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Deep Under the Mountain

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What do you say to the dead

Will you forgive me for living

Can't believe the things that they said

Wonderful day for a killing

It's killing me

(x)

 

 

They say that the caverns in the heart of the mountain are old, older than the Halls built by the dwarves, older even than the mountain itself. Few have ever ventured down there and even fewer have come back. There is magic down there, left from ancient times when Arda was yet young, older and stranger than anything else still dwelling on this earth. But when the great fire drake came from the North and brought death and ruin over Durin’s Folk, some of those who found no escape fled deeper into the mountain than anyone else had gone before them, in hopes they could come out again should the dragon disappear. Smaug, however, stayed and so they were forced to wander the darkness with never a way out, doomed to perish where even the rock was unfamiliar. It is said that some of them still wander, that if you go down there, you will hear their moans and feel the cold air of their desperation on your skin.

*

Dwalin had never believed the old tales. Yes, there were caverns beneath the mountain which had been there before the dwarves had arrived – but natural caves and openings within the earth were hardly a rarity. The kingdom of Erebor itself had been built based on the entrance to that natural system, after all. And that dwarves had fled down here during the attack of the dragon – of course they would have. Their deaths hadn’t been pretty, but dead they were and it was the reason they were down here in the first place.

Most of the upper parts of the mountain had been cleaned in the past months since the Battle of Five Armies and were a good way into restoration already. It had taken until long after Thorin’s coronation that they finally had the time to set their minds towards searching and cleaning out those parts of the mountain that lay furthest in the deep, even past the entrance to the mines and the holy cavern where Thorin had spent the night before the official coronation holding vigil like the dwarven kings of old.

Now, however, they were finally facing the task they had been dreading for so long. Dwalin and Thorin had been amongst the first to go down, an entire team of dwarves behind them, waiting for the reports of the several scouting duos and their king’s orders on where to start their sad work. In truth there were enough other dwarves who could have taken over the task of scouting ahead and getting a grasp of the situation down here – but Dwalin knew that Thorin much preferred such physical work nowadays to the endless council meetings and negotiations about new trade alliances. He would have taken any excuse to get away from it all for half a day or more and Dwalin couldn’t say that he didn’t understand his decision.

And so they were walking down the dark tunnels of the caverns deep within the heart of the mountain. Side by side, they were always on the lookout for any sign of more dead of their folk, Dwalin’s new leg making slightly metallic sounds every time he set it on the ground. They had an old map on them that Balin and Ori had found in those parts of the old library that could still be salvaged and made several copies of for the scouting teams to take with them, although Dwalin had quietly taken it away from Thorin at the beginning of their walk, earning a punch into his ribs in return. At least his One hadn’t questioned his decision, knowing well that even with a dwarf’s sense of the rock and stone surrounding them, he would likely get lost.

They found the first group of corpses not far from the entrance into the system of old caverns. There were maybe ten of them, dwarrows, dams and their children huddled closely together, obviously intent on spending their last moments together when it had become clear that they would be unable to flee. Dwalin wondered how many had tried for a last desperate dash out of the mountain only to be killed by fire or eaten by the dragon in the end. He shuddered.

With a little sigh he marked the place they were at on the map he was holding for the teams to come and recover the bodies later and give them a proper burial. He gently tugged at the sleeve of his partner who was still staring at the corpses in front of them, doubtlessly pondering whether there had been any way all those now dead could have been saved so many decades ago.

“Come on, let’s go. They’ll find their peace.” He said softly to Thorin and Thorin nodded in response, sighing deeply before he moved beside Dwalin so that they could continue on their way.

“I wonder how many of them will be down here.” Thorin wondered quietly. Somehow they had both subdued their voices when talking, as if those dead were only sleeping and should not be disturbed in their rest. Dwalin nodded, privately hoping that there wouldn’t be too many.

Soon the tunnels became even narrower, so small that often enough they had to stoop and walk through them behind each other. At other times they were wide, opening up into caverns so high that it was impossible to see all of the ceiling even with the flickering torch in their hands. Thrice more they stumbled upon the corpses of their people, and each time Dwalin marked the place on the map whilst Thorin gripped their torch so tightly that Dwalin half feared he would break it at one point. At least they had brought more than sufficient spares and their own fire making kits to boot.

