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AGASTOPIA: The Endurance of First Impressions

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Dwarves don't remember much from their first decade or two on Arda. Fíli could just about remember his mother's smile and his father's booming laugh, the way that his little brother had giggled and reached for his shining hair. Clearer still was the image of his Uncle Frerin, his wide smile gleaming between neat mustache braids that hung almost to his collarbones.  But then, Frerin had visited him each new moon for three years, until he had died when Fíli was fifteen and the last regular connection to his mother's family had died with him.
If he was to be brutally honest, Fíli didn't miss it all that much.  His father's relatives were friendly and numerous, and for all that they lived clear on the other side of Erid Luin and kept to themselves, everyone knew that the descendants of Durin were stuffy and melancholy and didn't know how to have a good time, forever pondering on gold and tragedy. Everyone Fíli knew was of the same opinion - he was well rid of them and all they represented.
"Never mind those damn Durins," his great-grandmother would say as she wove braids into his slowly lengthening blond hair. "We are descended from Narvi, who made the doors of Khazad-dûm. We are makers, which is much better than being Kings.  Kings often break things. Now, how is your latest project coming along?"
When she had been called to Mahal's side, Fíli had cried for a week.
Fíli's childhood was filled with the toys made by Uncle Bifur, and the treats made by Uncle Bombur, although both Dwarves were technically his father's cousins rather than Uncles.  As he grew he played older brother to Bombur's growing hoard of red headed children and if anyone had asked him, he would have said that he was happy.
Fíli was on his way back to the family hall after a day spent with Bifur in his toy workshop, when an unfamiliar Dwarf with a snowy beard combed into two forks stopped him in the passage.
“Happy Birthday, laddie,” the dwarf said cheerfully, his hands tucked into a wide leather belt.  “Seventy, if I’m not mistaken?”
“At your service,” Fíli replied cautiously.  “You seem to know me but I’m afraid I do not recognise you.”
“Balin, son of Fundin at your service,” Balin said promptly, bowing.  “I apologise lad, I knew you when you were a wee dwarfling, but I am not surprised that you do not remember.  Your mother is my cousin.”
Fíli hadn't had cause to think about his mother in quite some time, but the old dwarf had given him no cause to be rude so he consented to sit in a niche carved into the wall of the passage and converse when Balin asked.
“How much do you know about how you came to live where you are?” Balin asked, settling onto the stone and pulling out an elaborately carved pipe.
Fíli shrugged.  "My father died, and as the oldest of the line of Narvi, as tradition dictates I was brought up by his family," he said.  "I think normally my mother and little brother would have come too, but because they're from the line of Durin it was decided that they would stay with them.  Her family, I mean."
"Do you miss them?" Balin asked next, and Fíli eyed him in astonishment.  Still, despite the personal question there was nothing but worry and kindness in the old Dwarrow's eyes.
"I don't remember them," he said firmly, looking out the nearest window slit to avoid seeing the reaction to his words.  "I was sad when Uncle Frerin stopped visiting I think, he was fun.  But I have Uncle Bifur, Uncle Bofur and Uncle Bombur, so I'm hardly starved for family."
"There was a bit of a fuss after your father died," Balin said slowly.  "I would tell you about it, if you're willing to listen."
Fíli nodded.  "I wouldn't have sat with you if I wasn't going to listen to what you have to say," he said honestly.
"Thank you laddie.  So, as you've said, tradition is that the eldest of the line stays with their Father's family, however you and your brother were a bit of a special case.  Thorin Oakenshield, heir to the Kingdom of Erebor, declared you his heir when you were born, and your brother after you, as he has no children of his own and no intention to take a wife."  Balin paused there, seeming to expect some sort of response, but Fíli honestly wasn't sure what to say.  Ok, so once upon a time he had been made heir to a dead kingdom, but he obviously wasn't anymore.
"Thorin wanted you and your mother and brother to stay in the family halls after your father passed, but your father's family objected," Balin continued when he realised that Fíli wasn't going to say anything.  "They argued for a week, refusing to acknowledge your legitimate claim to Erebor or to take into account your father's agreement that you would be considered firstborn son of that line."
Fíli thought that perhaps Thorin was a little too full of himself and too used to throwing his status around to get what he wanted.  There couldn't have been anything written down about the succession or there would have been no point in arguing about it, he remembered that much from his lessons.  The legal bits had always stuck in his brain easily.  Thorin had evidentially been arrogant enough not to bother getting anything in writing for the first twelve years of Fíli's life, and that was assuming that his father had even agreed to Fíli becoming Thorin's heir.
Fíli doubted that he had; he knew his family, and they were proud of their heritage, proud to carry on the legacy of Narvi in any way that they could.  He couldn't imagine one of his uncles giving that up for a dead kingdom, so why would his father have done so?
