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mercy and death on swift arrows fly

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“And for the boys…”

He almost didn’t hear when the name was called. But he heard it, and the spark of fear that ran through him was so sudden that he jerked forward, his heart feeling like it physically stopped in his chest.

“Kili Durinson!”

And Kili stared and stared and wished it was just a nightmare.

--

It wasn’t.

He stood where so many others had stood and clenched his fists. There was no window in the room, no way to look out and see his home for the last time.

He wasn’t even supposed to be here.

The doors slammed open and Kili whipped around, almost stumbling over himself. It didn’t matter, Fili was there an instant later, holding him so tightly he didn’t think he would breathe. “Fee,” he gasped out. He dug his fingers into Fili’s back, leaving bruises he was certain but he couldn’t let go. He refused.

“It’s going to be all right,” Fili whispered harshly in his ear. “It’s all right, Kee, god, it’s all right. You’re going to be fine. I swear.”

It wasn’t going to be fine. Nothing was going to be fine again. He knew how it worked: he got to see family for a few minutes, and then he’d be on the train to the Capitol. That was how this went.

Suddenly there were two huge arms around him and Fili, and Kili melted into his uncle’s embrace. “Kili, I’m so sorry,” Thorin murmured. There was something in his voice that Kili had never heard before, and it left him quaking. It sounded like fear. “Kili, little one-“

“It’s going to be okay,” Kili insisted, sniffling. He still didn’t let go. “Right? You can get me out of this, right? Your contract says I’m not supposed to be in the drawing, just like Fili.”

Thorin didn’t say anything. Kili’s stomach suddenly felt as if it were coated in ice. “Uncle?”

“President Smaug is punishing me,” Thorin said quietly. “For what we did, for what we’ve been doing. That’s why they put you in. He’s punishing me by putting you in the Games.”

Kili couldn’t find the air in his lungs. “But…we’ve been aiding,” he said helplessly. “Haven’t we?”

“The Capitol doesn’t want aid going out to the others. They want us pinned under Smaug’s thumb, just like everyone else.”

“So we got burned,” Fili said, his voice filled with as much rage as Thorin’s was. “Like everyone always does.”

Fili and Thorin drew away, no, they weren’t drawing away, they were being pulled. “Another minute,” Fili begged, grasping with empty hands for Kili, fighting against the guards with everything he had. Thorin’s eyes were haunted and filled with tears. “For god’s sake, give us just one more minute!”

Kili stood alone in the room, swallowing hard. “Tell Mother I love her,” he managed through his tight throat. “Please. I love you both-“

The doors had slammed shut before he’d finished, and it was just Kili alone in the middle of the room until the guards came for him.

--

His mentor was thankfully a familiar face. They still waited until the guards had left them alone on the train before they embraced. “Laddie, I’m sorry,” Dwalin murmured, patting him on the back. “So damn sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Kili said, then shook his head when Dwalin began to protest. “It’s not, anymore than it is Uncle’s or Fili’s. We knew what we were doing, sending aid to the other Districts. We knew what it could mean for us. It’s not right, what they’re doing. That’s all.”

That didn’t mean he wasn’t terrified out of his wits, so scared that his heart ached from pounding so hard. He literally felt as if he couldn’t stand for a moment longer, and the moving of the train wasn’t helping him at all.

Dwalin caught him by the arm before he fell. “Sit, I’ll get you somethin’ to drink. Somethin’ to eat, too. They’ve got everythin’ on these trains. Trust me, I know.”

It was still more opulent than even Kili was familiar with. Being in the First District of Erebor, he was used to rich things and other frivolities but gazing around at the mithril beamed car, modern amenities everywhere, it was still a shock. The sofa he was seated on felt new, as if only sewn up yesterday. Eagle feathers, of that he had no doubt.

Nothing but the best for those who were being sent to die.

“Here,” Dwalin said, appearing with a tray of food and a tall glass of amber liquid. “Eat. Drink. We’ve got a lot to go over.”

“I’m too young for alcohol,” Kili began to protest, but Dwalin just put the glass in his hand.

“You’re old enough to die, you’re old enough to drink. Take small sips until you’re certain your stomach can handle it. You think I don’t know who was stealin’ sips of the wine at the last party?”

Kili took a big gulp to hide himself – Fili had taken more than he had – and gasped when it burned down the back of his throat. Dwalin clapped him on the back and grabbed a nearby remote. A screen descended from the ceiling, and a menu of options appeared. Dwalin began flicking through until he found the one he wanted.

“You know your own strengths,” Dwalin said, and he pressed the Play button. “Time to learn the strengths of the others.”

--

Arriving at the Capitol had been hard. Kili knew this song and dance from watching multiple Games growing up: smile, charm the crowd, get sponsors. He wondered if he’d have any sponsors at all. Uncle had sponsored a few of the Tributes through the years, especially the younger children who obviously had no one to help them. It hadn’t saved a single one of them, and the lines around his uncle’s eyes had gotten tighter every year. But Mahal help him, he’d still continued to send aid. It had all been done anonymously, of course: it wouldn’t do to discover that someone from the First District had a heart of gold.

Seemed like they’d found out anyway.

The girl from District 1 wasn’t anyone that Kili knew. She was fierce, that much was for certain, and unlike Kili, she looked thrilled at her chance to kill a few people. One of the ones who made it their career to get into the Games. He felt sorry for anyone who took her on.

He’d watched all the video clips of the selected Tributes for the year. He’d seen himself on the screen, swaying until he’d found his feet to get up onto the platform. He’d heard Fili screaming somewhere in the distance as he’d stood on the platform, face empty and pale. He’d skipped past that one as quickly as he could.

The others hadn’t really shown him anything of worth. District 2 had sent two hearty fighters: Kili wouldn’t have expected anything less from Gondor. District 4’s Rohan had been blonde and powerful as ever, and the other Districts had fallen into line in much the same way they did every year. Nothing had been out of the ordinary.

All save for the Shire. District 12 had been…very different.

Because an older hobbit had actually volunteered. The young boy chosen had suddenly been pulled away by the older hobbit, who’d only wavered for a second before loudly stating that he volunteered. The entire formation of hobbits had gasped, but the hobbit hadn’t backed down, and the guards had let the other younger hobbit go before taking the older one to the stage. Bilbo Baggins, he’d said his name was, and Kili had never seen such determination in him. He hadn’t been stout like some of the other hobbits. No, he’d been leaner, and his face had been blank.

He’d turned it off after the other hobbits had given him a kissed salute as a blessing. A fighter from the Shire, determined enough to get into the Games that he’d volunteered. No one had ever volunteered in the Shire before.

Different wasn’t good. Different was bad. It left Kili with less ways to stay alive.

He was glad when Dwalin moved him and the girl off the train and to their quarters. “You’ll be all primped up tomorrow for the go-around the ring,” he told them. “Get some rest while you can.”

The girl strode away with a purpose and slammed her door. Kili realized he didn’t even remember what her name was. “Dwalin-“

“Don’t worry about it, laddie,” Dwalin said, his voice softer now that there was no one else around. “It’s all little nonsense. Focus on the bigger prize. I’d like to take you back home with me.”

“I’d like that,” Kili said quietly. “I’d like that a lot.”

Dwalin rested a hand on his shoulder for a minute and then left Kili once again alone in a room. At least this one had windows.

--

He’d shone with spectacular brilliance, or so the news reports had said of the parade. Kili didn’t care. What he cared for more was the next part: training.

He’d followed Dwalin’s advice to a T: try everything, learn a little something, watch where the strengths of the others are. Figure out who could be an ally. Then demonstrate your strength.

The problem was that no one would even approach him. He was Kili Durinson, after all, and he’d been spared his entire life. Everyone knew it. If he wasn’t the first one killed, he’d count himself as lucky.

Still, there had been a few who hadn’t completely shunned him. One had been a young girl from one of the outer Districts. She hadn’t spoken much, if at all, but when he’d dropped something on the ground, she’d carefully picked it up and handed it back to him. “Thank you,” he’d said, and she’d given a quick smile before returning to her own task: studying poisons and herbal remedies. Her name was Tilda Bowman, and Kili tucked the name away to remember it.

Other names he learned, too, by watching. Lobelia Sackville, for example, was the female who’d come from the Shire. She’d stayed far away from Bilbo Baggins, as far as she could, and she’d scowled at all who’d come close. She had a mean hand at the long shot, a careful and steady arm with a terrible aim. Kili winced as he watched her land knife after knife into the practice dummies.

Young Thengel Rohirrim of Rohan stayed near his companion, on the other hand. Kili hated it when that happened. Only one victor was allowed per game, and if it came down to those two, one would have to kill the other. He’d seen it happen enough times to remember the horrible sick feeling it gave him. Those victors typically never lasted long. Just long enough to ensure their family was forever provided for before killing themselves in their brand new victor’s house.

The elven representatives were always quick and swift at everything they did. The only advantage they had was that they were bigger and taller than anyone else, which made them an easier target. He didn’t catch their names, but one from the Mirkwood District seemed familiar. Perhaps part of a large family. It made it harder when it came to choosing someone, especially in as small a district as Mirkwood was. Someone’s family could possibly be mourning twice, if one of their family had already been lost to a game.

He picked up a few knotting skills, which would always come in handy. He thought he caught Bilbo fiddling with a throwing blade – undoubtedly as good as his district companion – but couldn’t bring himself to watch. Besides, he had to practice his archery.

It went fast. Targets slid along at a sedate pace until he got further and further into the practice. Then they were flying out of corners, reappearing and disappearing at random whims. Some approached him so fast that they almost hit him in the face. Never once did he falter, never once did he back up. And he hit every single one of them without any issue.

He knew that if there was a bow and quiver waiting for him in the Arena, he would be fine. He would hide up in a tree and he’d be fine.

The last arrow sang as it hit the target, and the practice ended. Kili realized he was breathing so hard that his chest was heaving, now that it was over. His hands began to tremble, just a little, and he fought to keep them stable. He couldn’t show weakness, if anyone was watching.

It was only then that he realized that the entire room was silent. Slowly he turned and found every pair of eyes on him and the bow. He flushed but forced himself to stand straight. His eyes roamed over the elves, who looked impressed despite themselves, the men and women from various districts, all of whom seemed warier of him now than before – and the two hobbits. Lobelia raised her nose in obvious challenge, but Bilbo was watching him with an unreadable gaze. Kili found himself looking away first, inwardly cursing himself for it.

It wouldn’t matter. What mattered was the number he’d be given after he displayed his talent to the judges. That would decide his fate.

--

Twelve.

They’d given him a twelve.

Fili stared at the screen, feeling sick. “They never give anyone a twelve,” his mother said, and when Fili glanced back at her, she was gripping the chair so hard he thought it would break. “Why give him a twelve?”

“It puts a target on his head,” Uncle said. He looked just as angry and sick as Fili felt. “They want him dead. While I have no doubt that his skill is worth any number they gave him, they want him eliminated early. If they give him a twelve, the others will go out of their way to dispose of him first.”

No one else had come close. The only other high number had been a nine from District 2. One of the Gondorians, and Denethor’s dark grin had been placed right next to his lethal number.

Kili was dead.

Not because his little brother wasn’t good enough with his bow and arrow, because he was. He’d taken down many a deer – and orc – with his silent bow. He was a damn good shot.

But he’d never shot at another person. Not once. And Kili had a heart of gold. He would rather die than hurt someone else.

Fili buried his head in his trembling hands while his mother began to weep. The Game began tomorrow.

And he would have to watch Kili die.

--

Kili stared across the room at nothing. So far, no one had come by to see him.

He knew this was his last chance to see anyone with a shred of kindness for him, and Dwalin had promised he’d come. But Kili had the terrible feeling that President Smaug knew about Dwalin’s kindness as much as he knew about Uncle Thorin’s aid. Kili wasn’t going to get any visitor.

He’d already gotten more kindness than he’d expected, when Varda, the girl from his district, had stopped him in the hall. “Good luck,” she’d said. “I mean, we’re all gonna die anyway. But I hope it’s a quick death.”

“You too,” he’d managed through numb lips. She’d given him an almost sad smile before her toothy grin was back, and she’d marched down the hallway to her room. Kili had had to be shoved forward into his, and he realized, now, what all of them had to be thinking.

Only one of them was going to be lucky enough to get out alive. And skill wasn’t going to be enough. The Gamekeepers that Smaug kept were just as determined as anyone else in keeping the game ‘entertaining’.

They were all dead, even the Careers. One of them was just going to be lucky enough to escape.

The tube opened, and from above, a voice gave the order to enter. Kili slowly stepped inside, his stomach twisting until he thought he’d been sick. His legs trembled and he couldn’t wobble or he’d fall, and he knew what happened to the Tributes that fell before the timer stopped counting down. He straightened his knees and felt lightheaded.

He was actually going into the Arena. This was actually happening.

The tube closed, and Kili watched the empty room disappear. The sun was suddenly blinding, and Kili winced but forced himself to remain where he was. As soon as he could see he immediately whipped his head around to see where he was. Almost in the middle – one of the furthest from the Arkenstone. Of course. The glistening jewel tower seemed to shine impossibly bright under the sun, and within it, all the goodies sitting and waiting to be taken.

Everyone else looked as primed as he was. Everyone looked just as anxious to get off the platform as he did. A lot of eyes went to him and stayed on him.

His own eyes went to the counter, hanging on the Arkenstone.

20…19…18…17…16…

--

15…14…13…12…11…

Fili stood in front of the screen, unable to move. His mother stood beside him, resolute despite the tears in her eyes. “Thorin,” she murmured.

“I know, Dis,” his uncle said, voice low. “I know. We’re starting tonight. No matter what happens, we start tonight.”

Fili managed a quick nod, but his eyes refused to turn away from the countdown.

6…5…4…3…

--

2…

1…

0

Kili took off running, managing to not trip over the edge. There was a sharp terror that flew up his spine as he jumped over the platform, but no explosion met him, and he managed to keep going. The others were all running forward, and he panted as he fought to go as fast as he could.

There, the bow and quiver. Straight in front of everything, as if waiting for him. He’d almost reached the Arkenstone when someone suddenly flew straight at him. He caught the glimmer of the blade and instinctively dropped into a roll. Someone behind him choked, and Kili was too terrified to look behind him, especially when the sudden boom from the cannon signaled their demise. He stumbled to his feet and managed to get into the Arkenstone. The bow, he had it, but where was the quiver?

He caught it with his hand and ran, trying desperately not to lose any of the arrows. The entire plain was surrounded by trees, and if he could just get into the trees, if he could just get there, he could hide. He could be safe. A cannon went off again as he gulped for air.

Suddenly his ear burned, and Kili gasped and tripped, hitting the ground hard. There was Lobelia, another knife to throw in her hand, and suddenly one of the elves was there with his broadsword, swinging it up and through her. She dropped like a stone, the cannon shot firing a second later, and Kili stared for half a second more before he turned and fled. His fingers felt numb as they grabbed the bow and quiver, and he didn’t even remember picking up the knife Lobelia had thrown, his blood fresh on the clean metal. Three more cannons went off as he ran.

Then he was into the tree line and racing through dense foliage. This, he knew. He could move through these without any problem. He zig-zagged around a few of the trees, winding back and forth when he heard others giving chase. Throw them off, he had to throw them off. Someone was close, he could feel it. Arrow, he had to get an arrow in his bow-

A root suddenly caught him up, and Kili went down for the second time. He felt the air leave him in a punch to his lungs, and he fought for a breath. The adrenaline rush was leaving him weak and with almost no energy to get himself up. “You have to,” he mumbled through tingling lips. “Get up, you have to get up.”

He raised himself on shaking arms and suddenly found himself face to face with Bilbo Baggins. Kili stared, unable to breathe. This was it. This was his end. Bilbo pulled a blade out in an instant, and Kili couldn’t even shut his eyes.

“Drop!” Bilbo shouted, and Kili’s arms gave way before he could even obey. Then Bilbo hurled the knife above Kili’s head, and the sound of someone choking on their own blood left Kili cringing and wishing he was anywhere else. A cannon went off in the distance.

Hands pulled at him, tugging him to his feet. “Move, we’ve got to move,” Bilbo said urgently, and then they were heading deeper into the forest.

--

It was all Thorin could do to breathe. Dis was all but gasping for air, trembling beside him, and Fili was as taut as the bow in Kili’s hand.