It was when they rounded a corner into another cavern that they heard it for the first time. A faint sound, as if somebody was shouting in the distance, together with the noise of footsteps on the rocky ground. Thorin turned to Dwalin and frowned.

“Did you hear that?”

“Yeah.” Dwalin thought it strange that there would be shouting so far down here. Maybe one of the other teams had gotten themselves into trouble somehow and needed help? Although it seemed rather unlikely. According to the map he held in his hands theirs was the only access route to that particular part of the caves. “Let’s keep walking in that direction and see if anyone needs us.“

Thorin nodded and set out ahead of him, sighing when the tunnel once more became so narrow he had to bend down to keep walking.

“Dwalin, stop it.” He said suddenly and Dwalin raised his eyebrows.

“I’m not doing anything,” he replied.

“That’s not funny, Dwalin.”

“Really, I’m not- what was that?”

They both came to a halt so suddenly that one might have thought they had walked into a wall. Thorin turned around, his remaining eye widening.

“The constant tugging at my shirt? That wasn’t you?”

Dwalin shook his head and raised his hands.

“I thought I’d seen-“ he interrupted himself, knowing how silly it must sound. Thorin, however, was listening intently, his fingers wrapped around the torch so tightly that his knuckles stood out white. “It looked like a shadow next to you. It was gone so quickly, I thought it was just a trick my mind had played on me.”

“It was probably just the wind. And the flickering of the torch.” Thorin said quietly, the expression on his face clearly showing that he wasn’t exactly convinced by his own explanation.

“Yeah.” Dwalin believed Thorin’s words even less than him, but maybe if he spoke the words aloud they would come true.

As if bound by an invisible cord they stayed more closely together as they continued walking. It didn’t take long for them to notice the cold wind that was blowing, making their torch flicker even more strongly. Dwalin decided that he absolutely did not hear the sound of whispering carried by the wind in the air and if Thorin perceived anything similar, he didn’t say so either. What they both couldn’t ignore after a while, however, was the sound of footsteps that seemed to be somewhere behind them.

At some point Dwalin was unable to bear it any longer. With a shout he turned around, ready to surprise whoever was following them. The sound of steps stopped the moment he laid eyes on the empty tunnel behind him. Thorin had winced at the noise, but said nothing otherwise and the two of them exchanged worried glances.

“Anybody here?” Dwalin called. Maybe it was just a different group of dwarves who had come after them to call them back or inform them of something important that had happened further up and required their immediate attention. His voice echoed slightly around the underground tunnels, but there was no reply and he frowned. A few steps back in the direction they had come from didn’t shed any new light on the situation either – they were alone down here in this part of the mountain, and yet it was seemingly not so.

“Let’s keep going.” Thorin suggested quietly and Dwalin nodded. “How much further to the end of our area according to the map?”

“Not much.” Dwalin replied, looking down again at the piece of paper in his hands as Thorin brought the torch closer for him to have more light to read by. “There’s two more big caverns to come and that should be the end of it, unless there’s more tunnels branching off they haven’t put on here.“

“Then let’s hope the map makers have been accurate.” Thorin sighed. “Those random sounds are beginning to grate on my nerves.”

“You scared?” There was a grin stretched on Dwalin’s face now as he teased his One. Thorin threw him a murderous glance, followed by a light punch to his side. In some ways, the two of them would never grow up.

“No.” Thorin cocked his head. “Just uneasy. Don’t tell me you aren’t feeling it, too. It’s like everything’s tainted by death down here. “

He didn’t say out loud what else the atmosphere reminded him off – as if they were inside a living, breathing grave. It was a feeling close to that which they’d had after Azanulbizar and whilst they were recovering after the Battle of Five Armies: that the spectre of death was looming everywhere, overlooking everything they were doing.

Dwalin nodded and put his hand on Thorin’s injured shoulder, taking care not to squeeze too tightly. It was a sign of reassurance for both of them and suddenly he wished they would be able finish here as quickly as possible so they could leave and get back to their normal lives in the happier parts of Erebor.

