cookies and cakes, until the entirety of Bag End smelled of vanilla and cinnamon and nutmeg. Bilbo and Bofur were married in the hobbit fashion the following spring, beneath the Party Tree at the base of the hill, covered in red ribbon and forget-me-nots. Nori hadn't quite understood it (to dwarven sensibilities, the two had been wed when they'd spoken their words and exchanged their braids before witnesses in Rivendell), but it made Bilbo happy, which in turn made Brie happy and that was enough. All four of them took what the twins called a "walking holiday" the autumn after, when the first of the dwarves from the Blue Mountains passed through the Shire on their way North.
That had been the peak of Nori's happiness, because Ori had come (with Bifur and Gloin) to lead the procession from Ered Luin to their new home. It was like looking at a different dwarf, his full beard studded with gold and amethysts, but still carrying more quills and parchment than supplies in his pack. He had brought books for the hobbits, including a primer of proper Khuzdul, for which Nori was grateful. He had done his best to keep his promise to Brie and teach her the language, but he knew Ori would have done a much finer job, given the opportunity. He was sure her vocabulary would have been much less colorful, at least, but she didn't seem to mind that too terribly much.
In return, Brie gave Ori the promised flower dictionary, a book that before now, Nori had never even seen. One quiet night on the road, Nori snuck it out of Ori's pack and thumbed through it. There were pictures and meanings, little notes in Brie's tidy script, and the marks of tear-stains on the page with hydrangea. Nori thought he understood that a little better now. He had seen how the other hobbits looked at her when her back was turned, how they looked at him when they thought he wouldn't notice. He knew what they thought of him, and he didn't care. But he burned with rage for what they had done to his namad in her youth, how they had ridiculed her for her choices and tried to make her feel less than she was. Hobbits as a whole seemed a decent lot, but he would never understand their need for what they called 'propriety'. And to think, he had considered Dori to be fussy, once.
The group had only traveled to the outskirts of the Shire, a trip of a few weeks, but Nori could already see the toll it had taken on Brie. She rode in the wagons far more than she walked and her expression was wan and tired. And it was then that Ori asked the inevitable question.
"Why don't you come with us?" he exclaimed, his eyes shining in the light of their last campfire, his expression bright and innocent, "The others would be so pleased to see you!"
Brie lost all her color in the space of a breath. It frightened Nori so much that he put out his hand, in case she should fall. She gripped his fingers so tightly it nearly hurt and managed to regain enough of herself to smile at Ori, who looked almost as frightened as Nori felt.
"I'm sorry, Ori," she said, with what Nori could tell was all the strength she could muster, "But I can't."
The dwarves continued on, and they went back to Bag End, but Nori knew then. He knew the truth he had been denying for far too long, the truth he should have recognized the moment she tried to leave them behind in Dale. He should have seen it in the way she spent more time abed and less time at table, the way she had gradually lost the strength or the inclination to do things that should have brought her joy. But now he knew, he saw it in all these things and he knew the way he knew the sun was going to rise, that spring would follow winter, or that there was a pint waiting for him down at the Green Dragon.
Briallen was dying. And there wasn't a damned thing Nori could do about it.
Thorin Oakenshield was dying.
Oh sure, his physical injuries had all healed up, Dwalin knew that. But there were innumerable ways for a dwarf to die, and as appointed head of the King's Guard (and the same King's cousin, friend, and kurdu-nadad) Dwalin had become intimately familiar with most of them.
He'd thought in the first year that they might lose him to work. There was much to be done to make Erebor habitable again, much to be ordered and governed and overseen, and Thorin had thrown himself into each task with every fiber of his being, as if daring anyone to challenge his authority, his right to work himself until he dropped. Balin thought fear was what drove him so desperately those first months, fear that his sickness might return, might impede his ability to perform his duties, to rule this mountain justly and fairly and well. And perhaps that was a small part. But Dwalin knew better. He knew that what truly ailed the King Under The Mountain was not an ailment at all. It was absence. It was emptiness. It was the echoing ghosts of those that had once walked these halls, memories of what had been, and what could have been. They were the same ghosts Dwalin saw, in every nook, around every corner. And he could not save Thorin from them, much as he could not save himself.
So Thorin worked. He rose earlier and retired later than even the most devoted of his craftsmen. He poured over maps of the tunnels, scheduled cleaning crews, studied the by-laws of every Guild and drew up contracts for their return to business in Erebor. He signed and counter-signed peace treaties with the Men of Dale and the elves of Mirkwood (helped in great part by Kili, who had taken the elf Tauriel to wife and worked tirelessly with her to improve relations between all three kingdoms). He forwent meals and sleep until he looked on the verge of collapse. Erebor flourished, but there were precious few who seemed to notice that as the mountain grew in strength, its King waned beneath the strain.
By the next Durin's Day, the work was done. Or at least, the restoration project was complete (the work would, of course, never be done) and Dwalin had never been more pleased to hear Thorin complain of boredom. But instead of filling the void with food and sleep, the king took on another project.
He started trying to drink himself to death.
It was not all that unusual an affliction for a dwarf, to lose himself in the bottom of an ale cask or a wine bottle. Dwalin had seen it times beyond counting, especially in the wake of a battle like Azanulbizar or the Five Army War (as the bards were calling it now). But Dwalin knew it was not battle that called Thorin to refill his dinner goblet time after time, that drove him to his rooms at night, where casks and bottles disappeared in droves. He missed councils and appointments, leaving Fili to take his place and Dwalin to make excuses. Balin called meetings of what remained of their Company to discuss the issue, but in his heart Dwalin despaired of his ever shaking the vice, or its source. Fili was willing enough (and surprisingly competent when it came right down to it) and Dwalin resigned himself to the fate that Thorin seemed so determined to run headlong to meet.