He’d lived. Somehow, Kili had gotten out of the hardest part, the dash for the Arkenstone. Somehow, he’d been spared.

And for whatever reason the hobbit had, Bilbo Baggins had saved his nephew’s life.

“I didn’t expect that,” Nori said, startling Thorin at his sudden appearance. The informative was raggedly dressed as usual, but still silent as he moved across the floor. “Bilbo Baggins looked like a ruthless killer, stepping up like he did in the Shire. No one’s ever volunteered before, and he’s a lean fighting machine. That was quite the twist, there.”

“I don’t care,” Fili said, and he sounded as if he were choking back a sob. “I don’t care. Kee’s alive. He’s got a chance the same as anyone else.”

“Have you heard from Dwalin?” Thorin finally asked. Nori’s pursed lips were all the answer he needed. If Thorin’s crusade had gotten his good friend killed too…

“Don’t you start,” Nori warned. “Not now. We’ve a job to do. I’m rounding up the others now. Next car out and I’m gone.”

“Any advice for us?” Dis asked, wiping at her eyes.

“Yeah. Stay clean and don’t leave the house if you can help it. Don’t say a Mahal damned word. Hear me?”

That, Thorin could do. As one of the families who had a Tribute in the Arena, they were given off time from work and other duties until their family member was killed off. Thorin selfishly hoped he wouldn’t have to go back to his duties until Kili came back on the victory train.

But he wouldn’t. Because Thorin had other plans, and they involved getting his nephew to safety.

“Tell me when Bifur’s back,” Thorin said. “Once I’m in contact with him, you can go.”

“Aye, will do,” Nori said. He looked as if he wanted to give a mock-bow, but decided against it. Once, there’d been royalty in their line, but Thorin was glad to be rid of it, rid of the gold that had long cursed his family. He didn’t want a crown.

Thorin would’ve put on a paper crown and called himself a monkey’s uncle if it had meant Kili would’ve been spared. But Smaug knew too much, and he’d punished Thorin accordingly.

“Uncle, they’re focusing on Kili,” Fili said urgently, and Thorin turned his attention back to the screen.

--

It was only when Bilbo began to stumble that they finally stopped. Kili was wheezing for air, his pounding heart making it hard to breathe. He dropped the bow to the ground and braced himself on his knees. Putting his head lower helped, too.

Bilbo was fighting for air too, but his eyes stayed on the path behind them. “We probably can’t go too much further in,” he managed between gasps. “Gamekeepers will turn us around. Last thing we need is, is acid rain or something.”

Kili shuddered at the memory of past games. “We’ll go to the right,” Bilbo said, a moment later. “I haven’t the foggiest if that’s west or north. I’ve got nothing.”

He began to make his way through the foliage, much less frantically than before, but Kili caught him by the arm, surprising him. “Why?” Kili gasped out. “Why save me?”

“Alliances are a good way of keeping yourself alive,” Bilbo said, as if quoting someone. “And you’re good with that bow and arrow. Very good. Why wouldn’t I want an alliance with someone like you?” He turned to go again, but Kili kept a firm grip on his arm. Despite the situation they were in, Bilbo didn’t look even remotely terrified of him. In fact, he looked calm.

“Why should I trust you? You, you volunteered. You wanted to be here, to get in and kill-“

Bilbo started laughing so hard he had to slap his own hand over his mouth, lest he give them away. Kili stared, stunned. “I’m sorry, it’s just,” Bilbo tried to say, and then he got lost in a fit of giggles again. “Did you just say that you think I wanted to be here, like a Career?”

“Well, you volunteered,” Kili said, but it sounded rather stupid now that he thought about it. “And you’re good with your throwing knives, and you’ve got a…a blank face.” Somewhere, back in Erebor, Fili was bound to be slapping himself in the face over Kili’s stupidity.

Bilbo chuckled, wiping the mirth from his eyes. He looked less like a homicidal killer when he smiled; he actually looked a bit more like someone’s doting uncle. “I volunteered because the young man they chose was my cousin,” he said gently. “Drogo Baggins. He’s getting married in two months to a very nice girl, and they’re planning a big family together.”

Married couples were given two years off the potential roster for the games. “Oh,” Kili said, feeling even more foolish than before.

“Oh,” Bilbo echoed, still sounding amused. Kili gave a sheepish grin, which only broadened when Bilbo snorted. “Is that why everyone stayed away from me? They all thought I was some sort of killing machine?”

“I think so. Your face, though, it’s downright frightening when it’s all empty. You’ve got a cold gaze about you.”

“That was me trying not to look as bloody terrified as I felt.” The hobbit rubbed his arms, and now Kili could see it, in his eyes: the same fear that kept threatening to swallow Kili whole. This wasn’t someone who wanted to be in the Arena.

No, this was someone who’d sacrificed himself just so he could save his younger cousin. This, Kili was certain, was what the older days would’ve called a ‘hero’.

“Aren’t you too old to be in the games?” Kili couldn’t help but ask. Bilbo had lines about his face the way Uncle did, and there were tiny strands of greying hair here and there.

Bilbo smiled but it looked more like a pained grimace. “It was my last year, this year. Last year to be eligible. I’d made it, and then it was Drogo they called, and…” He swallowed hard. “I couldn’t let him go. Closest thing to family I really have, anymore. He’s got everything laid out for him, family, friends, respect in the community, and it was all going to go down the drain. I couldn’t let it happen.”

It made Kili’s heart hurt. No one was an innocent here, not in the Arena, but no one deserved to be here, either.

When he glanced at Bilbo again, the hobbit was staring straight through him. “Why are you here?” Bilbo asked, and Kili’s stomach dropped. “No, really, why are you here?”

“Just…got picked,” Kili stammered. “Unlucky.”

“No, that’s not how it works,” Bilbo said, shaking his head. “You don’t get into the games if you’re a Durinson, everyone knows that. Yet the youngest heir of the Durinson family suddenly gets picked to go to the Arena? Why?”

He almost wished they were still being chased. But the sounds of the forest around them were quiet, save for a few birds. “I don’t know,” Kili said, half-truthfully. He only thought he knew why he was there. All right, he had a very good suspicion which was probably right, but he couldn’t say for certain, could he?

Bilbo was still watching him with a narrowed gaze, and Kili suddenly drew himself up straight and glared at the hobbit. “My turn. Why did you save me? You obviously know who I am. I got a twelve from the judges: do you know what that makes me?”

“A target,” Bilbo shot back. “No one gets anything above a ten, not ever. Ten’s the highest they score and they only did it once, to some poor bloke from Gondor twenty years ago that they wanted snuffed. You, you they want dead. I know that much. What did you do?”

“It wasn’t me,” Kili said, then froze. Bilbo’s eyes went from hard to far too understanding. “I-I mean, I don’t think it was me.”

“They got your uncle, didn’t they?” he asked softly. Kili didn’t breathe, because how could he possibly know? “Thorin Durinson, head of the noblest family of Erebor, and they pinned him at last, didn’t they?”

He could’ve denied it. He could’ve said a lot of things. But what came out of his mouth was, “How did you know?”

Bilbo’s smile was thin. “Everyone knows. The Durinsons, for all their wealth and might and connections with the Capitol, have never failed to share their wealth. They didn’t use to. Your ancestor, Thror, he was all but living in the Capitol himself. Then Thrain came into power, and he was the antithesis to his father in every way, and he didn’t last long. But Thorin, your uncle? He played the game of socialite, but aid started coming down to the other districts. Food here, water there, blankets and tools and sometimes just pure gold. Laketown, Moria, the Blue Mountains, and the Shire. I’ve heard tales that even the elves of Rivendell were aided, when their leader Elrond fell ill once. No one knew, but everyone knew.”

It was one thing to know that they’d sent aid and helped others, disposed of the gold that Thorin loathed so much. But to actually hear how it had helped others? That was another thing entirely.

“We always wondered, my mother and I, when the Capitol would figure it out,” Bilbo mused quietly. “Your uncle is a very kind man, Kili. He might not know it, but he sent aid to the Shire after the terrible Fell Winter. He saved my life, though he never would’ve known that, but he did. I owe it to your family to see you as safely through this as I can. That, Kili Durinson, is why I saved you.”

Then he gave a quick smile and patted Kili on the shoulder. “Besides, you’re a good head taller than I am, which’ll make climbing trees and keeping a lookout that much easier.”

Kili gave a breathless laugh, almost too stunned to respond. “A hobbit’s sure to know his way around the forest,” he said. “I wouldn’t know a poisonous berry from a good one.”

“Then I suppose we’ll be allies, then,” Bilbo said. Kili caught his arm and felt tears burn his eyes in gratitude. A true hero, just like in the stories of old that his mum had read to him as a child. Bilbo had given himself up for his cousin, and now he was devoting himself to protecting Kili.

“Allies.”

--

“Uncle?”

Thorin only raised his head when Fili stepped in front of him. “They’re reaching twilight,” his nephew said. “They’re going to read off the dead in a bit.”

“Thank you,” Thorin said and returned to his papers. When Fili didn’t move, Thorin spoke again. “I’ll be along in a minute.”

“What did you send to the Shire? How did you know they needed help?”

A dog with a bone, his nephew. Both of them, really, and it was the Durinson blood in their veins. Thorin sighed and set his pen down. Fili refused to move. “I didn’t know they needed help,” Thorin admitted. “It was Nori who said that the snows had knocked out the power from the electric fences, that we could perhaps use the chance to our advantage and smuggle the hobbits out to somewhere else. I agreed, and so we sent blankets and weapons. It was only a few days later that Bofur had told us what a few of the cameras had picked up, before they’d gone black: orcs and wolves were taking the chance, too. They got into the Shire and…”

The news of the Twelfth District slaughter had only been aired because it had left the Capitol in a good light: their Guards sweeping in to save the lives of the wretched hobbits. There hadn’t been as many guards as they’d said, though. No, it had been the hobbits who’d fought back, armed with the weapons that Thorin had sent them, and able to keep warm with the blankets he’d provided.

“You saved them,” Fili said. Thorin pursed his lips. “So…Bilbo was right?”

Twenty-five years ago, the Fell Winter had happened. And Bilbo Baggins had remembered that all this time. “He was right,” Thorin said softly. “And I am only grateful that a hobbit’s memory is as sharp as a dwarf’s, apparently.” He’d saved Kili for no other reason except for kindness. Kindness returned back to the Durinsons. He’d killed for Kili, even, and hobbits were among the most peaceful of beings known to the earth. Usually the first ones picked off, in the Arena.

“Seems like Mother was right, after all.”

Thorin glanced up. Fili actually had a small smile on his face, the first since Kili had been chosen. “Sometimes the good you do comes back to you.”

He left Thorin alone then, but his voice echoed in Thorin’s head. Only when the trumpets began to herald from the screen did he make his way from around his desk and out to the room. Fili and Dis were already waiting, crossing their fingers that nothing more had changed.

Thorin took a deep breath as the faces and district numbers of the dead flashed across the screen.

The girl from District 2, Gondor. The girl from District 5, Moria. The boy from District 8, Rivendell. The girl and boy from District 9, the West Sea. The boy from District 11, the Blue Mountains. And the girl from District 12, the Shire.

“Seven,” Fili said quietly. “Seven total. That’s small, comparatively, from other years. Sometimes the number’s halved by the second day.”

It wasn’t good news, and Thorin shut his eyes at the terrible thought. There were beings dying, and Thorin was left to wish that more had perished, if just for the sake of his nephew. “Who’s left, then?” he asked.

“Kili and Varda, the girl from our district. Denethor from Gondor. The two elves from Lorien in District 3. Both from Rohan in District 4.” Fili winced. “I hope they get to die together,” he said quietly. “I think they’re siblings, or family.”

Thorin hated when the tributes knew each other. It made it that much harder to stomach. “The boy from District 5,” Dis continued when Fili couldn’t. “Both from District 6, Mirkwood. The girl and boy from Laketown in 7, too. The girl from Rivendell in 8, the two from Bree in 10, the girl from the Blue Mountains. And Bilbo.”

The brave little hobbit who’d stepped in for his cousin and who had also stepped in to save Kili. Never had Thorin ever seen someone volunteer, in order to save someone else. No one ever volunteered unless they were a Career. Yet Bilbo had done it, all to save his cousin.

It was an incredible thing. And Thorin owed everything to the small being who’d saved Kili’s life.

“Mahal bless you, Bilbo Baggins,” he murmured. “For saving my nephew: thank you.”

--

The last of the faces faded away, and Kili rubbed at his eyes. He was exhausted down to the bone. And yet he couldn’t seem to find it in himself to close his eyes.

A gentle poke at his side made Kili turn. “I’m taking first watch,” Bilbo told him. “Go to sleep. We’ll have enough to contend with tonight.”

“You’re not worried about the gamekeepers?” Kili asked softly.

Bilbo shook his head. “No one’s watching. The death count is the last thing they show for the night. Come tomorrow morning, we’ll have to move again, but for now, we’re actually safe, unless another one of the tributes finds us. Which is why I’m on watch and you’re supposed to sleep.”

Kili nodded, his eyes beginning to droop at last. Bilbo had winced when Lobelia’s energetic and over-the-top smile had shown above them, but he hadn’t said anything. Varda was still out there, then. She was still alive. Despite being in direct competition with her, Kili couldn’t help but think that he was glad she was alive, if just for a little bit longer. Someone else who understood what the smell of stone was, who knew what Erebor looked like.

The little girl who’d helped him, Tilda Bowman. She was still out there, too. He didn’t even know which district she was from. He closed his weary eyes at last and let the roots from the large tree behind them cushion him.

A scream awoke him, and even as he startled awake, a cannon went off. “Move, move,” he urged, but Bilbo pinned him to the ground, eyes wide. He clapped a hand over Kili’s mouth, letting him breathe but silently telling him to hush. Kili fought to keep his breathing even and steady.

Branches rustled nearby. Too close, far too close. Gasped breaths were heard, getting closer and closer-

A choked off breath was followed by a crashing sound, like falling into a large pile of leaves. A second later, the cannons announced the death. Bilbo refused to let him go, instead pinning him all the more. Kili gripped back at him, terror running through his veins.

“Both of them?” a voice said. Male.

“Both,” another voice said. Another male. Kili didn’t recognize either of them. “Alliances just make them easier to pick off.”

The first male laughed, and then they moved away, back down through the forest until they could hardly be heard. Only then did Bilbo release his bone-crushing grip on his jaw. “Sorry,” Bilbo whispered, his breathing shaky. “Kili, I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not,” Kili said fiercely. “You saved our lives. If I’d so much as made a sound, they would’ve found us both.”

“Especially if they were elves,” Bilbo said. “You only get past them with utter and total silence.”

A buzzing sound filled Kili’s ears, and when he glanced up, the ship that removed the dead was there. A light fell not far away, and slowly the wide claws descended. Long honey-brown hair flew in the breeze, the only part of her that moved anymore. Once she was lifted, the flying craft moved away a bit and removed someone else. A man, Kili thought, fighting to see with his eyes. Then the ship was gone, flying through the dark night.

“Nine,” Bilbo murmured. “Nine gone now. Fifteen left. And we know that two of them are allied. Maybe Careers.”

“Not Varda,” Kili said, and Bilbo frowned. “The girl from my district. She’s one with her eye on the prize, too, but she didn’t volunteer, she was picked. I didn’t hear her voice.”

“Denethor from District 2. He’s still out there; I didn’t see his face. It could’ve been him.”

It could’ve been anyone. Bilbo seemed to have a tally in his head going of who was still out there, and Kili left him to it. “You should sleep,” Kili said. “My watch now.”

“You still need more rest-“

“You think I can sleep after that?” Kili asked incredulously. “No way. You should close your eyes for a bit. Dwarves have good eyes in the dark. Anything comes after us, I’ll see it.” He pulled an arrow from the quiver and set it to the bow. Nothing out there was moving, so far.

Bilbo finally caved and settled down next to the tree. “Wake me if you need anything,” he insisted, but Kili could hear the sleep in his voice.

“Of course,” he said and firmly intended not to. Bilbo huffed but closed his eyes, and he was asleep not a minute later.

--

Bifur came by the next day, right before the second day of broadcasting began. “Got a few things for you,” he said at the front door and handed over a basket of carved fruit. “Mind the apples, though; think a few of them went dry.”