They should have known before they set foot into the two big connected caverns. Nonetheless. Thorin breathed in audibly and Dwalin closed his eyes for a moment before opening them again. It was the largest cavern on the map and evidently most of those who had fled downwards had ended up taking refuge here. Dwalin couldn’t even say how many of them there were at first glance –most of the corpses were huddled together in small groups, the dry, never-changing air having preserved some of them almost perfectly. Some of them looked like they had tried to dig their way out of the cave with their bare fingers and Dwalin shuddered when he saw how some of the expressions were still frozen in terror. They would never know what had actually happened here; but whatever it had been, it hadn’t been a gentle end for everyone.

He forced his eyes away from the horrible picture and made another note on the map. Thorin slowly walked away from him once he had finished, towards the second cavern that was almost merged with this one. The moving shadows generated by the torch somehow made it look as if some of the corpses were moving. Dwalin could hear the footsteps again and the moment Thorin stepped behind one of the several large rocky outcrops on the ground, the whispers were back too, and stronger than ever before. He would have never admitted it, but Dwalin almost jogged the few steps to keep up with his partner.

“Thorin, did you-“ He stopped dead in his tracks.

Thorin was gone.

The torch was still there, burning brightly even as it leaned against the rock, but of his partner himself there was no trace. Dwalin felt his heart beat faster, his mouth suddenly try.

“Thorin?”

There was no reply.

“Thorin, I swear by my mother’s beard, if this is some kind of prank…”

Dwalin ignored the growing uneasiness in his stomach as he moved over to pick up the torch again. Surely his One couldn't just have vanished. In a short bout of hysteria he imagined going back to the others and telling his brother that he had lost their king. It might have been worth it just for Balin's facial expression at the words.

"Thorin!" he called out once more, now unable to hide the desperation in his voice.

Only silence answered him.

*

Thorin awoke with a hammering headache and the taste of dust in his mouth. He frowned as he tried to remember what had happened; it all seemed like a haze in his head. The last thing he recalled clearly was entering the large cave with Dwalin and finding the corpses. He thought he had heard voices calling to him from the next cave and had hurried to get there as fast as he could. The voices had become louder and louder with each step until he had suddenly lost consciousness when he touched the rock, although he couldn't explain how or why.

It was dark around him as he opened his eye and the whispers were so loud, in both Khuzdul and the common speech, that he thought he was surrounded by other dwarrows. With a groan he sat up and patted his clothes for the pocket that contained his fire making pouch. After a few tries he managed to light one of the spare torches he had been carrying with him. As soon as he did, the whispers stopped and a quick look around showed him that the cave was empty. He was at exactly the same point as before - with the slight difference that, as he turned around, he saw that the corpses they had found earlier were missing. As was his partner.

"Dwalin?" His voice echoed around the large cavern without ever receiving an answer. Thorin swept his torch in a wide arc around him, but there was no sign of Dwalin.

Frowning, he made his way to the other end of the cave, where more dead dwarves had huddled earlier, but saw nothing there either, apart from bare rock and the glittering veins of quartz bands in the rock. Was he dreaming? He pinched himself; it definitely hurt, so no. Had he been unconscious for so long that Dwalin had left him to go and get help? No, he knew that his One would never have left him alone, unless...a cold wave of fear rolled through him that something might have happened to Dwalin and he renewed his frantic search throughout both caverns. There was no trace of him.

Instead, he could hear the sound of footsteps again. Not one, no - many more than that, as if a whole group of dwarves was running towards him. Without a second thought, Thorin drew one of the knives he was always carrying with him - maybe this was all part of a ploy to overthrow him. Well, he wasn't unprepared.

He almost dropped his blade again once he saw the dwarves running into the cave. Many of them had blackened clothes, were bearing wounds either from fire or the ceiling of a room giving in above them. Their clothes looked rich and fine, made from good materials, but strangely out of fashion, like they were from a time at least a hundred years back.