He must have been doing a reasonable job of hiding his doubts, because Balin kept talking.  "Eventually it was agreed that you would be brought up by your grandparents and that your mother and brother would stay with Thorin.  We were asked to all stay away for the most part, to avoid confusing you.  Monthly visits were agreed.  But now that you're of age that decree has now expired, and, well, you can come home."
Fíli frowned at him.  "I have a home," he objected, rubbing his chilled hands together.  There was a constant draft seeping from the window slits, which was fine when you were walking but it was a bit chilly for sitting this late into the year.  "I don't need another.  Uncle Frerin used to visit, and after he died no one bothered to carry on.  I'm sorry, I expect it isn't what you want to hear, but I'm happy with the family I have, and-"
"The visits continued," Balin interrupted.  "Why, my brother Dwalin, a cousin of the line, took up the visitation after Frerin passed."
Fíli looked at him in bewilderment.  "I have no idea who that is," he said plainly.  "I have no memory of a dwarf named Dwalin visiting the family hall, or speaking with me, ever.  I'm sorry Mister Balin, but I need to get going or I'll be late to help with dinner."  He jumped to his feet and bowed, not sure what else to do.  "It was nice to meet you."
The family hall was full of its usual cheerful chaos when he pushed open the door.  Uncle Bofur was playing a merry jig on his pipe as Bombur's three children worked together to set the table, their short legs dancing to the music.  Uncle Bifur, having beaten him home, was sitting by the fire.  Tools flashed in the yellow light as he fixed a small wooden battle cart replica that Vitr had stepped on and broken the previous evening, much to Nýr's disgust.  Aunt Skirfyr emerged from the kitchen alcove, wiping her hands on her grease stained apron. 
"I love him, I do," she muttered.  "But sometimes I want to drop him down the nearest mine shaft."  Her bright Firebeard hair was plastered to her perspiring face and her cheeks were flushed with annoyance above her curling beard.  Green eyes crinkled at the corners when she spotted him and waved him closer.  "Fíli, welcome home! Kidhuzurâl, can you help your Uncle in the kitchen please?  Apparently the way that I whisk the gravy isn't right."
After the conversation with Balin in a draughty corridor, Fíli was glad to slip out of his deerhide coat and head into the warm kitchen.  Bombur's wide bulk was nowhere to be seen, although there was indeed a pot of gravy on the iron stove.  Fíli picked up the whisk and started to beat the lumps out briskly.
"Uncle, I'm home," he called down the passage that led to the store room.
"Kidhuzurâl?  What took you so long?" his Uncle demanded, reappearing with a small basket of onions.
"I was stopped on my way back, a Dwarrow named Balin wanted to talk to me about ancient history," Fíli explained.  The gravy was beginning to smooth out and his Uncle nodded at the pot with an approving expression, before he seemed to register what Fíli had said.
"What?  Balin, son of Fundin?"
Fíli shrugged.  "He just said Balin, said he was a relative on my mother's side and some mahumb about being able to talk to me now that I'm seventy."
"Language!" Bombur reprimanded automatically, pulling down a large skillet and tossing a knob of bacon grease in. "Couldn't even wait for your birthday to be over," he complained, his large knife making short work of chopping the onions.  Fíli kept his face away.  Bombur seemed immune to the sting of onion after so many years in the kitchen, but they still made Fíli's eyes water.  "Are you all right?  Did he upset you?"
Fíli shrugged.  "Not really, like I said it was ancient history.  I'm part of this family now, I don't need another.  There was one weird bit, he seemed to think that another Dwarf had been visiting after Uncle Frerin stopped, but I don't remember anyone.  His brother, I think he said."
"That would be Dwalin, from the guard," Bofur said from the doorway, making both Bombur and Fíli jump.  The jolly pipe music continued, but a new breathy hesitancy to the notes indicated that Litr had taken over from her uncle.  "He hangs around the practice ring we use sometimes.  Bald."
"Lots of tattoos?" Fíli asked and Bofur nodded.  "I think I remember him.  He stares at me sometimes, I thought he was looking for recruits."
"Not a bad assumption," Bofur assured him.  "Now I guess we know he was reporting back to your mum."
"I don't get it," Fíli said, suddenly angry.  He jabbed the whisk into the gravy, half wishing that there was dough to knead.  That was always therapeutic.  "Balin seemed to want me to acknowledge them all as kin, but it's not like they bother to visit.  My mother has never visited, right?  I would remember.  So I don't understand why they suddenly care now, and I don't want them coming around and messing things up when I'm supposed to be figuring out my craft and... and-"
Strong arms pulled him away from the stove and Bofur folded him into an embrace as his brother smoothly pulled the whisk from his hand so that gravy didn't drip to the floor.  "It'll be all right, ghivashith," his deep voice murmured as he stood as firm and solid as the mountain, emanating 'safety' in a way that reminded Fíli of Grandma.  There was a lump in his throat and he felt all of twenty years old again as he hid his face in Bofur's knitted sweater.  "It'll be all right.  You're safe home with us, kidhuzurâl, and if you don't want the line of Durin talking to you, well, then your uncles will go have words with them."
