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Dashatê (My Son)

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He does not know.

He does not know. The only thing he still is sure of is that he does not know.

Does not know where he is, both in time and space, and somehow it does not frighten him, because that feeling is not new. He has long been lost, and this is his second certitude, bordering on comfort when the voices are raging inside, and around him.

They are always angry, always shouting, sometimes shrieking – and weeping, as well. Inside. Not outside, never outside. In his head. In his chest. He keeps them silent – not hidden, he has never managed to hide it fully, and it is too late to learn that lesson, but at least he keeps them silent.

His hand goes up shakily, finds his cheek – and the skin is wet on the right side, but remains dry and hot on the left, as always. That is because of his eye – it is closed forever, has long been, because that scimitar has torn his flesh, has left him bleeding, almost dying, a long, long, time ago. Bleeding between high-peaked Mountains, biting back his scream – he does not remember who it had been, stealing the light from his left eye, he only remembers the pain.

The heat as well, around his eye and then in his whole body, causing broad shivers to run down his spine, making him sweat until his clothes clung to his chest and limbs like a second skin. Just like now. Exactly like now.

He had been afraid, back then. He remembers as much – he had been afraid. Afraid to die, because he still was young, because there was Someone he loved more than himself, deep inside, Someone he did not want to leave because he had just begun to discover what a blessing it was not to be alone, to have arms around him, lips meeting his, fingers loosing themselves in his hair and beard, and a voice – that voice – whispering words of love into his ear until he was shivering exactly like he was now.

And afraid to fail. He was always afraid to fail – always had been. Sometimes he barely managed to breathe, anguish wrapping itself around his chest until it hurt, until the only way to keep from screaming was to dig his nails into his palms, clenching his fists so hard his knuckles turned white.

He was always telling him what a failure he was. Not in so many words – he would not have minded words as much, words could be answered at least – but with his eyes, so cold and hard, and barely ever pleased with what he had to offer. He would have given anything to see them melt, just once, to see that grim face soften, to feel his hand on his body in a gesture that was neither a nudge, nor a fierce grip – just his hand on his body, telling him he cared.

Those days and nights he had been brought low, he had shuddered from both fever and fear, broken moans leaving his lips every now and then – when they moved him, when they removed the bandages from his face, their touch cold, so cold...

“His eye is lost”, a voice had said sadly, close to him, and he had shuddered, because he had heard the sound following those words – he had shouted, he was furious, and it was his fault, he should have been more careful, he should have watched out for that blade, he should have fought exhaustion like it was expected of him, like he would have done it...

“Shhhh...”

That gentle sound... that touch, on his cheek, brushing his tangled hair from his face – he had turned toward that warmth, struggling to open his remaining eye, eager to see if it was real, if she truly was there, at his side, as she has promised to be the day they had both decided to become One...

“Rest, kurdel, I won't leave, I promise, I will never leave you as long as I breathe – as long as you breathe... Don't leave me, that's all I ask, don't leave – you are so beautiful, so strong, so bright... The moon in my skies, the diamond in my treasures, the music in my songs...”

He had clung to her words as to ropes keeping him from drowning. He always had. Because she was there – always there, despite the playful lights in her sapphire eyes, telling him it was not granted, never granted, and that he'd better begin to behave... Mahal, how she made him laugh, how she rejoiced in seeing him go almost mad with desire, her palm against his chest, keeping him from silencing her with a kiss – she was the one pinning him down in the end, and what did he care if she won, she was always winning, her fingers around his wrists and her thighs closing around his hips, even as he lifted her, his voice breaking with longing as he called her his little lightweight...

“You are such a terrible liar, kurdel...”

By then she would be lying on top of him, her legs never losing their iron-grip around his waist – she was strong, she was indeed, a warrior's daughter that made him bite dust more than once, because her arms were blessed with equal strength, because she seemed to dance even as she sparred, entrancing him so fully that in the end, he forgot to strike back...