None of them seemed to notice Thorin despite the torch in his hand and his obvious position in their way; instead they were running directly towards him. Thorin wanted to call out to them, but his words got stuck on his tongue when they simply ignored him and ran through him. He gasped for air - for a moment he felt everything they must have felt, all their terror and despair at the dragon which had just come and invaded their home, killing their families and destroying their lives.

His mind was still reeling to grasp the reality of what he was seeing - like Dwalin, he had never truly believed the ghost stories that were told of the tunnels deep under the mountain. Apparently there was more truth to them than he had thought. But where was Dwalin?

The ghosts, if that was what they were, had disappeared as quickly as they had come - no more substantial than a whiff of smoke in one moment and completely gone in the next. Instead, there was a tugging at Thorin's shirt, in the same spot he had felt it before. When he looked down he saw the unnaturally pale face of a small dwarfling look up at him, her eyes wide and curious. Thorin breathed in sharply when he saw the gaping wound between the fine braids on her head, bits of white and pink showing underneath where her skull had been crushed.

"Where are you going?" she asked him, apparently unfazed by the fact that she should be (was?) dead.

"Home." Thorin replied after a moment of hesitation. "Back up to where the others are."

She cocked her head and seemed to think about his answer for a moment.

"But you should be dead." she said. "Why are you not dead?"

"I- what?" Thorin didn't know if he had heard correctly.

"You should be dead." The little girl repeated once more, completely earnest in her statement. Thorin noticed that her finger nails were far too long, splitting at the end and slightly curled like claws. "Run through by the pale orc, your blood drenching the stone of the mountain with your life and memories. Why are you still alive?"

Thorin took a step back. The young dwarrow didn't follow him but just kept staring at him with wide, unblinking eyes. He felt as if his tongue were stuck to his mouth, unable to move. The shadow of a memory of something that had never happened flickered through his mind, the ghost of a sharp pain in his chest where the defiler's weapon had run him through, a memory of his nephews dying and cold in his back and his blood pooling beneath him to form spots of colour in the snow.

He shook his head, trying to chase away the thoughts and when he looked again, the little girl was gone. Only her whispers were still floating through the air, an endless buzzing that never disappeared but instead filled his mind until he thought he could not stand it a moment longer. You should be dead.

Biting back a shout he leaned against the stonen wall next to him. The touch of the cold rock flashed through him like lightning and he gasped as his senses filled with a multitude of impressions all at once.

Two dwarflings ran past him, laughing in delight at what they had found as they went exploring. Their laughter turned to wailing soon when they realised they were lost, caught in a maze of endless darkness and the memories of stone. Suddenly he knew that they had never found their way back, all searching for them for naught. They were still here, their dried-up bodies clutching each other in a tunnel further ahead.

There was the sound of gentle sobbing when parents realised their families would never get out alive and they would have to chose between a death in the caverns and a death by fire and the teeth of a dragon. Some had remained where they were, choosing to spend their last moments in the arms of families and friends, ignoring the whispers of the stone. Others had gone wandering off in the mad hopes of finding a way out whilst some had lost their minds, the scratches of their fingernails never vanishing scars on the surface of the rock.

However, there were more - dwarves that had lived in the mountain millennia ago, in an age so different from theirs now that it seemed like a glance into a place completely alien to him. Thorin barely noticed how his knees buckled under the onslaught of all the thoughts, sights and memories of those who had died here over the years, each and every single one remembered by the stone itself. And between them all were wide eyes staring at him, small fingers tugging at his shirt, whispered questions of why he wasn't dead and that it was time to join them.

"No." His voice was rough and he barely felt the cold rock underneath his hands as he scrabbled backwards, his breathing becoming frantic as he tried to flee from the hands grasping after him. "No, let me go."

"You belong to us." The little dwarfling said and others turned their heads, their sightless stares drilling into Thorin's. "You have no right to remain."

"No." Thorin felt panic bubbling up inside him and frantically he waved his torch in front of him. The spectres dissolved where the wood and flame touched them but as soon as they were gone they re-appeared again, a never ending sea of whispers and stares, of those dwarflings who had died in dragon's fire and from hunger, by illness and accident.