And then one day, early in the spring of their second year in Erebor, the drinking simply... stopped. Dwalin didn't know, at first, what brought Thorin back from that particular precipice. It might have been the arrival of the dwarves from Ered Luin (including the princess Dis, who was an intimidating figure on the best of days and not tolerant of any nonsense, least of all from those closest to her). It could have been the announcement that the elf, Tauriel, was with child, a glorious occasion in any dwarf's life, to see his child with a child of his own (and Kili was Thorin's son now, he had finally gotten around to making the boys his kurdu-dashshat in truth as well as practice). It could have been Fili's unexpected interest in King Bard's eldest daughter, a pretty thing with a serene air and a fighter's spirit.
But eventually, Dwalin came to suspect that it had more to do with the long hours spent in a certain cavern within the royal wing, the strange requests made to Dale and even Mirkwood, and the dirt (actual soil, not the dust and soot more common to mountain-life) clinging to his clothes, smudged on his face, caked under his fingernails.
Whatever it was, Dwalin chose not to question it, taking it simply for what it was: a reprieve. Thorin was eating again, attending his meetings, sleeping (or at least taking his ease, Dwalin wasn't entirely sure how much he slept). He was, to all appearances, improving. But he never truly got better. He was listless, devoid of emotion, committed to his obligations as King, but deriving no true joy from any of it. His hair gained streaks of gray that belied his age, and he never looked fully rested. And Dwalin knew the truth that all the others refused to see, sure as the stone beneath his feet and the sky over their heads.
Thorin was dying. And there wasn't a damned thing Dwalin could do about it.
The letter must have come while Brie was sleeping. She slept more and more these days, she knew. She could not help it. It was exhausting, pressing back the ever-present darkness. When she woke she was not particularly hungry, but the clock on her bedside table told her that it was time for tea. She could take tea. She swung out of bed and put on her patchwork robe, briefly touching her braid and deciding not to bother, merely smoothing the loose hairs away. It was only her family, after all, no need to get done up for tea with her brothers. It was simply too much work.
She slipped out of her room and padded down the hallway toward the sitting room. It was pure luck that she heard the murmurs before she barged straight in, pausing just outside the door when she heard her name.
"—not strong enough!" Nori hissed, sounding angry, "And you both know it, don't play the fools with me! It's ridiculous that we're even considering it!"
"So you want us to lie to her?" Bilbo snapped and Brie winced.
"It's not a lie if we never speak of it," Nori growled, "We'll just burn it and have done, it'll be like it was never here! Simple as that."
"I don't think it is that simple," Bofur said softly, trying as always to be the sensible one, "I don't like the idea of taking the lass's choice."
"But—just look at it!" Nori sputtered, with a rustle of paper, "She's too gentle-hearted to refuse something like this! And you know what it'll do, it'll kill her!"
There was a long pause. Brie put a trembling hand against the wall.
"You know I'm right," Nori said, sounding defeated, "I just… I can't…"
His voice broke. Brie shut her eyes and took a shaking breath.
"I know," Bilbo said softly, "We all love her, Nori. But we can't save her from this. She's going to find out, sooner or later, and we can't just…"
He trailed off and met Brie's eyes. She had managed to step into the archway and they were all looking at her now, Nori with red-rimmed eyes and a roll of parchment in his hand. She gathered her strength and crossed the room, reaching out to slip the parchment from his fingers. He didn't resist, but he dropped his gaze and shut his eyes as she took it from him. She touched his shoulder and he shuddered. Oh, how she had hurt him. Poor dear. She took back her hand and turned her attention to the letter. The seal that had held it closed was a deep, vibrant blue and trailed a gold ribbon. She unrolled it carefully and surveyed the contents.
It was a wedding invitation.
You are cordially invited to the bonding of
His Royal Highness, Fili of Durin's Line, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Erebor
Her Royal Highness, Princess Sigrid, Daughter of Bard, of the Kingdom of Dale.
To be held...
The invitation was written in a flowing hand, embossed with gold leaf decoration. And at the bottom, penned in a blotchy, looped script, were these few hastily scrawled words:
Please come. It would mean the world.
Brie ran her thumb over these words and felt a lurch in her chest. The few strings that held her tied to the world trembled and stretched. The darkness loomed up, and she knew Nori was right. She would not survive this. But as she looked around the room, at her three brothers all watching her with mingled expressions of pain and hope and fear, she knew.
It was time. She had lingered too long.
She rolled up the parchment and placed it gently on the table between them.
"I believe," she said, smiling genuinely for the first time in…she couldn't remember how long, "I would like to visit the mountain."
Then she turned and left the room. She needed to prepare. They had a long journey ahead.
"Fili! Fili, you'll never guess!"
Thorin looked up as Ori came barrelling into the crown prince's parlor, waving a sheet of parchment wildly in the air and grinning like his face might rip in half.
"The raven just arrived!" he exclaimed with barely a breath, "They're going to come! All of them, Nori, Bilbo, Bofur, Brie, they're all coming, Fili, they're on their way right now!"
Thorin's chest turned to stone. His heart stopped beating. He couldn't breathe. He felt as if the large armchair he had settled himself into was suddenly too small, collapsing in on him. He lurched to his feet, drawing the attention of the boy who had been too excited to notice his presence before and now looked as if he had made a terrible mistake.
Fili was staring at him, he could feel his nephew's eyes like flames against his skin, heard the word "Uncle?" as if it were coming from underwater. He needed… He needed…
Without a word, he turned and left the room. He disappeared into his memories, into the penance he'd created. And he tried to wall up the trembling of his heart with the broken stone of his mind.