Messages, then. Thorin gave a tight nod to the dwarf. “Have you heard from your significant other recently?”

“Too busy. Hitching rides everywhere, he is. Said to tell you he wanted greener pastures for a bit. Might get a bit murky first, though.”

Mirkwood, then the Shire. Good. “Any chance you can ask him if he sees blue skies?”

“I’ll see to it that he keeps his eyes peeled.” He paused, half turned to go. “He said to tell you that the crow’s flying the roost and going home.” And then he was gone.

Thorin set the basket inside, and as soon as the door was shut, he breathed easier for it. He swept the house daily for bugs, but the outside he couldn’t control. He always had to be careful of what he said outside of the house.

“What did Bifur say?” Fili asked when he set the fruit down on the table.

“Nori’s leaving for Mirkwood and the Shire. I asked him to check on the Blue Mountains, too, as I haven’t heard from anyone over there yet.”

“Not even from Dain?” Dis asked, frowning as Thorin began slicing into the fruit. “What are you doing?”

“Getting the messages out.” Thorin grunted as he sliced into the core and found the tightly wound parchment deep inside. He pulled it out and set the rest of the apple aside. “And Dain’s heading to the Iron Hills.”

Dis stilled. Thorin pursed his lips. “That’s what Bifur said.” The crow heading home could mean only one thing: Moria wasn’t safe anymore, either, and Dain was racing to the greatest kept secret the Durinson family had ever kept.

“The Iron Hills don’t exist anymore,” Fili said, not even paying attention to them. He was still carving through the fruit and pulling out the safely tucked away messages inside. “I know we don’t pay attention to the little video they show right before they pick the tributes, but that’s what they’re talking about: District 13, the Iron Hills. Blown away in the span of a night. I know Dain keeps going on about it having been his birthright, but it doesn’t exist.”

Dis said nothing. Neither did Thorin. Fili finally looked up and blanched at the looks on their faces. “Does it?” he asked, stunned.

“The Iron Hills was never swept away,” Thorin said quietly. “It’s always been our stronghold. And just as I am the leader for Erebor, so Dain is the leader of the Iron Hills. It wasn’t the Capitol with the power to go nuclear: it was the Iron Hills. They were allowed to disappear under the truce. But that truce is being broken by Smaug.”

“If the Iron Hills go nuclear, they’ll destroy Gondor, they could destroy everything, kill everyone,” Fili said in abject horror. “There are still innocent people in the Capitol! Kili’s still in there!”

And a brave little hobbit, too, who Thorin couldn’t seem to get out of his mind. “Dain won’t go nuclear,” Dis promised. “Not yet. Your cousin is far too wise for that. No, he’s fleeing Moria because they’re on to him. They don’t have enough against us yet, and Dain’s trying to take the fall for the entire Durinson family.”

It wouldn’t work. Dain could pretend to have been responsible for all the aid over the years, but it wouldn’t work. Thorin could have kissed his cousin for trying to keep them safe, though. “The plan was for us to always get out to the Iron Hills, when the time came. We just might have stepped up the timetable a little, that’s all.”

The flair of trumpets once again had everyone turning to the screen. The Master of the Games appeared, looking as opulent and disgusting as he always did. “And a good day to you, my dear and gentle viewers! We did have quite the interesting night in the Arena: two more tributes fell, according to the cannon records that I’m seeing. A shame, really. That puts our kill total to 9…”

Thorin felt his stomach twist. The only way you could really kill two tributes in a row was if they were allies.

“Not Kili,” Fili said firmly, but his lower lip wobbled. “It’s not Kili.”

Thorin prayed it wasn’t. “Make certain you’re packed,” he said, swallowing past his fear. “Both of you. If Dain’s fled, we may have to as well at any moment.”

--

The forest wasn’t as frightening in the daylight. Sun poured through, warming the area and helping guide Bilbo through the foliage. Kili was light on his feet, thank god, but Bilbo was quieter still. Kili had made some sort of comment about hobbit feet, and Bilbo had snorted but otherwise had said nothing. Hobbit feet were a pride, thank you very much.

He jumped over another root sticking out of the ground, then froze. Something had moved up ahead. “Behind the tree,” he hissed, and Kili was there with his bow and arrow. Bilbo felt sick as he reached for the knife at his side, but he wasn’t going to let Kili fall now. Not now, not when he owed it to Thorin Durinson to keep the poor lad safe.

And then Kili started lowering his bow and arrow. “Kili!”

“It’s all right,” Kili said in a soothing voice, putting his arrow away and slinging his bow over his back. “We won’t hurt you, I promise.”

Bilbo stared, completely certain that the dwarf had gone around the bend. But when Kili gave him that look, Bilbo gave up and took his hands away from the knife. “See?” Kili said to thin air again, and he gave that bright grin of his. “Completely safe. So come on out. Tilda, right?”

Slowly a small face appeared from behind the tree, eyes wide and filled with terror. She was so small and so young, and Bilbo’s heart twisted in his chest. Damn the Capitol. It was better when it was someone older, someone of age, but she didn’t even look to be that. She was a human child, eyes shifting between Kili and Bilbo with such fright that Bilbo didn’t think he could stand it anymore.

“Is it Tilda?” Bilbo asked. “It’s a beautiful name. It sounds much like one of my cousin’s names, Esmeralda. She had beautiful blonde hair like you do.” Before she’d been cut down three games ago, at least. He shook away the thought and smiled at her. “My name is Bilbo Baggins, and I’m from District 12. Where are you from?”

“Seven,” she whispered. Laketown, one of the poorer districts. She glanced at Kili then, scrunching her face. “How come you’re with a hobbit?”

“Because he saved my life,” Kili said. “We’ve got an alliance. Would you like to be in an alliance with us?”

After looking them over once more, she gave a hurried nod and raced out from her hiding spot. She looked filthy, but whole, not a scratch on her. “How did you get out of the Arkenstone?” Bilbo asked.

“I didn’t go there. I just turned and ran. I don’t really know how to use any of the weapons, anyway. Maybe a long pole, like we use on the lake. I’ve just been hiding.”

It was a good thing they’d come across her, then. The Gamekeepers weren’t fond of those who hid. A few tributes had managed to win that way, but it was very few and far between. They would’ve forced her down to the center, where she certainly would’ve died. Here, with them, she was the safest she could be. Bilbo was quite certain that with the unusual alliance between a hobbit volunteer and a Durinson, they were getting prime time on the broadcasts.

“Have you found anything to eat?” Bilbo asked her instead. His stomach, which thankfully wasn’t used to the multiple meals that most of the hobbits ate daily, was still starting to cramp up.

She gave a small smile and jerked her head behind her. “I only caught one of the smaller bags on the outskirts before I ran. A water barrel, a small bowl, things like that. But there’s a patch of berries not far. The birds like them.”

Kili pulled an arrow out to have at the ready. “I think birds and berries sounds like a good meal to me,” he said. Bilbo chuckled and drew Tilda closer.

“I think it sounds like a downright feast. Lead on, little one.”

--

The berries were good, and the roasted bird even better. Bilbo had managed to get a fire going – and he wasn’t quite sure how the hobbit had done it, only that he had – and the bird had been cooked to a good and fiery roast. Tilda had looked so stunned and helplessly grateful when they’d handed her the sweetest part of the meat, and Kili had fought to swallow around his own meat. She was just a child, and he hated when they drew the names of children. She looked as if this might’ve been her first eligible year, too.

He wished he was home. He wished he didn’t know what it felt like to be chosen, to be in the Arena. He wished he was with Fee and Mother and Uncle. And he might not ever see them again.

Bilbo was going to try, though. For some reason, the hobbit was doing his best to keep Kili alive. It was only fair that Kili do his best to try and keep his friend alive, too.

He nudged one of the last pieces of meat over when Tilda turned to the berries instead. “Here,” he said. “Hobbits eat more than dwarves do, I know that. Seven meals a day or something.”

“Do you really eat seven meals a day?” Tilda asked, agog. “Where does it go?”

“I don’t,” Bilbo protested. “I mean, yes, hobbits typically eat seven meals a day, but I haven’t in a long time. We rationed, after the Fell Winter, and I just…never saw the need to eat more than three meals after that. Sometimes even just two. So I’m very odd for a hobbit. I always have been.”

“We ration too,” Tilda said, making a face. “Papa thinks I don’t know but I do. I know he gives me more portions. My sister and brother, too. They’re always trying to give me more food than I should have.”

“That’s what siblings do,” Kili said. He could only hope that Fili would be safe. “It’s a sibling thing.”

“I don’t deserve more food because I’m youngest,” Tilda insisted. “Why would I?”

“Because you’re still growing, little one. You need food to grow,” Bilbo said. After a moment, he took another small piece of the meat, giving Kili a knowing scowl.

Tilda paused, hand over the berries. “Not anymore, I won’t.”

Kili stilled. “I’m going to die,” she said, and she withdrew her hand completely. “I really shouldn’t be eating anything at all. You both should eat it. You’ve more a chance than I do.”

“I’m not going to let you die,” Kili said suddenly. Bilbo looked startled, and even Tilda seemed surprised. “I won’t. I’ll see you get back home.”

It was a stupid promise, and even now, his uncle was sure to be cursing him out, because only one person walked out of the Arena. Only one tribute got to go home.

But Kili had had blessings his whole life. He’d never had to ration food, he’d never had the fear of being chosen. She was just a child. Kili was full grown, and she wouldn’t know what it felt like to be grown, if she didn’t make it out of the Arena.

Bilbo cleared his throat. “You stay with us, and we’ll keep you as safe as we can keep ourselves,” he said. That was a much more reasonable promise. “I swear to you. So eat up: we’re going to need our energy.”

Tilda was already reaching for the berries. “You have a plan?” she asked.

Bilbo gave a short nod. “Mind, it’s not exactly the best plan. But it is a plan. We need more supplies, so we need to get down to the Arkenstone. If we do it right, we might be able to get a few of them knocked off, too.”

The thought of shooting someone with an arrow left Kili’s stomach turning and regretting the meager meal. “I can’t, I can’t kill anyone,” Tilda said, sounding frightened.

“Not us,” Bilbo said, shaking his head. “I think we can get them to turn on each other while we creep in for supplies.”

A plan of stealth. “We’re all small, all quiet. I think we’ve got a chance. Let’s use those things to our advantage,” Bilbo continued.

Clever as could be. “My uncle would like you,” Kili said, grinning. “You’re nine types of clever and witty. He’d adore you, right down to your hair feet.”

Bilbo didn’t say anything, but his ears went a startling red. Kili stared. “Are you…blushing?” he finally asked.

“No, I am not,” Bilbo snapped, but the red was trailing down his cheeks. “Why on earth would I be blushing?”

“When my sister blushes, it usually means she likes someone,” Tilda supplied. Kili didn’t take long to put two and two together, especially when Bilbo’s eyes began to widen in realization.

For the first time in days, Kili actually felt truly happy. “You like Uncle,” he said. “You’ve got a crush on my uncle.”

“I do not!” the hobbit sputtered, and his entire face was going red hot.

Most of the other districts weren’t allowed travel beyond their borders but everyone watched the television. And Thorin Oakenshield Durinson had often gotten screen-time, for one reason or another. A perk of being a close friend of the Capitol. So of course Bilbo had probably seen Thorin a time or twenty.

“Swooned over him, I bet,” Kili said, and Tilda hid her giggles behind her hand. Bilbo scowled at him so fiercely that Kili was afraid he’d go up in flames. He muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath and took the last piece of meat in retaliation. His ears were still red, though, and he wasn’t denying it anymore.

A cannon went off, then another, and any happiness died a sudden and swift death. Tilda quickly scurried closer to them, and Bilbo tugged them both to him. It felt a great deal like being embraced by his uncle did, or by his mother: someone stronger and older than him, someone fiercer. Someone to protect him. He was only barely full grown.

“I’m sorry I teased,” Kili whispered. It felt wrong, now, to have joked when there were others dying around them. “It’s not right.”

“Of course it’s right,” Bilbo said. He tightened his grip on them both. “You listen to me. If this place makes you forget how to smile, how to enjoy the sunshine, how to breathe, how to live, then you didn’t really win, and they did. So don’t let them. Understand me?”

Tilda nodded jerkily from the other side of Bilbo, and Kili slowly did the same. “Good,” Bilbo said. “We need to get down to the Arkenstone. Maybe not quite yet, though. We’ll go slow, figure out where the others are.”

He pulled them to their feet, and Kili was again reminded that Bilbo was actually the shortest of them all. Tilda was smaller in size, but just an inch taller than Bilbo was. Kili was actually taller than both of them, something he couldn’t usually boast. And here he’d been hiding against Bilbo as if the hobbit could protect him. He should be protecting them, not the other way around.

Bilbo paused as they began to head away from their lunch. “I don’t know how you can blame me. Your uncle cuts quite the figure, like a king.” And then he went on.

Kili slowly began to smile, even as he notched an arrow in his bow.

--

“Seems someone else thinks you’re a king,” Mother said to Thorin. Fili’s uncle said nothing, keeping his eyes on the screen, but his cheeks beneath his beard were getting red. Fili chuckled and turned back to the screen. Only Kili would think of teasing a confession of a crush out of someone while in the middle of the Mahal damned Arena.

It was a good spot of fun, if just for a minute.

Someone knocked two times on the door, then three, and all frivolity was abandoned. Thorin rose and went to the door, quietly speaking with whomever was there before closing the door again. Another package of food, and Fili hurried to join his mother and uncle in the kitchen. “Another message?” he asked.

“Food,” Thorin said, and he pulled the blanket over the basket. The smell of hot, fresh bread wafted through the kitchen, and it made Fili’s stomach gurgle. It left him feeling terrible, because Kili had had to shoot down a small bird and share it, along with whatever berries they’d found.

He glanced at the screen again – they were focused on Denethor slowly prowling the forests with two others – then back to the food. “Just bread?” he asked.

Thorin broke open the largest hunk of bread. Tucked inside was a black plastic wand, and Fili knew what that was. “You’re not supposed to have those,” he said. “That’s Capitol technology.”

“Don’t care,” Mother said with tight lips. “Is that what I think it is?”

“It is. The rest of the bread is just bread.” Thorin set the basket aside and moved to the table, where he turned the wand on. Instantly a light turned out and began projecting a film on the wall. Dwalin’s face appeared, and Fili’s throat tightened.

The other dwarf was urgent. “You’ve not got much time, laddie. I’ve set up a few sponsors with sympathizers who aren’t afraid of the Capitol, Mahal bless ‘em. They’ll come through for Kili in a pinch. Now that he’s got an alliance, though, it’ll be easier to send somethin’ to the hobbit and not Kili directly.”

“Thank Mahal for Bilbo,” Thorin murmured.

“Things are heated here. A little too heated. There’s politics goin’ on, little snippets here and there that I can’t say over this recordin’. I’m worried that I won’t be able to stay for too long, and I’m worried if Kili actually wins this thing. Thorin, they don’t plan to let him come home.”

Fili felt a wave of ice wash over him. “Even if he wins, Thorin, they’ll kill him and send him home in a box. He was made to be an example; he wasn’t supposed to have a chance.” Dwalin shook his head. “I can’t do anythin’ about it. I’ll send you a signal when I can. When you get it, go. Don’t look back. Grab whoever you can and just get out.”

The video disappeared. For a long moment, no one spoke. Fili wondered if he was breathing, and then he realized that the harsh gasps he heard were his own. Kili was going to die. Whether he won or he lost, Kili was marked for death.

Suddenly Uncle was moving, tossing things all around in his search for his coat. “Thorin-“

“The messages from yesterday said that Oin was amenable to my plan, Dis,” Thorin said. He shrugged his jacket on and made for the door. “It’s time. I need to finish this. Keep me updated if something happens with Kili.”

“There are screens everywhere in the district, Uncle,” Fili said bitterly. “I don’t know how you’d miss it.” His little brother, dead and gone, lifted away by some flying ship and sent home in a box. Or would they even send him home? Maybe they’d just toss his body away and leave him to the birds.

Hands roughly cupped his face, but when he looked up, his uncle’s eyes were kind. “I will get him home,” Thorin whispered. “I swear to you, Fili. This is my fault, and I will see it undone.” Then he was gone, and Fili could only stare numbly in the direction he’d gone.