A hand touched his shoulder and Thorin flinched, everything he wanted to say dying on his tongue as he looked into his brother's face. Frerin looked like he had last seen him, face white and still with only a hint of blood at the corner of his mouth. Thorin didn't look down, didn't want to see the mangled body beneath once more. He had never forgotten the sight, not in over a hundred years. He didn't even realise that this was a ghost of his own making - his brother had never been down here until Thorin had brought him with him in the darkest corners of his heart.

"You should come home." Frerin murmured. "I've been waiting so long for you, brother."

"No. Please. No-" Thorin closed his eye as his torch fell from his limp fingers, hoping he could wake himself up from what had to be a bad dream, but the cold hands on his body persisted, as did the whispering voices in his mind. He could not leave them, could not die. Not now. He had to stay. For his sister, his nephews, his people, Dwalin-

"Dwalin!" With his last strength, he called out his One's name.

*

Dwalin was breathing heavily as he shouted Thorin's name for what had to be the hundredth time. He refused to give up hope, as much as he refused to go back alone and get the others dwarves to join and come help him in his search. Something told him that he couldn't leave now, that Thorin needed him wherever he might be. He could feel that his One was still close and so he kept calling his name again and again, renewing his search through the two caverns and the tunnels around them.

The whispers and footsteps he had been hearing since they had come down here had never faded away but grown stronger instead, grating more and more at the edges of his mind with each passing moment. From the corner of his eyes he could see shadows and shapes moving, but every time he turned around, no matter how fast, he saw nothing. Still, something told him that he wasn't alone, that there was more to these caves than just rock and old ghost stories. He wondered what those who had spent their last days down here had seen and heard and whether their deaths had truly been as peaceful as it had looked for some at first sight.

"Dwalin!" The voice was so faint he thought he had imagined it. But then he heard it one more time and now it was unmistakeable - it was Thorin's voice, although it sounded weak and muffled, as if it were coming from a great distance or from beneath several layers of fabric.

“Thorin! Where are you?” Gripping the torch in his hands more tightly he moved towards where he thought he had heard his One’s voice from. The closer he came, the louder the whispers became and more than once he thought he saw something running across the tunnel from him. He thought he saw Thorin for a moment, his face a terrified mask and sprang back as if he had been slapped, reaching out towards the wall to steady himself.

Memories entered his head, memories that were his and yet they weren’t: Thorin’s corpse sprawled on the rocks and ice of Ravenhill, his life in a bloody puddle beneath him and their hobbit bent down over his body in grief; Fíli’s and Kíli’s lifeless eyes staring at a colourless sky; Thorin’s body so heavy in his arms as he carried him back into the mountain; the crypts alight with the flames of a thousand candles as they laid them to rest.

A low, wounded sound clawed its way out of Dwalin’s throat as the knowledge drenched him that somewhere, at some point, this had been as real as them surviving and him seeing his One being crowned the true King Under the Mountain.

“No.” he whispered quietly, fingers of ice closing around his heart and throat. They would not slip over into that reality. He wouldn’t lose his One to shadows and the memories of a different time. “Thorin!”

Dwalin thought he heard a reply and blindly charged another two steps forward. He knew Thorin was here. If he wasn't looking, his entire body told him that Thorin was right next to him, yet he could not see him. Dwalin took a deep breath and closed his eyes again, trying to rely on those other senses that weren’t his sight.

“No. No, I won’t, I cannot-“ Thorin’s voice was suddenly clearer in his ears and he reached out in the direction he thought he was in.

“Thorin.” Dwalin poured all his love into the name, hoping he would somehow be able to reach him. “Take my hand. I’m right here.”

Callous fingers touched his and suddenly Dwalin found it hard to breathe. Thorin’s hand was icy. He opened his eyes and saw shadows all around him, flickering in and out of sight. Thorin was leaning against the wall, his body half-transparent and only the hand that was firmly gripping Dwalin’s seemed to be truly real. Dwalin thought he could make out Frerin’s face amongst the shadows, but was diverted from his thoughts by someone tapping his healthy leg.