"You'd do that?" Fíli asked, surprised enough to lift his head.
"Of course!" his uncle assured him cheerfully. "That's what family is for.  Come on, into the main room.  Bombur has the kitchen well in hand today."
Fíli closed his eyes and let himself be led out of the alcove, suddenly exhausted.  He knew that they were having a hasty conversation in eyebrow lifts and iglishmêk over his head but he couldn't bring himself to care.  Bofur lead him to one of the leather armchairs by the crackling fire  and pushed him down into the warm cushions.  Little Nýr immediately toddled over and started to climb up into his lap.  Fíli didn't help, knowing that letting the Dwarfling make his own attempt was more important than some bruises on his shin.  At least Nýr wasn't wearing boots, although considering that he had feet like tiny boulders maybe it wouldn't have made a difference.
"I've got a surprise for you," Bofur said, kneeling on the hearth rug to gather up the coloured chalks that Nýr had abandoned.  "I've been waiting till today to tell you.  Now that you're of age, you can do more than tag along with us and our crafts.  I know that wood carving and cooking haven't really delighted you, after all, and we'd all rather you found your craft instead of settling for ours.  I've spoken with some pals from the tavern, Thekkr is willing to let you take a turn in his forge, see if perhaps you'd like to apprentice.  His wife has given him three girls and he's getting impatient; for all that the girls are a blessing none of them are interested in forge work.  Or if that doesn't work out, Hanarr has a big project starting in a moon or two, he's willing to let you try your hand at working the stone."
"Thank you Uncle," Fíli breathed, his mind already working through the possibilities.  Hanarr he knew already, the Dwarf was responsible for the best friezes in Erid Luin and his stand alone sculptures were always well sought after.  It was a mark of his long friendship with Bofur that they had an impressive one themselves, their family symbols carved delicately into a long piece of white marble that was mounted above the main fireplace.  Thekkr, he was fairly sure, was the smith responsible for the delicate tools that Bifur used in the toy shop, although Fíli had got the impression that that was more of a favour than his usual work.
"I would like to try the forge," he decided, remembering the trouble he'd had with chisel and hammer when his uncle was trying to teach him to shape wood.  Luckily he hadn't ruined anything that Bofur couldn't fix, and they had been working on a new stool for his own chamber.
"I'll tell Thekkr in the morning.  For tonight, this is your birthday, you should enjoy it."
Nýr settled onto Fíli's thighs with a crow of triumph and reached up to touch his cousin's golden hair.  Fíli ducked his head a little, letting a braid swing forward so that the dwarfling could twist the wooden bead on the end.
"Sad?" Nýr asked, touching the corner of his mouth gently.
"It's ok, nidoyith.  I'll be happy again soon," Fíli promised his cousin.  "How can I be anything but happy when I have you here?"
"Song?" Nýr asked hopefully.
"All right," Fíli agreed.  "How about a mining song?"
"Trees!" Nýr protested and Fíli had to wrack his memory for a song that contained even the mention of trees.  Where had Nýr even learned that word?   He'd never been outside the mountain.  Litr appeared at his elbow, pipe ready to accompany whatever he came up with.  Finally, inspiration struck and he winked at her as he took a breath.
Shining silver stains the floor
Trees of holly guard the door
My eyes weep to see no more
The carven halls of stone
Oh Khazad-dûm! So bright and fair!
Life is cruel to leave me here
Braids of mourning weigh my hair
I walk these halls alone
Oh Khazad-dûm! So fair and bright!
But what is beauty without sight?
My world is wreathed in darkest night
Too far the light had flown
Yet still I know beneath my hand
The heartbeat of my motherland
Here I'll live, sight be damned
I'll never leave my home
"That was beautiful nathith, kidhuzurâl," Skirfyr said with a proud smile as she reached over to pluck Nýr from Fíli's lap.  "We'll have some more music after dinner."
"It's ready?" Litr asked, threading the wooden pipe into the nest of dark braids piled on top of her head.
Skirfyr rolled her eyes skyward but didn't make her take it out.  "Sit at the table, your father will have the roast out in just a moment."
Fíli was pushed to the head of the table, displacing his great-grandfather, not that Jari seemed to mind.  He looked around at the familiar faces of his family, all turned expectantly to watch the entrance to the kitchen alcove and felt a smile tugging at his lips for the first time since Balin had stopped him in the passage.  He was home, surrounded by family, and he was loved.  What could the line of Durin possibly have to offer him that he didn't have already?