There was nothing he could do, no way to help Kili. The only thing he could do – had to do, by law – was watch the broadcast and pray to Mahal or any god who would listen that Kili would make it through the day, that his face wouldn’t be a part of the nightly recounting of the dead.

--

“How many dead, now?”

“Twelve,” Kili said, wincing as he stretched his shoulder muscles. It felt like they’d been crouched in the same spot for a long time. “That’s twelve dead.” A cannon had gone off not that long ago, and the aircraft had come by to get them. Kili hadn’t gotten a good look at who.

Half of them gone, now. It was terrifying to think of, that they’d made it to the last half of the tributes.

Tilda sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Do you think Bilbo will come back?” she asked.

“Of course he will,” Kili said. “He won’t abandon us.”

“No, I mean…that last cannon. You don’t…think it was him, do you?”

Kili’s gut clenched at the thought. “No,” he said resolutely. “It wasn’t him. He’ll be by in a minute, you wait and see.”

At least, he hoped Bilbo would be back. For having only really known the hobbit for the past two days, Kili felt terrified at the notion that the hobbit wouldn’t be there, that Bilbo would leave him all alone in the Arena. “We’ll be fine. Just you see.”

A gentle breeze blew towards them, and the smell was acrid. “What is that?” Tilda asked, holding her hand up to her nose.

Kili didn’t know, but there was a dark cloud slowly covering the trees, blocking out the sun, and a drizzling sound that made him think of rain. Except the smell of rain was usually pleasant and refreshing. This smelled like death. “We need to go,” he said, slowly coming to stand. “Tilda, we need to go.”

“It’s coming down from those distant mountains.” She sounded frightened now, hurrying to her feet. “It’ll push us towards the Arkenstone, and what if Bilbo comes back and we’re not here?”

The dark cloud was getting closer, and now that he could hear it, it sounded more like heavy drops splashing against the trees. The very air felt charged and ready to kill. “We can’t stay,” he insisted. “Come on, we need to-“

A scream came from somewhere off to their right, and Kili grabbed Tilda’s hand and ran. The forest’s air was thick and toxic, and Kili coughed as he went. It was everything he could do to keep Tilda’s hand in his. Whatever the cloud was, it wasn’t good.

Tilda suddenly screamed, and Kili cried out when some of it drizzled on top of him. Mahal it burned. Acid. Acid rain from the Gamekeepers. “Hurry!” he shouted, trying to push her in front of him. “Tilda!”

Someone was racing towards them, and Kili couldn’t even draw out his bow to fight them off. He couldn’t see properly, the cloud made everything too dark, and his skin was burning. Dripping down his face and he fought to keep his eyes open, fought to reach for the blade, but it was too late. They were slamming him to the side and further into the rain.

Then he was suddenly free of the rain and gasping for air, trying not to whimper in pain. “Stay down,” Bilbo was ordering them, and Kili curled further under the extended roots that were keeping them safe. Tilda was crying softly, somewhere beside him, and Kili managed to pry his eyes open. The rains were sweeping down all the way to the Arkenstone, and he could hear others screaming as they got caught in it.

One of the screams cut off, and a few moments later, a cannon sounded the death. Kili shut his eyes and felt them burn for an entirely different reason.

“Kili? Kili, can you hear me?”

Slowly he blinked his eyes open again. Tilda and Bilbo were kneeling in front of him. Around them, the forest had gone quiet, the rain gone just as suddenly as it had appeared. “Kili?” Bilbo said again. “Kili, say something.”

“M’all right,” he rasped. His skin felt as if he’d been placed in a burning forge, and it hurt to move. He managed to push himself to his feet and couldn’t stop the gasp of pain.

Bilbo was hesitant to touch him, anxiousness written across his face. “Just, just take it easy,” he finally said, hands held out helplessly before him. Tilda’s eyes were red from crying, and there was a red mark running down the side of her face where the rain had gotten her. “We’ll find fresh water, get you both washed down a bit. You’ll be all right.”

Kili nodded jerkily. “We need to go,” he whispered. “We can’t, can’t stay-“ and some of the rain had managed to run down his arm. He cursed and then immediately apologized for Tilda’s sake.

Tilda gave him an incredulous stare. “You’re hurt and apologizing to me?”

“Shouldn’t curse in front of someone of impressionable age,” he said, quoting his mother.

“Damn that,” Tilda said vehemently, and Bilbo choked out a hysterical laugh. “Old enough to die, I’m old enough to curse.”

She had a point. Dwalin would like her. “We do need to move, though,” Bilbo said apologetically. “We won’t have a better chance to move freely than now. No one else is going to dare enter this part of the forest. We need to go a little that way-“ and he pointed to Kili’s left, “-which will put us to the side of the Arkenstone. That’s the best place for us; it’s near a stream, too. Good access to the Arkenstone.”

“Where there’s water, there’s always a cave,” Tilda said. “That’s what my father always taught me.”

“Good. Then let’s go.”

Getting Kili up proved to be the hardest part, because it didn’t matter how gentle Tilda and Bilbo were: it just hurt. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to move. Once he got moving, it wasn’t so bad, but the burns made him want to scratch at his skin until it was off. He’d only make it worse, though. He clenched his hands around his bow and arrow instead and kept going.

The forest was quiet, which helped. Only the sound of a random thrush kept them company as they moved. The leaves and trees were suspiciously dry for having been rained on by acid not even ten minutes prior. Kili didn’t care. As long as he could put his hand to a tree for balance and not get burned, he didn’t care how they did it. Only that he could.

Finally they reached a small clearing, trees and tall grasses around them. “The stream’s up ahead,” Bilbo said. “We’ll get you both washed up-Kili!”

Bilbo’s cry and wide eyes had Kili pulling his arrow to the bow and whirling around, but his pain had made him slow. Too slow.

The man threw one dagger which passed Kili, not even grazing him. Kili let his arrow fly just as the second dagger was flung. His arrow hit true, and the man dropped to the ground. For a moment, Kili could only stare in stunned silence. He’d killed someone. Without a single thought, he’d killed someone.

Then Bilbo’s voice went up in a shrill scream, and Kili’s stomach turned over.

Tilda!

Tilda stood, silently staring at the dagger embedded deep in her chest. She raised her head, her wide eyes meeting Kili’s, and then she began to fall.

Immediately Bilbo and Kili caught her, even as Kili winced at the pain from his burns. “Easy, easy,” he still murmured, and helped Bilbo settle her on the grass. Her breaths were coming shorter now, and her eyes were filled with fear. Tears spilled over her cheeks and ran down into her hair. Her hand went to the dagger, but Kili caught it with his instead.

Bilbo cradled her head on his lap, trembling fingers brushing errant strands of hair from her face. She slowly glanced up at him, eyes pleading, begging. And Kili had nothing to give her, nothing to say to her as she lay dying. She was dying. And she was dying with almost strangers in a horrible place that she’d been cast into by bad luck. Bad luck and the Capitol.

Fortunately, Bilbo did have something for her. “It’s all right, little one,” he managed to get out, and he even got a smile going for her. “It’s all right. You’re not alone, you’re with us. Can’t you smell the tall grass? Did you ever see tall grass in Laketown?”

She managed a small shake of her head. “Then I’ll tell you about the tall grass,” Bilbo said, and he began to sing.

“When the tall grass waves hello,

And the flowers bend and sway,

Then the sun will kiss your head

With its warm and tender rays.”

She was fading right before Kili’s eyes. He could feel his eyes burning with each word Bilbo sang, and he tightened his grip on Tilda’s hand. He’d only been holding it half an hour ago to pull her to safety. And now it was barely hanging on to him.

Bilbo didn’t stop brushing her hair, his smile almost turning down as silent tears streamed down his face. Yet he kept singing.

“May the road be ever kind,

May you find your peace at last,

And when everything else fades

May you know you’re not alone

Never alone.”

Only when her hand began to fall from his did Kili realize she was gone. She was still gazing upward towards Bilbo, but her eyes saw nothing at all. She was free, now. Free from the Arena and its fear.

Bilbo choked on a sob and bent his head over, clutching at her. The sight of the hobbit breaking was the last straw for Kili and he twisted away to scream into the ground. All his anger, his rage, his fear, and his grief for this small girl. This child who hadn’t deserved what had been done to her.

She’d deserved cakes on her birthday and years more for her and someone who would marry her and treat her kindly. She’d deserved children of her own, a legacy to leave behind for the next generation. And she would get none of it now. All she would get would be a wooden box.

“I was going to save her,” he choked out. “I was going to get her home.”

“I know,” Bilbo whispered. “I know, Kili.” When Kili pushed himself up from the ground, Bilbo was wiping his hand over his eyes. “We have to go.”

“I can’t just leave her-“

“The ships will take her home. She deserves to go home, Kili. You said you wanted to get her home. Well, this is the only way she can go, now.” Bilbo glanced back down at Tilda, and Kili watched as he gently brushed her eyelids shut. “But we have to go.”

He hadn’t even heard the cannons go off, but she was gone, her skin pale now, her chest no longer rising. Blood poured from the dagger in her chest, and Kili reached for it in anger. Only when his hand was on the blade did he carefully and tenderly remove it, tossing it away. It was stupid to toss a weapon away, but he refused to keep it. It was poison, now.

“Go get me the willow grass.”

Kili blinked. Bilbo was gazing at Tilda now with something almost like mad desperation. “What?”

“The willow grass, the tall grass with the soft seeds, over there. Bring me some.” He was already looking at the colorful flower-like weeds near them, and he began pulling them from the ground. Kili managed to push himself to his feet and hurried over, picking several of the stalks that he thought were best. A few other wildflowers were nearby, and he hurried to get those, too.

Bilbo was already rearranging her arms for burial when Kili returned. Without a word Bilbo took the willow grass stalks and set them with the other flowers in her hands. He frowned a little when Kili kept the other flowers for himself, then watched as Kili set them in her hair. “Dwarf tradition?” he asked.

Kili nodded. “We braid them in. Is that…hobbit tradition?” he asked, nodding to the ones in her hands.

“It is. Flowers for them to keep and remember when they go to the Fields. They’re usually carefully chosen for their purposes, but…I don’t really know these plants. And we’re all but out of time.”

Already Kili could hear the buzzing of the flying aircraft coming to take her away. Probably take the man, too. He knelt by her head, feeling his heart about to break all over again as he gazed at her peaceful face. “May your second days be as long and as brilliant as the gems of the earth,” he said, the remembered words coming easily, and he gave her one last kiss to her forehead. There was no kin of hers here to do it, and she deserved someone to see her off. Perhaps the ways of men were different. He hoped her family would understand.

Her family. Probably watching this all, her death, her last moments. He shut his eyes and pulled himself away, his skin aching now more than ever.

When he glanced at Bilbo, the hobbit was lowering his hand, three fingers prominently held upward like a salute. “The other hobbits did that, when you volunteered,” Kili said. “The kissed salute of three fingers. What does it mean?”

“It’s a parting gesture. Among my people, it means the same thing as the last part of the song I sang. Kind roads, peace at last, and going forward knowing you’re never alone.” The buzzing from the ship got louder, but Kili still heard his last words. “She deserves that much, at the very least.”

When the ship began to descend, Kili caught Bilbo’s hand, and they hurried away into the forest. Only when Tilda was gone for good did they take their leave.

--

Thorin wiped at his eyes, not even certain who his tears were for. Kili, lost and in pain and forced to take a life only to lose one. Bilbo, who had been determined to see the little girl safely off to the other side with more honor and dignity than any tribute had ever shown a fallen tribute. Or the little girl herself, whose family had to be mourning right now.

A hand settled on his back. “I need you to come see this,” Bofur said quietly. Thorin finally let himself be led away from the screen to the back room of the hospital. As technical support, Bofur could get everywhere, and his cheerful demeanor and big funny hat only helped aid him in his quest. He’d hacked the Capitol more times than Thorin could even imagine, and any time they wanted to see into the other worlds of the districts, Bofur was there to lend a hand.

Except what he showed Thorin on the monitor was something he’d never expected. He stared, jaw dropped, at the screen.

Bofur pursed his lips. “I know you were hopin’ to jumpstart a revolution. But I think your nephew and that hobbit just did it for you.”

District 7 was in complete and utter chaos. Guards were being overrun as the people fought back, tossing them into the water where their electric weapons wouldn’t work. They were taking it back. All because of one little girl. One little girl and two other tributes who had taken her under their wing, had tried to keep her safe, and then had honored her.

Kili had honored her, but it had been Bilbo who’d made the decision. And then he’d given the salute, even as Kili had sent her off with a traditional dwarven kiss.

“They’re both dead,” Bofur said, shaking his head. “You have to understand that. I think that hobbit may be even higher on the death list than your nephew, if that’s any consolation.”

No, it wasn’t. The thought of Bilbo dying left Thorin’s insides twisting. Somehow, over the past few days, Bilbo had become so incredibly important to him. What had started as an almost embarrassing moment, when Bilbo had blurted out his affections for Thorin, had taken hold in Thorin’s mind and hadn’t let go. Now it wasn’t just a matter of getting Kili out. His plans were now get Kili and Bilbo out. He wasn’t leaving the hobbit.

A ringing sound made Bofur turn to his pocket for his phone. After a moment, he gave a nod to Thorin. “Oin’ll see you now. So sorry to hear about that random ache you’re havin’. Hope he’s got an answer for you.”

Thorin just rolled his eyes and shoved at Bofur, who gave a good-natured laugh. “Tell me if anything changes,” Thorin said. “And if you can, get a quick transmission of this out to Dwalin.”

Bofur gave him a salute before Thorin quickly stepped out of the room and down the hall to Oin’s office.

The transaction was quick, though Oin made a change of his own. “I have to be there,” he said firmly. “You know you’ll need me. I’ll not be letting you go without me.”

“Fine,” Thorin said. “Wait for my signal.” Not that he knew what it was, but he would know it the minute Dwalin sent it.

He made his way back to his house, knowing that someone had to be watching him. He made certain to gingerly use the arm that Oin had wrapped with the key-code inside. Well, he’d gone in for an ache, after all. No one could stop him or question him for that.

As soon as he got inside the house, however, he knew something else had gone wrong. “What happened?” he asked immediately. Dis’s face was pale, and Fili was all but trembling.

“Bilbo,” she said, and Thorin’s stomach plummeted to his knees. He raced over to the screen and watched in horror as Kili tried to rouse the hobbit.

“What-“

“The dagger,” Fili said, shaking his head. “That first dagger that no one paid any sort of attention to because of Tilda, it got him. He’s hurt bad-“

On the screen, Kili’s desperate cries were easily heard. “Don’t do this to me, please don’t, Bilbo, come on, you can’t die, you can’t-“

Thorin swallowed back what felt like a massive apple in his throat. Bilbo was so still on the ground, and he could see the blood trailing over the rocks. They had to be close to the river, then, the stream that Bilbo had found. “Kili, move,” Fili was saying, bouncing his knee. “Kee, you’re in plain sight, move.”

As if he could hear him, Kili began to move, and then he was hoisting Bilbo into his arms. Bilbo let out a pained noise, and even as it made Thorin wince, it let him breathe, too. Bilbo was still alive. He could sponsor something-

No. He couldn’t. Because he knew anything he sponsored would be turned around to someone else. Even if it was sponsored for Bilbo. He clutched his hands around the top of a nearby chair and hated Smaug more than he ever had before.

On the screen, Kili was still making his way over the rocks, peering anxiously around the forest line as he did. Then the forest opened up and there was the stream, a decent sized one that seemed to end at a pool. They were close to the open field of the Arkenstone, Thorin would bet. He could only watch as his nephew managed to carry Bilbo down the slippery stones, nearly falling in twice. He reached the bottom, though, and suddenly froze. Thorin did the same.

Then he was hurrying down the rocks, not caring at all if he slipped or slid, and hiding behind one of the stones. Three people appeared, and Thorin clenched his fists. The boy from Gondor, Denethor, stood with Varda and the blonde elf from Mirkwood. None of them seemed to be in any good shape, but they were still standing.

“I heard something,” the elf insisted, his brow creased. “We have worked together thus far, I would not deceive you now. What would I get for it?”

“I’m just saying, I don’t see anything,” Denethor said. “So now what?”

“I know not to doubt an elf’s ears,” Varda retorted. She sniffed and glanced around. “There’s not a lot of us left, you know. Nine, I think, if my counting’s right. There were the two last night-“

“There were,” Denethor said, grinning. “We got them.”