She would bend upon him, unbuckle his belt and slide her palms under the heavy layers of leather and fabric shielding his chest, her thumbs stroking his skin, sliding down his ribs until he was almost coming undone – and this could not be, this was not to be borne, was it? But she would only laugh, as he snarled and caught her wrists, rolling on the side until they lay the other way round, until he was the one able to cradle her face between his hands, meeting her lips at last...

“I love you...”

He was never gifted with words. He barely ever spoke, before he met her – his voice was deep and rough, almost rusty, like a long-forgotten tool, and he hated it. But she – she just tilted her head to the side, her lips slightly parted, as if in wonder, as if it was the most blissful sound she had ever been fortunate enough to hear, and Mahal... She had managed to make him sing, in the end...

How could he keep from singing, with her at his side? How could he, the day when she told him they would soon be more than One, and those weeks and months where he kept himself from jostling her too roughly, content with simply lying at her side, his fingers stroking the growing curve of her belly, his breath catching every time a small kick would meet his palm...

He would not be elsewhere than at her side, the day the first pains set in. He did not care for his scowl, for the disbelieving gaze of the midwives – he just asked her and she said she wanted him there, looked at him with so much love and calm he found the strength to tell them all he would not budge, would never budge...

He knelt behind her and let her rest against his chest – he never looked at her private parts, instinctively knowing she would have hated it... He just let her lean against him, and savor these last hours where they were still One and only One – and there was so much calm and peace, in that room, such a quiet joy even with the pain.

He braided her hair and fastened it around her head so that her neck could be free, so that she did not need to feel unnecessary heat. He fetched some water and gently bathed her face, the soft muscles of her neck, pressing a quiet kiss on her skin as he finished and found her looking at him, her hand searching for his.

It's like music...”, she whispered when she realized he was sharing her pain, his breath catching in his throat whenever he saw her draw deep breaths and shift in his arms.

“It's coming like a wave, from very far away, and you shiver in anticipation – and then it takes your whole body, it's gripping itself around you and when you think you cannot bear it anymore, then it starts to fade away... and you are almost impatient to experience this once more...”

And when she saw him shake his head, his eye still full of fear because he knew pain, knew what it felt like, how crushing it was, so terrible the brain erased part of the memory once it was finally gone – then she smiled.

Not like this, kurdel. This is bliss because it has a purpose...”

He saw the joy in her eyes. She was so impatient, so eager to see that new life unfold – she was so happy . And so was he – but he was also afraid. Afraid because he knew the disaster a birth could cause – he had done it, had taken a life as soon as he had been born, because he had torn his mother's being apart, causing her to bleed to death, steeling his father's happiness forever. ..

She had told him more than once. That it was nonsense, that it was not his fault, that it happened, sometimes, and that there was no reason – that his father could not possibly resent him for that, that he was hard and cold because life had shaped him that way, that it was only another shield, obviously, could he not see it?

He could not. He never could, and in the end he was right. But that day, no – that day he held her, their fingers entwined, even as the waves became so strong, so strong that he felt it in his own gut, yet never said a word of it, because no one would have believed him, and that it hardly mattered.

He let her back herself up against him, using his strength to keep grounded as she pushed, steadily – and she did not scream, she just drew her body upright, kneeling on the bed, leaning against him, her palms against his forearms, using her skills to control her breathing, not even needing the midwives' instructions anymore...

She was so much braver than him – never shivered, not then, only afterwards, when it was over, when she could allow herself to do so against him, and sleep as he would hold them both...

He could still hear them , the soft breathing sounds she made, the final push that was absolutely silent, her eyes closed and her body so still he almost thought her gone – and then that new, tiny, amazing little noise, soon growing into a proper cry of outrage, because the world was cold and unforgiving outside, because it had been brutal and unforeseen, that transition between slumber and life...

He cried with her, as his new-born son was laid upon her breast – and he laughed with her when she pointed out he truly had a will of his own, screaming furiously as the midwife undertook to cut the chord still binding him to his mother, only calming down when she bent down to kiss him, kiss the raven-locks already growing profusely on his tiny, perfect head...