“You should let him go.” The young dwarrow looked up at him with earnest eyes and he didn’t even notice the obvious wound on her head at first. “He belongs with us. He should be dead.”

“No.” Thorin’s voice was rough, as if he had been screaming. “I belong to him.”

A sad smile flickered over his face and he threw a glance to his other side where Dwalin thought he had caught a glimpse of Frerin’s face earlier.

“Not yet, nadadith.”

“You cannot have him.” Dwalin added, tightening his grip around Thorin’s fingers who squeezed back just as firmly. They both moved backwards, in the direction of the large cave and towards its exit. The first steps were hard, as if they were wading against an invisible current or as if a hundred hands were tugging at them and trying to hold them back, Dwalin thought with a shudder. He could feel the tremors running through his One from the exertion, wondering if it was even harder for him than for Dwalin.

They were both breathing heavily by the time they reached the cave and although he didn’t say a word, Thorin looked as exhausted as if he had been fighting a battle. However, he seemed a lot more solid than he had when Dwalin had first found him and Dwalin hoped that it meant he was slowly returning to him and the reality that was theirs.

“We need to get out of here.” Thorin pressed out. “This cave was where it started. I can still see them, they-“

The sound of footsteps as if dozens of dwarrows were running in his direction ripped him out of his thoughts. Thorin’s eyes were wide and he was swallowing heavily. Dwalin followed his gaze – if he concentrated, he could make out the shape of several dwarves running in their direction, carrying with them the smell of fear and burnt flesh. For Thorin they seemed to be much more tangent for he shrank back, taking a moment to catch himself before moving again, pulling at Dwalin to follow him.

It was as if an invisible veil had been lifted as soon as they stepped into the tunnels they had come from. The sounds and sights from the cave seemed much more muted and there were only traces left of the translucency that had taken over Thorin’s body almost completely before. They stopped for a moment, both of them gasping for breath.

“Don’t lean against the wall.” Thorin wheezed. “The memories are in the stone. They’ll swallow you.”

Dwalin wasn’t quite sure he truly understood what Thorin meant, but his One’s tone was so serious that he followed his advice. They leaned against each other instead and he was glad to feel that the warmth slowly seemed to be returning to Thorin’s body. After only a short while they were on their way again, both loathe to stay close to the cave any longer. From time to time Dwalin still thought he could see faint shadows moving in the periphery of his sight or feel a gentle tugging at his clothes, but the further they moved away from the caves, the rarer those instances became. After a while the only sound he could hear was their heavy breathing and the metallic sound of his artificial leg on the rock. He pulled a grimace when he felt it chafe against the stump, the various aches as his body complained against its rough treatment surfacing only now.

They both only began to truly breathe more easily when they had passed the first cavern that they had found corpses in. However, Dwalin’s heart started hammering again when he once more heard the sound of footsteps and shouts coming in their direction. Behind him Thorin stopped and stiffened, walking up to stand next to him so that their shoulders were brushing. Dwalin could feel the tension thrumming through his One’s and his own body, their fingers closing around the hilt of their weapons even though they knew how useless they would be against whatever old magic had been caught in these stones.

After a moment Dwalin could hear their own names being called and relaxed slightly when he recognised Bofur’s voice. Thorin was still on guard next to him, not trusting what his eye was seeing, but even he loosened his stance slightly when he saw Bofur coming around the corner together with two more miners from those who had been sent into different parts of the cave system down here.

“Thorin! Dwalin!” Like all members of the Company and most of those that they had formed friendships with in Ered Luin Bofur had long stopped calling Thorin ‘your majesty’ and after a few hints from Thorin that he’d like it to remain that way even with his new status as King Under the Mountain he had gleefully continued to simply use the same term, even though it sometimes brought him confused glances from other dwarves.

“The Maker bless you, I thought we’d find you vanished or buried under rock somewhere when you weren’t back.”

“We’re fine.” Thorin reassured him. “How long were we gone?”

“The sun has almost set outside already.” Bofur replied, Thorin’s words not having completely chased the worry out of his gaze.