“And then the female from my district, Ilia, died in the rain,” the elf said. He didn’t sound as if he cared at all, and Thorin shook his head. The elves of Mirkwood had been good, once. And this elf didn’t even care that his other district partner had died. “That’s three.”

“The two from Rohan went easily enough. The dwarf from the Blue Mountains, too, creeping down to the Arkenstone. Then there were the other two cannon shots. That’s…eight. Fifteen gone, nine left.”

“And two of them are near to here,” the elf said, and Thorin all but threw the chair at the screen.

“Leave them alone,” Dis hissed, eyes full of anger. “You leave them alone!”

The elf seemed confused, peering this way and that. “I…don’t know where they’ve gone,” he said at last, and Varda snorted.

“Come on. Let’s follow the river up some, then get back to the Arkenstone. See what we can find.”

They marched along the bed, heading upstream, and completely missed Kili slipping under a stone and disappearing with Bilbo still in his arms. “Caves,” Fili said. “Good on you, Kee. Good on you.”

Dis came over to Thorin then, her face tight and worried. “Bilbo won’t make it without help,” she said quietly. “You know that.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Thorin said. He shook his head, hating feeling so helpless. “What am I supposed to do? If I try to send help they won’t do it. No matter how much I pay, they’ll do nothing.”

“I can try,” Dis said firmly. “Maybe it will work.”

It wasn’t likely, but Thorin appreciated the effort. Because Kili and Bilbo were on their own. And it left Thorin’s insides so twisted he felt as if he would be sick.

They just had to hold on. Just for a little longer.

--

Kili wiped his brow after pulling Bilbo into a dry section of the cavern. It was a decent size, once you were in it, and a small enough entrance that defense would be swift and death would be even swifter. He clenched his jaw and resolutely didn’t think about it. It was them or the others. No one else would take pity on them.

Bilbo gasped out another breath, and Kili quickly turned to the hobbit. “How did you not know you were injured?” he said incredulously, refusing to give into any other emotion right now. He couldn’t. He had to stay focused on Bilbo. “You had to have known, why didn’t you care?”

“Tilda,” Bilbo whispered. “I had to, had to see her properly at peace-“

“I know,” Kili said miserably. “I know.” He’d forgotten his own aches and pains for a time, too. They’d come back with a fervor, and they’d trudged along together until suddenly Bilbo hadn’t been there anymore. When he’d looked back, he’d found the hobbit on the ground, white as a sheet and barely breathing.

That’s when he’d found the blood in his side, the horrible wound.

Slowly he pulled away the fabric from Bilbo’s shirt and winced. It must have hit Bilbo, and the hobbit had to have pulled the blade out after he’d been stabbed. It was a bad wound, the kind that Kili couldn’t treat without serious help.

He forced himself to turn to Tilda’s pack which they’d taken with him. The water barrel that he could now fill, the bowl, the utensils that would be no good in a fight, and finally a cloth. A water breaker, too, the good kind that would keep out the wind and the rain. But it was the cloth that he wanted.

He unfolded it and found the most basic of first aid kits. Bandage, eight pain pills, antiseptic. None of that was really going to help him, but he had to try.

“Stay here,” he said, and he grabbed the water barrel. After ensuring the coast was clear, he filled it until it was overflowing, then raced back inside to Bilbo, who was panting and trying to sit up. “I said stay here,” Kili said, and he knew his fear was leaking into his voice and he didn’t care.

“I am here,” Bilbo bit out. “Haven’t, haven’t left…oh god-“

He gagged and Kili winced, but he wasn’t sick. “Kili,” Bilbo whispered, pain etched in his face and voice, and Kili ran a soothing hand down his back. Bilbo finally was coaxed onto his side, and this was bad. This was so very bad.

There would be no sponsors. Dwalin would try, but they’d never let anyone send him anything. Without real medical help, Bilbo was dead. He forced himself to not think about it and instead focused on getting the pain pills out of the packaging. Two now, the others for later.

A hand caught his wrist to still him, and when Kili looked up, Bilbo’s eyes were bright with tears but his jaw was set with determination. Even before the hobbit spoke, Kili knew what he’d say. “Get out of here,” Bilbo whispered. “You need to get out of here. You’re not safe with me.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Kili said fiercely. “So you can just knock it off right now.”

“Kili-“

“I said no!” He took a breath to calm himself, then another. “Not happening. You’ll get better, it’s not that bad.”

It was that bad and they both knew it. Bilbo tightened his grip, and it was still so weak. “I’m already dead, Kili. The cannon just hasn’t gone off. Too much blood lost, and I can already feel chills setting in. Blood sickness, probably, some sort of infection. Get out while you can. Take everything, including my pack with the knives. There’s a long one I managed to get, it’s got a bit of a sting to it.”

Kili pursed his lips and got the two pills out. “Here,” he said, deliberately ignoring Bilbo. “Take them. You’ll feel better.”

Bilbo sighed. “Kili-“

“Here’s the water.”

Faced with no other choice, Bilbo finally took the pills with a shaking hand. Kili helped him sit up just enough to swallow down the water, trying to ignore the pain on his face or the small whimpering sounds he made as he was set back down. Kili’s outer jacket came off, leaving him only in the under t-shirt, and he laid the jacket down on the ground before settling Bilbo back. He’d been right about the chills: he could see the minute trembling already starting. It was only going to get worse.

He sat back, watching Bilbo’s eyes clench shut from pain, and he’d never felt so alone before. He pulled his legs up against his chest and curled his arm around them, feeling like a lost child. Tears rose, half from fear, half from frustration, and he wiped angrily at them.

They weren’t going to win. If Mahal was gracious, they’d die swiftly. Maybe the river would rise and fill the cave and drown them both.

A soft sound came from outside, and Kili slowly raised his head. A light ringing sound, like a small bell, every other few seconds. He knew what that sound was. To any other tribute, it would’ve been a sound of hope. To Kili, it just left his stomach twisted. There was no way it was for him.

Bilbo’s eyes were open and alert in the cave. He looked as grim as Kili felt. Someone else had to be nearby and needing aid. No one would sponsor anything for them. No one would be allowed to. Or so Kili had thought.

But it kept pinging, never stopping, and finally Kili wandered outside the cavern. There, right outside the entrance, was the sponsor’s gift. Stunned, he reached for it and pulled it inside. At his touch, the little bell sound stopped.

“Kili?” Bilbo whispered, fear growing in his tone, and Kili hurried back to his side, feeling hope slowly begin to build inside of him.

“It’s for us,” he said, shaking his head incredulously. “I don’t know how, but…” He popped the latch and quickly opened it.

Inside was a small jar of what looked like white cream. He took the note first on top and unfolded it to read it.

The message was short. Thank you for staying with her. – The people of Laketown.

Kili managed to purse his lips together to not let out his sudden grief. “Kili?” Bilbo asked again, voice weaker this time.

“It’s from Tilda’s district,” he said, and Bilbo took a sharp breath in. “It’s a salve, I think.” It smelled herbal, at least, like one of Oin’s terrible remedies. “They wanted to say thank you for being there for her.”

He dipped his finger in the cream and felt it tingling on his torn fingers. When he rubbed it in, the skin felt soothed. He took some more and brushed it against his arm, hissing as it made contact with the burned skin. After a moment, though, the relief was almost enough to make him cry.

A few of Bilbo’s scratches and bruises were tended to next, and then Kili bit his lip while examining the wound. “You can’t put it on that…that big of a wound, Kili,” Bilbo whispered. “You can’t.”

“No, but maybe around the edges, to speed up the healing,” he said, and carefully began applying it to the edges of the wound. They probably hadn’t known about Bilbo’s injury when they’d sent the gift: just the burned skin from the acid rain. This wasn’t cheap, this type of medicinal healing from the Capitol. Yet they’d come together and sent it to someone not even from their district. And somehow, Dwalin had gotten it into the Arena.

Kili’d never heard of a district sending a gift to someone not from their home region. It left him feeling humbled in ways he couldn’t even describe. “Thank you,” he said out loud, wondering if there were cameras in the cavern, if they were being broadcasted right then. “Thank you so much.”

Then he couldn’t find any words, and he curled up next to Bilbo and watched the hobbit breathe.

--

Bilbo wasn’t going to make it much longer. And Uncle was starting to look grimmer with every minute that passed.

The trumpets had resounded at the end of the day, tallying them off, just like Varda and Denethor and the elf had recounted. Six deaths total. The male elf from Lorien, both tributes from Rohan, the female elf from Mirkwood. Both tributes from Bree, the female dwarf from the Blue Mountains. And, of course, Tilda from Laketown.

Fili stared at the screen long after the broadcast had cut off. Uncle hadn’t moved from his chair either, staring into nothing. His face had only gotten paler as he’d realized how bad Bilbo’s situation had been. Somehow, though, the people of Laketown had gotten a sponsored gift to Bilbo and Kili. Far beyond the means of any single individual from District 7, Fili knew that much. They weren’t a wealthy people. Yet they’d banded together, just to try and offer something back to the two who had honored a young girl’s life.

“You idiot,” Fili muttered under his breath. “You utter idiot.” Leave it to Kili to be noble and want to see her memory honored in a very dwarven way. Even if someone hadn’t known about the dwarf traditions for honored the dead, the careful way he’d pressed a kiss to her forehead had obviously been intentional, as had his words and the flowers braided into her hair. There had been no mistaking it.

Of course, it hadn’t been Kili’s idea first, even though it was going to get him killed regardless. No, it had been Bilbo Baggins who’d insisted that she be laid to rest with some sort of ceremony. The hobbit had put his own life on the line, too.

The front door opened, and Fili turned to see his mother walk in. “Did you-“

“They wouldn’t let me,” his mother said. She tossed her shawl aside, her eyes filled with rage. “They wouldn’t let me or anyone willing to help me send anything. I tried, Thorin.”

“I know,” Thorin said, shaking his head. “Thank you.”

No gifts were to be sent to Kili or Bilbo, then. Fili was grateful that Dwalin had gotten the Laketown gift through. Probably because it had been from Laketown and more easily stowed away, despite who it was intended for. Fili wondered if the Shire was trying desperately to get anything to Bilbo.

His mother went away, muttering under her breath. It was almost better, her being angry. It was easier than seeing her cry. He hadn’t seen her cry since their father had died.

“Are you packed, Fili?”

Fili nodded absently at his uncle’s question. Thorin sighed. “Fili, I’m doing all I can-“

“No, I know you are,” Fili said, hurrying to assure him. “Just…worried. For Kili. There’s only so much we can control, you know? If Kili makes a wrong move, Denethor or Varda or that elf could kill him. Or any of the other tributes that are out there. And without Kili, Bilbo’s dead, too.”

His uncle pursed his lips. Fili watched him, and his next words were carefully crafted. “You admire him, don’t you?”

“How often do you see someone give their lives not once, but twice, for another?” Thorin asked softly. “First for his own cousin, but the second time for Kili. Now that he’s aligned with Kili, the Capitol will never let him go, either, and he knows that. Yet he remained by Kili’s side, took a young frightened girl from Laketown beneath his wing, even saw her honored…” He shook his head. “And now, when his own life is fading, he tells Kili to leave him, to better his chances. I have no doubt he’d have forced himself out there to make himself a target, if just to help Kili get away.”

He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair, then slowly nodded. “I do admire him greatly. I can only hope I am given the chance to tell him to his face, and not to his next of kin.”

“He doesn’t have any,” Fili said, which made his uncle blink. “You must’ve been with Oin when that happened. They were talking about home. Bilbo doesn’t have anyone waiting for him. No siblings, no husband or wife, no children. He has no one. That’s why he volunteered. There’s no one to mourn him, when he dies.”

The setting of his uncle’s jaw was obviously, even in the low light. “He will be mourned, if he passes. He will not be forgotten. And that is if he passes.”

“You like him,” Fili said. His uncle turned to him with a frown. Somehow, Fili actually managed to pull up a smile. “You think he’s cute. I know your type. Smaller than you, golden and sunny hair-“

“You’re not so old that I can’t put you over my knee,” Thorin growled, but his cheeks had gone red. He pushed himself to his feet and hauled Fili unceremoniously to his. “Bed. I want to be up well before the broadcast begins again.”

It was his uncle this time who went off muttering beneath his breath, and Fili let himself smile for a little bit more before retiring to his own room and another night of restless sleep.

--

The next few days stayed almost the same. Strange, despite the events of the first two days that had eliminated so many of the tributes. It didn’t help that Bilbo felt blocked off from the rest of the Arena, lying in the cave. If it hadn’t been for Kili telling him how many days had passed, he would’ve been lost in a haze of pain.

He felt as if he were drifting, sometimes, when he could manage to sleep. Kili was parsing out the pills only when Bilbo was close to tears, and using the salve whenever he could. It helped some of the pain, from the burns and the scrapes that they’d suffered. But it wasn’t enough to heal the wound.

The chills had started just a few hours after they’d been in the cave. Despite Kili trying to keep him warm, there was little he’d been able to do for the fever. Or the pain, though he’d tried. God knew he’d tried, but there was only so much the lad could do, at this point. There’d just been too much blood and the blood sickness that had followed was taking over.

His body was aching and shutting down. There’d be a cannon going off soon, and it would be for him. The only thing he could hope for was that Kili would make it home. No one deserved to be sent to the Arena, but especially not Kili.

Bilbo had never hated the Durinsons for being exempt. Not when Thorin “Oakenshield” Durinson had done so much for so many. Bilbo remembered spending many nights with his eyes locked on the screen, watching Thorin speak, listening to his melodic voice and watching his bright blue eyes. There’d been a bit of mocking for it, but Bilbo hadn’t cared. Thorin had been a hero, standing like a king of old, beard and long hair begging for a crown. A real hero who’d aided those in need. He’d done so much for Bilbo, even though they’d never met.

This had been only one small way to try and repay the dwarf for his kindness. And Kili was too young to be here.

He shivered and winced as it jostled his wound. Even breathing hurt. He could feel it aching through his body, making him wish he couldn’t move. He just needed to sleep. He just wanted to close his eyes and get away from the pain for just…just a little bit…

His eyes fluttered shut, and he let out a breathy sigh.

A moment later, the cannon went off.

--

He’d barely pulled the fish from the stream, arrow still run through it, when the cannon went off. Kili froze, hand tight around his bow.

Then he was racing for the cave as fast as he could go. No. No, he couldn’t, no-

“Bilbo,” he called, not even caring that it could get him found because if Bilbo was dead, he was just as equally dead and it didn’t matter, Bilbo was a friend-

“Bilbo! Bilbo!”

The bow and quiver, arrow and fish, it all got thrown onto the floor of the cave as he ran to Bilbo’s still form in the cave. His eyes were closed, and his chest wasn’t moving, and Kili had only been gone for ten minutes, that was all. And he’d missed his friend passing.

“Bilbo, no,” he choked out, and then almost shouted in shock when Bilbo suddenly came awake and tried to sit up. Kili caught him before he could and then all but threw himself onto the hobbit. He was breathing, harshly at that, but he caught Kili’s arms and clutched at him. Bilbo’s confusion was almost physically felt, but Kili didn’t care, because Bilbo was alive, he was alive.

“I thought you were dead,” Kili whispered. “The cannon, I heard the cannon, and I was afraid-“

“You dithering dwarf,” Bilbo mumbled, but he held on tighter. “I’m all right, promise.”

Not really, because he was even paler than before when Kili finally let him go. He was still bleeding, then, slowly and sluggishly, the wound too much to close. But he wasn’t gone, not yet.

Kili wiped a hand over his eyes. “Did you just shout to everyone and tell them where we are?” Bilbo murmured.

“Maybe,” Kili admitted. “The cannon went off I just…I panicked. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m more worried about…about you.” Bilbo took in a shuddering breath. “There’s one less to worry about now, at least. And that’s good for you.”

“Good for us,” Kili insisted. “Not just me. I swear. You’re going to be all right.”

Bilbo didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. He didn’t argue, either, which Kili took as a good sign. He kept his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder all the same, as if he could keep Bilbo there by his wanting alone. Without medicine, though, Bilbo wouldn’t make it.

Attention all tributes.

Bilbo went still beneath him. Kili didn’t move. The echoing voice returned again, clearly heard even inside the cave. “It has been recognized that each of you is in need of something...whether you’re in an alliance or on your own.

