Early one morning after the thaw, the brothers went hunting. Clad in drab brown and grey, plaits hidden beneath their hoods, they collected their bows from the armory and slipped out before the household awoke.
The deer forest waited a hour’s hike southwest. It had been their kingdom ever since Dís first allowed them to step outside of the settlement. Himling lay out of reach across the water, so they claimed the wilderness instead—charting its mysteries, memorizing its paths.
Kíli slowed his stride to the rhythm of Fíli’s limp. Neither spoke, though they often glanced and smiled at each other. From time to time one took the other’s hand to help him down a gully or over a fallen tree. Eventually they stopped letting go.
No awkwardness marred the quiet between them. This comforting silence was its own tongue apart.
When they reached their customary blind, the brothers crushed and rubbed new birch buds on themselves to mask their scent. Kíli rolled his shoulder a few times; Fíli his wrist. They nocked a single arrow apiece and crouched in the brush to watch and wait.
The chilly morning air smelled of black loam, melting snow, and wet wood; a faint whistling breeze carried birdsong to their ears. One twig snapped in the distance, then another. Kíli tensed slightly each time but otherwise remained as motionless as a stone idol.
Kíli was born for the bow. Normally clumsy and impulsive, at one touch of an arrow’s fletch he transformed into a killer—focused, patient, deadly. Fíli (whose talents ran to charging and thrusting and hewing and roaring) marveled at the subtlety of his brother’s gift. Watching the change come over Kíli never failed to excite and fascinate him.
Once more, the sharp report of dry wood breaking underfoot.
Fíli sat back on his heels as Kíli shifted his weight, lifted his bow, drew the bowstring back to his cheek, and stilled himself— all in a breath. With mingled pride and apprehension, Fíli watched his brother divine the source of the sound.
A doe stepped into view.
Barely more than a yearling, new to the grace of maturity, she picked her way delicately amid winter's fallen branches. A curious white blaze like a blessing-sign marked her brow between her eyes. Nearer and nearer she came, stopping here and there to sniff the wind, no more wary of them than of a stone or a twig. How lovely she was; how vital and free.
Fíli suddenly loathed the hunt with all of his being. Beside him Kíli’s bowstring creaked; he stiffened and bowed his head—
—but instead of the vibrato hum, the percussive thud of impact, the agonized bellow—silence.
Kíli had let the bowstring go slack. He sat for a moment studying the weapon in his hands, then laid it carefully on the ground. Turning to Fíli, he shook his head.
Fíli touched his right shoulder with a questioning look.
(Does it hurt?)
Kíli shook his head again. He looked back at the doe, who had begun to nose the fallen leaves in search of lichen, and flattened his hand on his chest.
(No. I haven’t the heart.)
Awash with gratitude, Fíli touched Kíli’s sleeve to regain his attention. He grasped his brother’s hood and pulled him forward into an embrace.
Warm breath on chilled skin; the feathery brush of eyelashes against the other’s cheek. They leaned into each other with a sense of safety and peace.
Branches dipping and swaying overhead; dew pattering down.
Another snapped twig; a tiny flash of movement over Kíli’s shoulder. Fíli drew back and made a rapid series of hand-signs.
(Quiet. Eyes to me. Don’t move.)
Kíli’s nostrils flared wide, but he obeyed.
Rustling leaves; pent breath.
When the doe’s muzzle first brushed Kíli’s ear, he closed his eyes. She nosed his hair, his temple, investigating his unfamiliar scent. He did not move until she began to nuzzle his throat; then he tipped his head to offer her more of him to explore. She tentatively licked the salt from his skin, and his lips parted: Ohhh.
(You are so beautiful.)
It started that moment, coming from nowhere, resounding bell-pure through the halls of Fíli’s heart.
(You are so beautiful.)
He did not recall ever thinking such a thing before. He could not define it, did not know what to do with it.
(Beautiful because alive; beautiful because mine)
He inhaled sharply, and the doe sprang away, crashing through the underbrush.
They remained as they were for a long moment, each sunken in a separate rapture. Then Fíli murmured, Brother?
Kíli slowly opened his eyes. He laughed as Fíli leaned over and pretended to wipe drool from the corner of his mouth, but the encounter had left him dazed and distant.
Kíli snorted. H-hardly. You are.
Soft and low: Yes.
Oho, you’ll admit it?
Even softer, even lower: Yes. I couldn’t deny anything as wonderful as what I just saw.
Kíli blushed and for once, Fíli did not tease him for it— could not, for steadfast Kíli held his gaze, and a word unspoken between them brought heat to both their cheeks.
That evening at table, they sat across from one another instead of side by side; that night, they each carefully kept to his half of the bed. An odd unease dwelt between them, a newness which demanded consideration. But by morning it had resolved itself; they awoke as they’d awoken forever: Nadad-Mim and Naddith-Zanid. Something had been tested, and it had held; their compass still pointed toward its north.
All the same, they returned again and again to the deer forest that spring, making instinctive tracks back to that moment.