Dwalin and Thorin exchanged glances. It certainly hadn’t felt that long – shouldn’t their torches be completely burned down and their stomachs be growling with hunger if they had truly been gone for such a long time? Neither of that was the case.

“There were more tunnels than we thought and I fear we got lost slightly on the way.” The lie came so smoothly over Thorin’s lips that Dwalin had to admire him for it. “Dwalin has marked the locations of the dead on the map. We should recover them as soon as we are able to – send down teams tomorrow to do so. They should be as large as possible, no less than ten and under no circumstance should they move out of sight of each other or lean on the walls. No lingering in or exploring of the caves. As soon as the bodies have been removed I want guardsmen posted at the entrance to the caverns to let no one unsuspecting or curious come inside.”

Bofur’s eyes widened when he heard Thorin’s words, clearly not having expected such a string of orders together with a demand for such tight security. However, something in Thorin’s expression must have told him that there was more that had happened down in the caverns than Thorin was letting on and after a moment he stepped back and nodded, giving the order to pull any remaining search teams out of the caverns as fast as possible and to send a runner to the Lady Dís and her sons that they might stop worrying. Thorin grimaced; he and Dwalin both knew that his sister would never let him get away with the excuse he had given Bofur earlier.

They didn’t speak much on their way back upwards past the forges, the only recently re-opened steams and the market space to the royal quarters. Their exhaustion was palpable and finally Dwalin also felt a quiet stirring of hunger inside him. Despite Dís’ urgent questioning that night neither of them revealed what had happened down in the old caverns, telling her only that there was seemingly more to the old legends than it would seem at first glance. Thorin promised to tell her the full story one day, but deflected any other attempt at questioning from her. When they curled up in their bed that night, limbs intertwined and so close that they could feel the warmth from each other’s bodies, neither of them mentioned what had happened, although the images of it were still burnt firmly into the backs of their eyes.

Months passed before they ever truly talked about it. Dís had wrung the story out of her brother that afternoon and Thorin told Dwalin, who had been on the battlements and overseeing the training of their soldiers all day, about how she still she had grown once he had finished with his tale.

“Do think that there are truly different worlds?” Thorin asked him after he had finished. “That in one of them, I-“

Dwalin shook his head as Thorin’s voice faltered slightly, trying to chase the lingering (false?) memories out of his head that had shown him just how much gaining back the mountain could have cost them.

“Don’t say it.” Saying it would somehow make it more real. He shifted slightly so that he could place his head on Thorin’s healthy shoulder, feeling the warm beneath his cheek and the calming echo of his One’s heartbeat beneath his ear. “You and your nephews might not have survived in another world. But it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not this world. They are still alive and so are you and you are here with me and that’s all that's important.”

“Hmm.” Thorin hummed an agreement as he ran his fingers through his One's hair although he still didn’t sound fully convinced. He didn’t ask Dwalin whether he thought that the kingdom would be better off without him, especially with the occasional bouts of dragon sickness that still overcame him from time to time; they had talked about it a hundred times before and although sometimes Thorin needed to hear it again and again, today was not such a day.

“Still, sometimes I wonder.”

“Then stop wondering.” Dwalin shifted so he could press a kiss on Thorin’s neck. It became harder and harder to do so with Thorin’s growing beard, but if there was something that Dwalin would never begrudge his One, then it was this. “It’s over and done. And we’ll never return down there.”

“I surely won’t.” Thorin smiled. “I’m still glad that there seemed to be no more big trouble for the rest of the workers down there.”

Dwalin murmured an agreement before intensifying his kisses and moving further up towards Thorin's his ear. Thorin sighed quietly in pleasure, leaning into the touch and running his fingers down his partner’s bare back.

“Now stop thinking about it.” Dwalin suggested quietly, unable to keep his breath from hitching as Thorin began to massage the strong muscles of his lower back with his fingers. He noted with satisfaction how his own hot breath on Thorin’s skin made his One shiver. “Think about me instead.”

He continued to kiss Thorin’s ear, gently biting down on the ear lobe. He felt Thorin’s grin more than he saw it.

“I’m sure I can do that.”