That was directed to them, Kili knew it. The last he’d seen of Denethor and Varda, they’d been just fine. They weren’t in as desperate a need as Kili and Bilbo.

Tomorrow at sunrise, at the Arkenstone, the items you are in need of will be available. It is up to you if you choose to take them. May the Valar be ever kind to you.

Medicine. Medical help for Bilbo, he knew it. He could get in, get out, come back with the aid that Bilbo needed-

A hand gripped his wrist and held on tight. Kili glanced up and met Bilbo’s hard and unyielding glare. “Don’t you dare,” he rasped. “Kili don’t you dare.”

Kili stared at him. “You’re mad. This is our one chance-“

“It’s not worth…” Bilbo tensed and curled in on himself. Kili tightened his grip on Bilbo’s shoulder, trying to help him ride the pain. His face was pinched, tears formed in the corner of his eyes, and Kili couldn’t do anything except stand by him and watch him fade.

And in that instant, he knew what he had to do.

“Promise me,” Bilbo whispered when he had his breath back. “Please.”

“Bilbo-“

Please.”

Kili swallowed. “I won’t go.”

Bilbo seemed to deflate in front of him. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

“You need another pain pill. And then you can have some fish.”

The hobbit said nothing, too exhausted and in too much pain. Kili carefully let go to finally move away, thinking of his own words and thanking his brother for teaching him the art of guarding your words.

I won’t go…until tomorrow.

And he didn’t. The next morning, when it was still almost dark, Kili crept out of the cave and made his way to the Arkenstone. He made it to the tree line by the time the sun was dawning over the field, and he was able to see for himself just what had become of the place he’d started from.

The field was torn in a few places, a testament to the deaths of the first day. There were blood spatters around the Arkenstone, too, even some on the glowing rock, and Kili winced when he saw them.

Then his gaze went a little further to the side, and he saw them at last.

On a small platform were bags, each with a number on them. There were several: 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12. The last one was the one he needed; obviously they wouldn’t give it to him, and Bilbo was the only one left from the Shire.

Then Kili paused. There were 7 bags. And not a single one was for District 1. That meant the last cannon had been…

He hung his head for a moment, thinking of Varda. But she’d been in an alliance, hadn’t she? With Denethor and the elf-

Well. That explained that. As much as Kili hadn’t been looking forward to facing Varda, he hadn’t wished her dead, either. Even with the nature of the game, he hadn’t wanted someone from his home to die here.

His eyes roamed over the tree line on the other edge. Nothing moved. He glanced around him – nothing there – and he took a deep breath before pushing himself up and forward.

A sudden movement made him halt, precious seconds lost, as a thin blonde elf raced for the bags. She caught the one with the 3 on it and took off for the other side as fast as she could. He cursed himself out and raced forward. He had to get the medicine. He had to. It was Bilbo’s only chance.

He caught the bag with the 12 and turned back around, only to meet the business end of a blade. He let out a yell and ducked, but the leg tripped him up and sent him sprawling to the ground. The bag was still in his grasp, but when he was flipped over, the blade returning for his neck, Kili let it go and caught the arms descending towards him.

Above him, the elf from the Career alliance sneered. “You and the hobbit,” he bit out. “What are you, little Durinson, except an added bonus for any of us that brings you down? Sponsors and aid and a way out of this hell, that is what we’ve been promised. And I will take my reward.”

The weight of the elf was nothing, but the strength in his hands was bringing the blade closer and closer to Kili’s neck. “Where’s Denethor and Varda?” he managed to get out. Another thing he’d learned from Fili: irritate your opponent enough and they would typically make a mistake. “Are you their servant now, retrieving things for them?”

The elf’s eyes flashed with anger. “Denethor and I are serving a purpose: to hunt you and the other weak ones down. Varda had a purpose, but she outlived it. Denethor saw to her end himself.”

It had been Varda, then. Kili kicked at the elf and managed to partially dislodge him, but it only left his side that much more vulnerable. A knee to his stomach left him gasping for air, and the elf pressed his advantage with a laugh. “How about the little girl?” the elf taunted. “The little human girl? We saw you both, during training. Getting cozy and friendly. Did you take her under your wing, too? You didn’t do a very good job. I saw her face in the sky. Or did you kill her?”

“I tried to save her!” Kili shouted. “I wanted her to go home!”

“She will now. And so will you, the same way. The hobbit too, when we find him. All three of you in matching wooden boxes.”

Then the elf was gone, the pressure from Kili’s side was no longer there, and Kili scrambled away. A big man had his arms around the elf and seemed to have no problem lifting him. One arm was wrapped around the elf’s throat, and the elf looked panicked. “Denethor!” he shouted weakly. “Denethor, help!”

“Did you kill her?” the man demanded. “Did you kill that sweet little girl?”

“No! He did! Durinson killed her!” the elf insisted, but there was fear in his eyes, and his blade was already on the ground. He desperately clawed at the arm around his neck, and the man grabbed the elf’s head with his other hand and twisted. There was an audible crack that made Kili’s heart jump, and then the elf dropped dead, sightless eyes roaming nowhere. The cannon went off.

The man grabbed the bag with the number 7 on it, then rounded on Kili. Kili didn’t even try to get away: there was no point. He stared instead with fear at the man, not even blinking.

The man pursed his lips. “You get one pass, Durinson,” he said, and Kili stared. “For little Tilda.” Then he was gone, running back into the trees.

Kili stared until he couldn’t see him anymore. Trembling fingers found the bag with 12 on it, and after a moment of daring, he grabbed the bag with the 6 on it as well, from where the elf had dropped it. Then he was tearing out of there, leaving sightless eyes and the other two bags behind.

He raced around various trees, trying to wind his way back to the cave, feeling as if everyone was staring at him. Spared. He’d been spared. When the other tributes had been told that killing Kili was their ticket home, he’d been spared.

The stream was quiet when he finally got back to the cave, and he slid in, only to freeze when a sharp dagger met his nose. His eyes met hard and frightened ones, and Kili slowly slid the blade down and away. “It’s just me,” he said quietly. “I promise. It’s all right.”

“You utter fool,” Bilbo spat, right before his legs gave out. Kili caught him, the two bags still somehow in his grasp. Bilbo didn’t even have the strength to fight him, but he did have the strength enough to keep cursing him out. “You daft arse, you utterly incompetent-“

“I’m all right,” Kili promised him. He settled Bilbo down further into the cave, and then stopped when Bilbo used the last of his energy to fling himself at Kili. Shaking arms wrapped around Kili and held him tight, and it felt like it did when Uncle embraced him.

“You were gone and the cannon went off and what was I supposed to think? Kili I’m not worth risking your life for, I’m not-“

Bilbo choked on a sob and held him tighter, and Kili set the bags down gently before holding Bilbo as close as he dared with the wound. He had the medicine now, and he’d tend to it in a bit. But for right now, this was more important.

After a few minutes, Bilbo finally sniffled, and Kili dared to ask, “Are you…really angry with me?”

“I am livid,” Bilbo said, but he only sniffled again and patted Kili on his head. “And so, so, so damn grateful you’re alive. I am so glad, Kili.”

“It was close,” Kili admitted. “A few…odd things happened.”

“What do you mean, odd?”

“Lay back down so I can give you the medicine and I’ll tell you.”

--

It was all Thorin could do to get his heart to stop racing. “I can’t believe they actually let that air,” Dis said, sounding as stunned as he did. “Outright stating that they’d rigged the game to eliminate Kili-“

“It won’t be on any of the playbacks, that’s for certain,” Bifur said. The older dwarf shook his head. “I know that. It’ll just be Haenon almost killing Kili and then Kili back in the cave with Bilbo.”

“Haenon?” Fili asked.

“The elf. His name. I caught it from somewhere. I hate that I remember their names like I do, sometimes.”

Thorin watched Kili and Bilbo settle back into the cave. As much as Thorin hated that their single hiding spot also had a camera in it, he was grateful to hear his nephew, too, and to see that Bilbo was still alive. And, somehow, despite all his injuries, able to stand at a defense for Kili, after he’d heard the cannon go off. For someone without any family, he’d treated Kili just like Thorin would’ve: blazingly furious at his young stupidity, but ever able to express his thanks that Kili had returned alive.

“Can you get a message out to Laketown?” Fili asked, as if thinking the same thoughts as Thorin. “See how they’re doing, offer aid?”

“Laketown’s a mess at the mo’, laddie,” Bofur said, shaking his head. The usually cheerful tech looked grim. “Nah. Next time we go in, it’ll be to evacuate, and Nori’s already preppin’ for that.”

“Are we ready to do that?” Dis asked, but then suddenly a screen appeared on the wall, and Dwalin’s bloody visage with it. Thorin leapt to his feet and hurried to steady the black transmission device so his face would be more easily seen.

He looked like a mess, worse than the barfights Thorin had dragged him out of after Balin had died so many years ago. “Mahal’s beard, his face,” Bofur breathed.

“You’ll be getting a knock on the door ‘fore you know it,” Dwalin said, wiping blood from his lip. “I’ve got to get out: I’ll be no use to Kili dead. If you get this, don’t wait for the knock. Get out. This is your ruddy signal, laddie. The elf spilled the beans on the news, and now the other districts are raisin’ a fuss. Get yourselves out of there. I’ll meet you in the designated safe place. Mahal’s blessings, Thorin.”

Half an hour later, when the Guards knocked and broke in, the house was empty. The only thing still moving was the screen, with the televised broadcast still playing.

On the other side of Erebor, in the tunnel that ran from the hospital to the hangars, six dwarves were hurrying to their escape.

--

Over the next two days, Bilbo began to heal. The medicine from the Capitol had been top-grade, magic infused, and Bilbo’s color returned to his face while the wound healed. The skin was pink, now, but there wouldn’t even be a scar from where he’d been stabbed.

The second bag had contained the strangest of things: food. Lembas bread and nuts. “Lembas bread will keep you going for days,” Bilbo had said. “I don’t think the elf knew a lot about the plants here. Not enough to risk eating any of them. They can go for a long while without nourishment, but a week’s cutting it close.”

It had proven good fortune, when the fish in the stream had suddenly all wound up dead. Kili hadn’t so much as touched the water after that, and the remaining water from the barrel had been treated like gold. They weren’t hungry, though, and they were safe.

The night sky that first night had displayed Varda’s face, the male dwarf from Moria, and the elf who’d tried to kill Kili. Three more out: the playing field was getting shorter by the day. “18 gone,” Bilbo had said quietly. “Only six of us left, now.” And Denethor was one of them.

Nothing had gone off the day after that. It had only added to the tension.

It was on the third day after the medicine that Bilbo finally brought up what Kili had been fearing. “We have to move,” he said. “If the stream’s poisoned, it won’t be long before they start raising it to flush us out. Best move now before it comes to that.”

“Where will we go?” Kili asked. “We need water. And the others have to be in the same plight.”

“Then we’ll be quiet, just like we were before. Nothing’s changed. Don’t let the small haven this cave’s been let you forget that.”

Kili sat silently and watching Bilbo stand up straight, stretching and only wincing slightly when it tugged on the still healing skin. A thought popped into his head, a memory he hadn’t been able to let go, and Kili finally gave voice to it. “Did you know, about the deal?”

Bilbo frowned from where he was gathering up the bags. “Deal? What deal?”

“The deal to kill me and be set free from the Arena.”

After a moment of watching Kili, Bilbo slowly nodded. “I did. We all did. Hard to ignore a message from the President himself.”

Kili’s jaw dropped. “Smaug sent you a message?”

“All of us. He said if any of us killed you, we’d be sent home quietly, alive and with a healthy reward. Our families would ‘enjoy the privilege of the Durinsons for ages to come’ or something like that.”

There was a numbness going through Kili’s body where he was certain he ought to have emotions. “Your family spared, returned alive and with probably a ton of the gold that Smaug hoards in his castle.” Kili shook his head, still stunned. “And you’ve been protecting me instead?”

“I don’t cave to Smaug,” Bilbo snapped. “He would’ve let us all die, that winter, and we would’ve if it hadn’t been for your uncle. Thorin Oakenshield Durinson saved us that winter. That is who I’ll hold in higher regard. And freedom bought with blood isn’t freedom at all.”

Bilbo shook his head, and Kili wondered again how he’d been so lucky to have Bilbo Baggins in the Arena with him. “Thank you,” he managed, and Bilbo glanced up. “Thank you so much.”

Bilbo snorted but gave an amused grin. “You’re thanking me like this was a hefty decision. As soon as I got the message I knew I had to find you and protect you. Easiest decision I’ve made in awhile, even easier than stepping in for Drogo, and that was really a no-brainer, either.”

“You call my uncle a hero, but I think you underestimate yourself,” Kili said. Bilbo rolled his eyes and the tips of his ears went pink again. “He’d likely say the same thing.”

“Knock it off,” Bilbo groused good-naturedly. “You can stop with the teasing. Yes, I find your uncle attractive. Yes, I think he’s a good man. Sod off.”

Kili huffed a laugh and finally went to help him with the bags. Then there was nothing to do except leave the cave.

The night sky was just beginning to fall when they headed out. There were still red hues to see by, and Bilbo carefully moved up the rocks, avoiding the water. Even in the darkening sky it looked distorted and wrong. “Maybe once we leave it’ll be all right again,” Kili said.

Bilbo shook his head. “You can’t ever heal something like that. The earth will be filled with whatever desolate wretchedness they poured into it. That stream is done forever.”

They walked on until it was nearly impossible to see. Kili’s eyes were good in the dark, but it was still more treacherous a terrain than he wanted to deal with. “Base of the tree?” he asked quietly. They’d traveled maybe half a mile, which was no small matter with woods.

In response, Bilbo handed him the bag with the 12 on it. “Find another tree behind us and put it there. Then get back here and up this tree with me. I hope dwarves are good at climbing trees.”

“Not particularly,” Kili muttered, but he headed off to do as Bilbo had asked. The bag was set down, tucked behind the roots of a large tree with a wide base. Bilbo and his plans. Always had something up his sleeve.

When he returned, Bilbo was all but invisible up in the tree. The branches were low enough that even Kili was able to climb with little difficulty, though he was certain they were both grateful when he got to the wider branches up top. “Now what?” he whispered.

“We rest,” Bilbo said. “And wait to see if anyone’s going for the bag. We’ll hear it if they do.”

“You think they’re coming after us?”

“If they are, and they open the bag, they’ll get a surprise, and we’ll get a warning.”

A warning? “I tied a branch in there, so if someone opens it, it’ll crack and make a horribly loud sound. At least, that’s the hope.”

“You and your plans,” Kili murmured with a grin. “Are all hobbits this clever?”

“We all act like we are, at any rate. I can’t say that any of them actually have their wits about them. I’ll take first watch. Don’t fall out of the tree.”

Kili rolled his eyes but wrapped his legs around the bottom of the branch all the same. Dwarves were particularly good at not moving from their sleeping spot, going as still as stones. Hobbits probably learned to sleep in trees from a young age, given how Bilbo had clambered up without any issue. They’d be fine.

Bilbo woke him up halfway through the night for the next watch, and Kili scanned the trees for anything. He thought he spotted movement somewhere in the early morning, right as the sun was daring to peek over the horizon, but it was gone in the next moment. He still kept one hand ready to wake Bilbo, all the same.

But the sun rose and Bilbo woke up on his own, proving Kili right when he didn’t tumble out of the tree. “Down we go,” Bilbo said. “I want to see if anyone poked around our bag.”

The cannon went off, nearly startling Kili out of the tree. “Go, go,” Kili said, Bilbo halfway down to the ground already. Arrow and bow set, Kili hurried after Bilbo to the tree.

The bag was undisturbed. “I thought I saw something,” Kili said. “Half an hour ago or so. Something moving swiftly through the trees. I didn’t think they were being chased, though.”

“Maybe they were running away from something the Gamekeepers did,” Bilbo said, and that decided them. They raced in the direction Kili had thought the other person had gone, ready for anything.

Except for what they found. “Oh, the poor thing,” Bilbo murmured. There, half lying in the water, long dark hair being lapped at by the stream, was a female elf. The one from Rivendell, Kili thought. She was thin, thinner than any other elf that he’d seen, and her lips were purple and mottled.

“She was desperate for water,” Kili said quietly. Desperate enough to try something she knew had to have been dangerous. His throat clenched in sympathy.