He cried again, when the midwives assured them both it had gone well, that the danger of bleeding was passed – he waited for them to go and the he cried, not knowing if it was joy or a pang of life-old sadness... He just drew his arms around them both and cried, silently, and she nestled against him, stroking his forearm, still finding the strength to whisper soothing words.

“I love you. Thank you for this.”

She said it – and he felt it. It had always been like this.

And so it happened – that unique, perfect feeling, taking him by surprise and then filling him with a quiet joy and strength that would last fourteen years.

That feeling of utter rightness – brushing off every nagging impression of failure, because there was someone else in this world for whom it was just out of the question. For whom he was absolutely everything – who did not bother to question it, as he screamed and asked for care and love and warmth and food... Who had his hair, by Durin – his feet, also, the second, perfect, tiny toe slightly longer than the first – and a temper of his own: the thunder of their skies, she would call him, during the seven months where he would remain nameless, not even allowed to touch the ground as long as Mahal's views upon his little soul were still unclear...

He would hold him against him, almost as often as her. Sing him softly to sleep, amazed by the way that little being reacted to his voice and touch – always recognizing them, always calming down, even if it took hours sometimes, be it from anguish, belly-spasms or seemingly no reason at all...

He never had the slightest doubt when it came to his little son. He never doubted he would manage to soothe him, make him feel loved and safe. He sang, and rocked him gently, and stroked his locks, let him wrap his little fingers around his broad thumb – he would have fed him too, had it only been in his power – and he kissed him, on and on.

Until he could name him – until he was allowed to tell the world he had a son, and he said it with more pride and love than anything, his voice ringing deep into the walls of the Mountain.

Thorin, son of Thráin, son of Thrór. Dashatê.”

And the word would melt like honey upon his tongue, as he repeated it, softly, for himself and for that wonderful little being that had achieved to settle him once and for all into the world.

Dashatê. Dashatê. Dashatê for the world to see.

But the world is black now. The world is black, and fades around him – he has become used to it, has drifted in and out of it for quite a long time... He is too weak to notice that it happened more frequently, these last days, that it takes him longer to leave the darkness now, that he no longer feels anything when strange hands grasp his body, holding him upright.

They are never gentle anyway. They always hurt, and strike, and pull at his hair and beard and bones, and make him scream until his voice is hoarse.

They want something of him – and he thought they got it, when his finger was severed from his hand, along with that Ring... He had forgotten about the jewel, and watched the creature snatch it from the stump that was once his ring-finger almost with surprise, before pain set in, before he had to cradle his hand against his chest, feeling blood trickle along his forearm, yet unable to care.

He thought it was over, that day – but it wasn't. They burnt the wound on his hand and threw him back there ... And there he was left, until they came once more, asking him where it was, where he had hidden it, searching his body once more, hitting him, striking him, pulling at his hair and b eard ...

Sometimes it was even worse, sometimes they threw him somewhere else and laughed as he screamed, because monstrous Wolves were hurling themselves at him – Wolves he would have called Wargs, had he remembered their names, but he did not. He only fought, picking up the blade they had thrown there with him, and fought for his life...

It was stupid, the way he fought. He should not have. He should have opened his arms, thrust the blade away and let their fangs tear at his body – but it was not in his nature. He would have forbidden it, had hammered it into his skull often enough.

Dwarves are fighters, and you are a Prince. Don't you dare lose your ground.

So he fought. Even thin, and starved, and shivering with fever. He fought – and he was good at it, it would have surprised him even, had he managed to bring himself to care, but he could not. He could not. He could only fight, and nestle against the cold, damp wall once he was brought back there , once their steps faded outside, once he was left alone, covered in sweat and blood, his heart racing and his body hurting so much he barely felt it.

It was made to endure, that accursed body of his, and so he endured, without truly choosing it. He faced the Voice, also, always asking, claiming it could see through his body and soul, calling him Naked in the Dark, and so he was, aye, so he was.

Naked in the Dark.