Then Bilbo moved forward towards her, and Kili caught him. “You touch that water, it could do Mahal knows what,” he snapped. “Stay away from it! I don’t have anymore of that medicine from the Capitol!”

“I’m not going to leave her like that,” Bilbo snapped back. “Come on. The airship’s coming for her, and she’ll get her head lopped off like she is. She doesn’t deserve to be that way.”

Kili scowled as the hobbit did what he wanted – what else was new? – but after a moment of watching Bilbo carefully try to pull her from the water himself, he went down to lend a hand. After a moment, they were able to get her out without touching the water themselves. She was beautiful, even in death. Someone’s daughter, he was certain. Or someone’s sister, someone’s wife. Someone’s mother.

The flying ship did come and take her away, and Bilbo shook his head. “It’s not right,” he said quietly. “It just…it’s not right.”

Five left. “Just five of us, right?” Kili asked for confirmation.

“You, myself, Denethor, the blonde elf you mentioned, and the boy from Laketown. With her dark hair like that, this one had to have been from Rivendell. They always seem so peaceful and kind. Not usually a lot of winners that are from Rivendell. There were male twins, one year. I think they were the first to win as an alliance. They’d fooled the Capitol into thinking one of them was a woman, just so they could both be here for the other. And then they won.”

Kili watched as the ship left with its precious cargo. “I don’t think they’ll be letting our alliance win,” Kili said quietly.

“No. No, I don’t think they will.”

Suddenly the dawning day disappeared. Kili froze in the darkness and instinctively reached for Bilbo. “What happened?” he asked.

“Time to end the game,” Bilbo said, and Kili shivered.

--

“Ow!”

“You’re lucky to still have your nose on,” Oin scolded. Dwalin scowled at him but let him keep applying the salve to his face.

“There’s really still a screen in here, too?” Bifur complained. He gestured to the television that Fili was still watching. “Really? We can’t escape it?”

“’Course you can’t. Got to be everywhere. This is a Capitol ship: they’ve got to know everythin’.”

Dis ignored the cousins and turned to her brother instead. “Where are we going?” she asked.

“Capitol,” Thorin muttered, and the entire ship got very quiet. It was only broken by Dwalin hissing in pain again and telling Oin to watch it.

“What?” Fili asked for them all, eyes wide. “We’re going to the Capitol?”

Never had Dis seen her brother so determined. “Dwalin’s got a pretty good idea of where the Arena is. We’re making a rescue.”

Dis stared until her eyes burned. Thorin, still at the helm of the ship, finally took pity on her and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I told you I’d get him back,” he said quietly. “Him and any of the others I can still save.”

“Uncle,” Fili said, and the call screen began flashing. Dis hurried to get Oin forward to where he could answer it, her heart in her throat. It was Oin’s craft to do with as he pleased – having a medical license left you with the best of perks – but the Capitol had to be suspicious now. Oin missing with his flying medical rescue craft and the Durinsons gone with their allies?

Oin turned on the screen, and instantly he blew out a big gust of air. “You ninny, you scared us all!” he yelled.

Dis came around into sight of the screen and found a familiar face beaming at them. “Dain!” she said, smiling in relief. “Are you well?”

“Well as I can be,” he replied with a grin. “You know me. Is Thorin there? Hunting you all down was a hell of a task. You’re off the grid now. Only sheer luck I remembered Oin’s number.”

“I’m here,” Thorin said, leaning his head back from the helm to see the screen. “Is District 13 open and welcome?”

“To any and all, cousin. The Iron Hills are alive with the sound of nuclear warheads everywhere. We’re ready to do battle. But that’s not what I called to tell you. I found something else here, in the archives. Something that I don’t think’s changed much in the past hundred years.”

“Which is?”

“Coordinates. To the Arena.”

Everyone froze. Dis could barely breathe. “Where?” Dwalin finally rasped.

“It’s not in Mordor, I’ll tell you that. Nowhere close to the Capitol, actually. Do you remember the tales of the old wizard Saruman? And how he used to govern a forest of talking trees, before he was defeated by the great wizard Gandalf?”

“Isengard,” Thorin breathed. He glanced at Dwalin. “So you were right.”

“I thought it was Fangorn,” Dwalin said. “But Isengard’s not that much off.”

“Let me send you coordinates, cousin. Get Kili out of there. That hobbit, too.” Dain raised his eyebrows with that grin that asked for trouble. “Handsome and brave little thing, isn’t he?”

Thorin shoved the screen away from him and began turning the ship to the southwest, ignoring Dain’s booming laugh and everyone who joined in with hysterical and relieved laughter.

“Hold on, my little one,” Dis whispered, eyes on the horizon. “We’re coming for you.” The coordinates promised a few short hours at most. They could make it.

“Uncle,” Fili said, suddenly sounding apprehensive, and Dis turned to the screen. Even as she puzzled to figure out why Kili and Bilbo were standing beside the stream – hadn’t they left just yesterday? – the sun disappeared and they were plunged into darkness.

“What is that?” Fili asked, terrified. “Mother? Uncle?”

“End game,” Dwalin growled. “Smaug gave the order. He’s done watchin’ Kili and Bilbo evade death again and again. Only so much he’ll put up with for the sake of his loyal Capitol viewers, no matter how much they have to be loving Kili and Bilbo at the moment.”

“Thorin,” Dis began, but Thorin was already plunging the controls forward and putting everything they had into the engine. Trees bent to their speed as they flew along.

--

“Careful,” Kili warned as they slowly made their way through the forest. It was the darkest night Kili had ever known in his life, and even he was having trouble seeing where he was going. Only the few bits of light from the moon were helping him to see where he could go. He still had a death grip on Bilbo’s wrist, and Bilbo on him.

“I’ve got a terrible feeling about this,” Bilbo whispered. “Kili, what good does turning out the lights do for them? It doesn’t do anything. Everyone’s blind, we’ll have less chance of seeing anything. The only way that the dark works is if they push us all together, and that means tightening the noose. I’ve seen it done a hundred times.”

So had Kili. “Then let’s get down to the tree line,” he said, stubbornly refusing to think about anything else. “We’ll see the field, we’ll be fine.”

That’s when he heard it. The cracking of the trees from behind them. Bilbo suddenly went very still, as did Kili. “How far to the tree line?” Bilbo asked.

“A quarter of a mile, perhaps,” Kili replied. Not close enough for whatever was making that low sound that Kili could now hear above the cracking trees. This was bad. This was very bad.

A scream suddenly went up, and there was a loud growling sound. The cannon went off at the same time the scream died, and then someone was running out of the trees at them. It was the blonde elf, but she wasn’t looking at them. Her terrified eyes were constantly whipping behind her. “Go!” Bilbo shouted, and the three of them took off running.

There was something huge behind them, now, multiple things that Kili could hear. It sounded like something so terrible and familiar that Kili hated Smaug. He knew what it was. He knew what it was. Because of course Smaug would bring wargs into this, the very thing that had claimed his father’s life.

“Keep running!” Kili shouted when the elf almost tripped, and she managed to get herself upright just in time to be pounced on from behind. Kili whipped an arrow out from instinct, but even the elf’s blade wasn’t enough. The arrow only served to make the warg angrier as it tore into the poor elf, and another cannon went off.

Three. They were down to three. “Mahal, don’t let it be Denethor still alive,” Kili whispered as they ran. “Please please please-“

They tore out of the tree line and into the open field, straight to the Arkenstone. It almost seemed to be in a spotlight created by the moon, and Kili knew that wasn’t just a random happenstance. Where were they that the Arena could be so controlled?

Suddenly Bilbo’s hand jerked out of his, and Kili swung around only to watch Bilbo hit the ground hard. “Bilbo!” he shouted. There were two wargs almost right on him, and without a thought Kili pulled an arrow and let it loose. It sank into the eyeball of one of the wargs, and its carcass tripped up the second warg. It was enough time for Bilbo to get unsteadily to his feet, and enough time for Kili to grab his hand and haul him forward.

“Up, up, get up!” Kili shouted when they reached the Arkenstone. “Bilbo, go!”

“You first,” Bilbo panted. “Kili, I can’t reach that far down to haul you up, you have to go first-“

Kili threw his bow over his shoulder and began climbing up the sides of the Arkenstone. Even in the faint light of the moon, it shone like a jewel, and it was just as hard to grip as one if not for the sharper edges. But all Kili wanted was to be on the flattened top, away from the wargs.

As soon as he was high enough he reached down and caught Bilbo’s arm with his, pulling the hobbit up. He wasn’t light, but he wasn’t the heaviest thing Kili had ever lifted, either, and that was a good thing. Bilbo made it up to the second highest ledge, just out of reach of the top, and Kili swung himself up to the flattened plane and threw his bow and quiver down beside him. He had Bilbo’s hand in his in an instant, Bilbo’s other hand helping to pull himself up.

Then Kili suddenly felt himself jerked backwards without any air.

--

Bilbo cried out as Kili was yanked away, leaving him with only one hand on the edge. “Kili!” he shouted. The Arkenstone wasn’t meant to be a holding place, and it was slowly slipping from his grasp. The wargs were below now, their nails tearing at the sides of the small mountain, making a horrible screech.

He was going to fall. He was going to fall because of the Arkenstone and he was going to fall to his death. “Kili!” he shouted again. Where had he gone?

Then he heard a muffled yell and a cry of pain, and Bilbo suddenly felt ice wrap around his heart. Not the wargs.

Denethor.

Denethor was going to kill Kili, and the only thing that told Bilbo he hadn’t yet was the stupid cannon hadn’t gone off. Denethor was going to kill him, determined to collect on the bounty, and Kili was never going to go home.

With a growl Bilbo kicked his feet against the Arkenstone and threw his free hand over the edge. He managed to catch himself and began pulling himself over onto the top. Below, the wargs all but barked at him, chomping their terrible teeth together and clawing at the Arkenstone.

There was Kili, struggling against Denethor, almost over the other edge of the Arkenstone. Denethor was a bloody mess with one of his eyes missing. But he still had a death grip on Kili, who was fighting to stay on top of the Arkenstone. With one sudden punch Denethor had him laid out on top of the jeweled mountain.

Even as Bilbo pulled one of his daggers out, Denethor had Kili up by his hair and into a chokehold. Bilbo froze. Kili was a perfect shield, unable to get free without sending them both over into the snarling warg pack below.

Denethor gave a wet laugh and tightened his grip around Kili’s neck. Kili gasped and fought to get the arm loose. “So that’s it,” Denethor rasped. “This is the end, then.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Bilbo began slowly, dagger still in one hand, his other hand held up as if to caution Denethor.

Denethor nodded. “I know it doesn’t. But it does for him. It has to for him.” He jerked his arm with Kili, as if to emphasize just who he meant. “Don’t you understand? We all die if he lives. He has to die!”

“We can all leave together,” Bilbo soothed. His mind screamed at him for the lie, but right now, nothing mattered more than getting Kili out from his grasp. Nothing.

Denethor began to chuckle, dark and throaty and filled with bloody coughs. “You don’t get it, Halfling. He’s the ticket out of here. You could’ve been home by now if you’d just killed him in his sleep. He’s the golden goose, the ultimate prize, and you’ve been letting him walk! Don’t you want to go home?”

Bilbo met Kili’s eyes, panicked and pleading, then raised his gaze back to Denethor. Slowly he lowered his dagger.

“Of course I do.”

--

There wasn’t anyone breathing in the ship. Thank Mahal Dwalin had taken over the flying because right then and there, Thorin couldn’t have.

Not when Bilbo was lowering his weapon and saying things like that. Not when he was betraying Kili.

“What is he doing?” Bofur hissed. “What’s he doing?”

“Of course I do,” Bilbo said again, before he gave a wet laugh. “You think I wanted to leave the Shire? You think I wanted to leave the house my father had built for my mother, the only memory I have of them left? You think I wanted to come here to, to die? Of course I didn’t! Of course I want to go back!”

“We can do that,” Denethor said, and Thorin dug his fingers into his hair until he thought they would pull every last strand out. “You and I. I’m sure we could talk to the Capitol, we could go home-“

“I don’t have a home,” Bilbo said, and everyone sort of stopped. He was staring at Denethor now, pity and grief in his eyes. “I haven’t had a home in years. It’s a house, filled with little breakable things and doilies and it’s not them. And the last person who I counted as kin, the one who made being in the Shire worth anything, she died in the Arena just a few short years ago. Esmeralda’s gone and there’s no one left for me. There is no home. Home isn’t just a place, Denethor, it’s people, too. It’s inside of you. Tell me that you can go home after all of this?”

“I’ll go home,” Denethor insisted, and Thorin could hear the madness in his voice. “I will.”

“You could go home,” Bilbo agreed. “But you’ll never leave the Arena.”

Even the sounds of the wargs seemed quieter in the silence following Bilbo’s statement. Denethor looked terrified, his one good eye wide and crazed. Kili was still hanging on, gasping for air, feet far ahead of him to keep him away from the edge.

“Let him go,” Bilbo asked quietly. “We could all three of us stand against the Capitol-“

“There is no standing,” Denethor said, shaking his head. “You don’t, you don’t get it. We’re already dead, and I just want to go home.” He began to twist his arm and toss Kili down the side, and Bilbo struck. A half second later and a dagger buried itself deep into Denethor’s arm. He shouted and let go of Kili, then immediately lost his balance. With a scream he fell into the wargs.

“Kili!” Fili shouted at the screen. Kili was stumbling, and it was only by Bilbo’s dive that he was pulled to safety on top of the Arkenstone. Denethor kept screaming, loud and terrible cries that only got wetter as the wargs continued to tear him to pieces. Bilbo had his ears covered, tears streaming down his face, but it was Kili who stood a moment later, bow and arrow at the ready.

Even as Thorin stared, not comprehending, Kili loosed an arrow over the side of the Arkenstone and into the pack of wargs. The screams stopped, and the cannon boomed loud and clear.

A mercy kill. Kili had slain Denethor to spare him the agony of death. Thorin watched Dis cover her eyes with her hands, and he fought to breathe.

Slowly the sun began to rise, and the wargs disappeared back into the trees. Then it was just Kili and Bilbo left alone on top of the Arkenstone, both heaving for breath. Thorin felt as if he could finally breathe again.

“Dwalin, how close are we?” Dis called.

“Almost there. Had to skirt around Lorien. We’re comin’ up on Fangorn Forest.”

So close. So long as the Gamekeepers didn’t do anything awful, so long as they could stay safe for another fifteen minutes, then Thorin could get them both out of there. Then he could actually hold Kili again, and he could introduce himself properly to Bilbo, hopefully without making a mess of himself. He owed the hobbit everything. He only hoped he could thank him enough for everything he’d done.

“You have to, Kili. It’s time.”

And Thorin’s brain sort of stopped halfway with his next thought, and when he saw Bilbo step away from Kili, eyes on the bow in his nephew’s hand, his world shattered around him.

--

Kili stared at him. “You’re mad,” he said, shaking his head. “Bilbo, we won.”

“We haven’t won anything,” Bilbo said. “They’re not going to let us both walk out of here, Kili. It’s down to you and me, and you need to do this. You have to.”

“I’m not going to kill you!” Kili shouted. Terror was forming in the bottom part of his stomach, and it was all he could do to keep his grip on his bow.

Bilbo just gave him that long look, the one Mother gave when she was disappointed with Kili, and no, that game wasn’t going to work here. “I’m not doing it,” Kili said, shaking his head. “I refuse.”

“There’s only one thing standing between you and going home, Kili, and that’s me. So just do it.”

“They’ve got a bounty on my head! They’re not going to just let me go home!”

Bilbo sighed, but he still looked so resigned, that this had to happen, and Kili was about to inform him otherwise. “No, not happening. You want to go home too, I heard you say that to Denethor-“

“I don’t have anyone left, Kili,” Bilbo said quietly, and Kili was not crying, he wasn’t. But his heart was breaking in two, trying to avoid the horrible deed that Bilbo was telling him to do. “There’s no one that’s going to mourn me when I die. You have a brother and a mother, an uncle, you have kin, Kili. You deserve to go home.”

Kili’s breath hitched, and then it was all he could do to keep his sobs at bay. “I can’t,” he whispered. “Bilbo, I can’t. You’re, you’re a friend, you’re like my uncle, I can’t kill you.” He wiped the back of his hand over his face, smearing his tears and dirt everywhere. “I won’t do it. I can’t.”

--

“Dwalin-“

“Ten minutes, tops-“

“You don’t have ten minutes!”

Because they didn’t know that they were coming. And if Kili hesitated for a moment more, Bilbo was going to do the deed himself, and Thorin wouldn’t let Bilbo die. He wouldn’t.

--

Bilbo just stood and gazed at him, his own eyes red. Kili swallowed back another sob and forced himself to even his voice. “You’ve got plans, you’ve always got a plan, witty and clever and you have to have a plan. Come on, Bilbo. Think of how to get us home.”

Bilbo bit his lip, and Kili forced himself to be prepared for another barrage of ‘you have to kill me’ words.

So when Bilbo hesitantly began, “Well, there’s…there’s perhaps, perhaps, one thing…” Kili could’ve wept for joy.

“Tell me,” he whispered. He stepped closer, almost close enough to reach out for Bilbo. “Tell me.”

Bilbo glanced at the bag that had somehow, somehow, stayed tied to his belt through all their running. “When you were taking the poor elf from the stream. I…I dipped the water barrel into the river. I filled it up with the poisoned water.”

Kili stared. “How does that-“

“There always has to be a Victor,” Bilbo said, pitching his voice low. “There always has to be a Victor. There can sometimes be two, but there has never, ever, not been a Victor. They have to, or the people would rebel. Even the citizens of the Capitol would be highly put out if ever there wasn’t a Victor.”

Slowly Kili could see the puzzle pieces sliding into place. “So we make them think there won’t be a Victor. That we’ll both die unless we’re crowned Victors.”

Bilbo nodded, and Kili let out a shaky breath. “See? Brilliant to the last.”

--

“Kili’s going to actually drink the water.”

“No, he’s not-“

“I know my brother, Bofur, and he’s dumb enough to actually do it-“

“Dwalin, you’re out of time,” Thorin said desperately. Fili’s terror was getting to everyone, and it was an insane idea, a horrible idea, and yet the most brilliant idea Thorin had ever heard of in his life. Bilbo was one to be reckoned with.

“There,” Bifur called, and Thorin raced to the front of the ship. A dome was right there, in the valley of what had once been the Tower of Isengard. The bottom was metal, doors and hangars everywhere, but the dome’s roof, for as many miles as it stretched, looked to be made of glass.

“Get through it,” Thorin ordered. “I don’t care how, just get through.”

“That, I can do,” Dwalin said, gritting his teeth.

Thorin flew back to the screen just as Bilbo began fiddling with the ties on the bag. “Here, give me a hand,” he said to Kili, and just as Kili stepped forward, Bilbo grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him in. Shock bloomed across Kili’s face, stunned horror, and Thorin couldn’t even give noise to the soundless scream in the back of his throat.

--

“Here, give me a hand.” So Kili had moved forward, and then Bilbo had caught his wrist and hauled him in. Kili’s hand had been forced to wrap around something hard and cold, and then Bilbo had lurched, a horrible lurch, a pained grunt leaving him.

When Kili had finally looked down, there was Bilbo’s larger blade in his hand, and it was halfway into Bilbo’s gut.

Bilbo coughed and began to fall.

--

“Dwalin, get this ship down now!”

Thorin had no voice. Dis was his voice. All Thorin could find to say was a mantra of, “No, no, no,” over and over again until he thought he’d be sick. Bilbo was on the top of the Arkenstone now, bleeding out, coughing on blood. Kili was screaming and right beside him, desperately trying to halt the flow of the blood.

Bilbo had done what Kili wouldn’t do. He’d sacrificed himself to get Kili home, to crown Kili the Victor. All so Kili could go home.

“Hold on!” Dwalin roared, and the ship crashed through the glass.

--

“Bilbo, Bilbo, no,” Kili sobbed, his hands cradling the hobbit’s face. There was blood trickling out of Bilbo’s lips, little bubbles every time he coughed. His eyes were still open, though, and the cannon hadn’t gone off, and that was all that mattered.

“Stay with me,” Kili begged. “Please don’t, don’t die, please Bilbo-“

There was a crash above him, some horrible sound, and Kili instinctively dove to cover and protect Bilbo’s prone form. Shards of glass fell everywhere, and Kili shut his eyes tight. There was a whirring sound, like an engine at full blast, and suddenly everything got darker.

Slowly he opened his eyes. Parts of the sky were still there, but there were black patches, black squares that looked like large screens. And above him, hovering overhead, was an airship, come to take Bilbo away.

“No!” he screamed. “No! He’s not dead, he’s-“ And Bilbo’s eyes were shut, but he was still breathing, he had to be. “He’s not dead! You can’t take him!”

“Kili!”

That voice. The voice Kili had never thought he’d hear again. “Uncle?”

The airship descended, and a long rope ladder flew from the open bay. It was his uncle, hurrying down the ladder. Medical transport, from the symbols, but his uncle was there. “Uncle?” Kili whimpered, hardly daring to believe that this was actually happening.

“Dwalin, closer!” Thorin shouted, and the ship moved to the side. Thorin was hanging over the Arkenstone now, and he reached his hand for Kili. “Come on!”

“I’m not leaving him,” Kili shouted over the noise. “I’m not! Uncle, he saved my life-“

“Get on!” Thorin yelled, already jumping off. He shoved Kili towards the ladder and bent down to gather Bilbo into his arms. He was so gentle and so careful, as if holding the most precious thing he’d ever seen before, daring not to let it break. Kili stared until his uncle moved, and then Kili was racing for the ladder, climbing up and up into the ship.

And straight into his brother’s arms. “Fee,” Kili sobbed, clinging to him hard enough to leave bruises. “Mahal, Fee-“

“It’s all right,” Fili soothed, but it was hard to believe that when he was crying, too. “I swear, Kee, you’re safe, Bilbo’s safe, we got you out. You’re both safe.”

Then his mother was there, and Uncle was handing Bilbo over to Oin and Bofur, who set him up on one of the medical bays. Then they were crashing through more glass and gone.

--

Pain. Distant, but there. Throbbing pain. Like being stabbed that one time, but worse.

Kili’s face, getting his hand on the blade, had to make certain it didn’t look like a suicide or they’d never let Kili win-

Bilbo opened his eyes.

The room was of bright colors and with ample space. No windows, but there was a skylight above, casting a gentle warmth in the room. And that was all Bilbo understood, because the rest of it didn’t make any sense.

Because he was fairly certain he was supposed to be dead.

He began to push himself up, then hissed when his side ached. “Easy,” a deep voice said, and when Bilbo opened his eyes, there he was, the king-like dwarf himself. He always seemed impeccably dressed, when he was on the television. Long hair groomed, beard trimmed just so, eyes bright and clear.

There were heavy bags beneath his eyes now, and his hair was in utter disarray. His clothes looked as if they’d been worn for multiple days on end, but his eyes, his eyes were startling clear and staring at Bilbo as if he were the last being on earth.

Which made the knot in Bilbo’s stomach that much worse. “Kili,” he croaked. “Kili, is he-“

“He’s fine,” Thorin assured him, and Bilbo let out a sigh. “He’s just fine. He’s with Fili and desperate as hell to get in here to see you.” A second later, Thorin had a cup of water, and it was glorious and cold and clear. Bilbo was tempted to gulp it all down, but his stomach was already protesting the liquid, so he settled back into the plush pillows instead.

Thorin was still watching him. “Yes?” Bilbo finally asked when he couldn’t stand it anymore.

“You…” Thorin swallowed and ran a hand over his face. “You saved my nephew. Multiple times. I am beyond indebted to you, Bilbo Baggins.”

Bilbo awkwardly looked away. “No, no, not really. I was just…helping. You helped me, it was the least I could do. And Kili was so young, he didn’t…he didn’t belong there. He didn’t deserve to die there. I don’t have anyone to mourn me when I go, and he does.”

“Didn’t,” Thorin said, and when Bilbo frowned, he clarified softly, “You didn’t have anyone to mourn you before, but you do now. And believe me, when I was in the ship, watching you all but kill yourself to spare Kili, I mourned.”

There was only so much a hobbit could do with that, and Bilbo could feel the tips of his ears heating up. “Yes, well, um. That.” He cleared his throat and tried again. “That’s very kind of you. Truly.”

Before Thorin could say anything, the door to the room burst open, and there was Kili, dressed in warm clothes and clean and alive. “Bilbo!” he shouted, and then he was tearing across the room to embrace Bilbo. Bilbo winced when it tugged on his wound but he refused to let go of the young dwarf. There were sudden tears in his eyes, and he blinked them away. Safe. Kili was safe.

Kili finally let go, but there was a bright smile on his face. He had a bit of an impish look to him, and it suited him much better than the terrified dwarf in the Arena. “Sorry, I should’ve left you both to get acquainted better,” he said, and oh that was most certainly a dangerous gleam in his eyes.

Thorin looked just as red as Bilbo felt. “Kili-“

“Oh no. Smaug’s hunting us down, Bilbo almost died, and you’re both going to argue with me about this?” Kili shook his head. “No. If there’s anything I know now, more than ever, it’s that life is too short for that nonsense. Uncle, you heard Bilbo, I know you did. Saying all those things about you.”

Bilbo was going to die, right there in the bed, beside the dwarf he’d daydreamed about and always held in the highest regard. He shot Kili a glare but it got him nowhere. “So tell him,” Kili said, but he wasn’t looking at Bilbo. He was looking at Thorin.

Thorin, who looked red and angry but had a nice blush going beneath his beard. “Go,” Thorin muttered, and Kili left with a quick smile.

Bilbo crossed his hands on his lap and waited. Thorin sighed but couldn’t seem to find the words. “You don’t have to say anything,” Bilbo said at last, taking pity on him. “It doesn’t surprise me that Kili’s playing matchmaker. He knows I hold you in the highest regard, that you…that you’re my hero, and have been for a long time. And since I know that you have to have heard everything I said about you while in the Arena, I’m going to stop talking.”

“Me, a hero?” Thorin asked, and he was gazing at Bilbo as if he were some great long-lost treasure. “Bilbo, you defied the Capitol in numerous ways, you saved Kili’s life, and then you all but gave your own to ensure his safety. I am a small candle compared to your sun. You, Bilbo Baggins, are my hero.”

Bilbo swallowed, unable to break their shared gaze. Thorin gave a small smile and it was just as heart-stopping as Bilbo remembered it being, except it was being directed at him. “I can only hope to try and offer you my affections,” Thorin said. “For I greatly admire you, too.”

Then he paused. “Though I will warn you, at the moment, I’m caught in a rebellion against the Capitol. So if you return my affections, there will be danger involved.”

“A rebellion?” Bilbo asked, frowning. “Against the Capitol? How did you start that?”

“I didn’t. You did. You and Kili, tending to Tilda. Laketown revolted and managed to throw off the Guards. When the Capitol sent in reinforcements to obliterate them, my friend Nori had dwarves waiting and cut them off. We gathered the people of Laketown and brought them here, to the Iron Hills. District 13.”

Bilbo blinked and blinked some more. “I’m going to need a lot of catching up,” he finally said. “You can tell me over dinner. Dwarves…do know the significance of asking someone to dinner, right?”

“I think we were the ones who started it,” Thorin said, and he had a bit of an impish grin, too. “We dwarves are very fond of our food.”

“I almost hate to tell you that you have absolutely nothing on hobbits.”

Somehow, his hand had found Thorin’s, and he didn’t quite mind.

--

“More refugees,” Bofur said, shaking his head. Kili watched them flood into the city of the Iron Hills. Iron and mithril hulls spanning miles, keeping the people sheltered inside. It fit its name well. “Don’t know if they’ll ever get to go home.”

“It won’t ever be the same,” Nori said matter-of-factly. “But maybe that’s a good thing.”

“Maybe we’ll start new places,” Kili said softly. His earlier joy of seeing Bilbo alive had sort of resulted in a teasing that his uncle was sure to give him hell for later. Maybe. Thorin was sort of letting him get away with everything at the moment. They all were. Kili was looking forward to having it stop, honestly.

Bofur clapped him on the back just as a group of elves stepped in. “Aye, laddie. Maybe we will.” He set off with Nori to help some of those struggling to get in, and Kili went to help guide the elves in.

They were a rag-tag group, and they paused upon seeing him. Kili sort of hated that everyone knew who he was, and especially because of how they knew him. The less he thought about the Arena, the better. “I’m here to help,” Kili said, straightening himself as tall as he could go. “Let me get you to suitable lodgings.”

The elf in the front, long golden hair flowing over his shoulders, finally nodded. “Thank you, Master Durinson,” he said quietly. “You show more kindness than I expected. Given…”

Kili paused. The elf looked as distraught as Kili had ever seen an elf look. “Given?” he prodded.

“My cousin, Haenon. From District 6. He tried to kill you.”

Kili could still feel the hot grass beneath him as the elf – Haenon, apparently – had fought to bring his blade down. He’d died minutes later under the hands of a man from Laketown.

The elf’s head was bowed, and Kili was suddenly so very done with the Arena taking anything more from anyone. “No, it’s, it’s all right,” he said, and the elf and the other elves with him stared as if he’d grown a second head. “It’s what he was supposed to do,” he tried to explain. “I know that. And it’s all right.”

The elf slowly gazed at him with growing awe. “You showed my other cousin from Rivendell a great deal of honor,” he finally said. “I wanted to thank you for that. No one else would have dared do her such honor.”

He wondered if the people of Laketown would stop telling him that, too. Reminding him of Tilda’s bright eyes and small little laugh. Her cold hand in his as she’d died. He’d deliberately stayed away from the quarters of men, terrified to run into Tilda’s family.

Kili shook his head and dared to rest a hand on the elf’s arm. “It was the least I could do,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry she had to die that way.”

The elf gave a half smile. “Your kindness is truly more than I had expected or deserved. Thank you, Master Durinson.”

“Kili. It’s really just Kili.”

When he smiled, the elf was certainly a being of beauty, and it was infectious enough to turn Kili’s own lips up. “Legolas of District…” He caught himself. “Of Mirkwood,” he finally said. “Perhaps we will have a chance to speak together again. I know my friend Tauriel would like to meet you. She enjoys archery and admires your skill, as do I.”

“I’d like that,” Kili said softly. The rest of the elves moved on, and Kili brought them to the gathering place to let them search for lost kin. Legolas gave him one last smile before he left, and it felt like a touch of sunlight.

There was still so much to do. The Capitol was still there, and they could just as easily do another Arena with another twenty-four beings. Someone else’s Tilda or Bilbo or Haenon or cousin from Rivendell could fall to the Capitol’s whims. They only had a few districts with refugees that had managed to escape. There was still a lot to be done.

He pushed his terror back and let his determination form around it. No one else would know the fear he had felt, running for his life, fighting to save Bilbo’s. He was a Durinson, and he was going to fight back.

Bilbo had told him not to let the Arena take his joy of life. And he wasn’t going to.

--

He was of the line of Durin, they said. Durinson by name, but his lineage descended from kings. And a king he would be again, perhaps. His uncle was certainly regal enough. Even the hobbit who stood by his uncle’s side looked like royalty.

Where the Capitol let fall seeds of death and desolation, Kili Durinson walked with unexpected mercy and kindness. He fought for the other districts, not just his own, and one by one the gates separating the regions began to fall.

The day the Capitol fell was like no other. The heroic and selfless Bilbo Baggins himself was said to have gone up against President Smaug, and he’d crept in like a burglar, stealing codes and passwords and guard rotations. Then the might of Durin had fallen upon Mordor. Their merry company of dwarves and elves and even men. Some said that one of the royal lines of Gondor followed Thorin Oakenshield Durinson that day. Dain Durinson of the Iron Hills himself had cleaved an orc twice his size in half, and had spared the life of a Capitol citizen when he hadn’t owed them any mercy. His wisdom and kindness had spread through the lands.

Bard Bowman had certainly followed the Durinsons into battle, and would proudly tell everyone who would listen. He followed for his daughter’s memory, in honor of little Tilda. He followed for the kindness of Kili Durinson and Bilbo Baggins.

But Mordor fell, and President Smaug with it, and a new world was born. One without fear or terror, one without any more Arenas. One with hope and promise.

And when one day, the message from the Shire came to New Erebor, a message of the birth of a young Frodo Baggins, only son to Drogo and Primula Baggins, there was a great celebration in honor of the first babe born into the new world of peace.

End