Afraid, alone, confused and mad – mad, mad, mad, he knew he was, he knew he had long been, he did not even remember his name, what and who he was, where he was and how long he had been there, he did not know anything anymore, except that he had failed, and that they were all gone.

Her – his One, his light in the darkness, with her voice and her smile and her touch and her words...

Him – long ago, his icy gaze gone forever, yet branded like an accusing mark into his very bones...

And his baby-son as well. Both of them, his dashat and his dashtith ... The golden-haired long ago, his little body so tiny and fragile, consuming itself more quickly than any other in the burning pyres, because he was the youngest, because he should never have been there in the first place, because he was still a child, merciful Mahal, a child ...

And the raven-haired one, who shared his gaze and his mane with his treasured, only daughter... He was gone as well, because he had made him self leave the m – leave the m so as to free the m from the burden he was for the m, always had been for the m ever since that day Fire descended upon them all, forcing them to flee, leaving home and memory behind...

Dashatê”, he whispers, and darkness seems to mock him.

He longs for his son's touch – he longs for his strong arms, for the way his blue, earnest gaze always steadied him, even as he raved and struggled, even as he hurt him. He was so strong, so strong – he was just like her, his lean, supple body hard as iron against his, his hands wrapping themselves firmly around his wrists, restraining him the best he could, sometimes even pinning him against the wall, pressing himself against him to soften the blow, maintaining him there until he was sure he was able to hear his voice above the raging feelings in his head and chest.

Shhh, 'adad, it's me – it's Thorin. Do not fear, 'adad, I will never hurt you, I will never harm you, please calm yourself, it's only me... It's only me...”

He would moan, then, a low, desperate moan as darkness cleared slowly in his mind – and he would gaze up at his son, gaze up , yes, because he was crumbling while his Thorin kept himself upright, unwavering even as his eyes burnt with unshed tears.

“What did I do...?”, he would whisper, shivering against him, and as his son gently freed his hands from his grasp so as to steady him, his hands sliding down to his waist, he would add, his voice breaking with dread: “What did I say...?

- Nothing, ' adad . Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing wrong – nothing wrong...

- Terrible liar... Terrible liar, kurdel ...”

And he would watch his son close his eyes in pain, as his palm sought for his cheek to rest there – he was pale, so pale, and his skin was icy, he was killing his son with his ravings, keeping him trapped with him, forced to tend to him, turning him into a living ghost.

“I am leaving. I am leaving soon, I promise...

- I don't want you to. I don't want you to leave. ' Adad , please, can't you understand? I only want you to be at peace... Why is it so hard for you to just be at peace...?”

Once he even wept – his strong, wonderful son, one night it was just too much, he had woken up again, screaming and struggling and he had hit him, so hard that he had hissed in pain, taking some staggering steps back so as to lean against the wall, a hand pressed against his chest. It had sobered him just as if his head had been thrust into icy water – he had frozen on the other side of the room, the burning rage he felt stuck somewhere between his chest and his throat.

I am... sorry... Breathe, please, dashat, please breathe.”

His voice was tiny and pleading like a child, he had taken some wavering steps, afraid to see his son break down – but Thorin had only taken a deep breath indeed, despite the pain, his hand still clutching his ribs.

It's all right, 'adad. I am breathing.

- Not happy. Because of me.

- No, ' adad . I am happy. I am content. See, there is no pain, no pain at all.”

He had let go of his ribs, had opened his arms gently, and when he had crossed the room to find him, nestling against his chest, he felt the sharp intake of breath Thorin did not manage to hold back – and his hurt broke free.

“Liar. Liar, liar, liar.

- No, ' adad ... Oh curse it, Mahal, just curse it!! Of course I am lying, what do you want me to do, ' adad ?! How can I be content and happy when you are not?! When I do not manage to make you see that the only thing that still matters to me is your well-being ?! Can't you just... please... for one single, accursed night ... believe me when I say it is all right? Can't you just fake it, just today, just for one day ...?”

He had frozen in shock as he had felt his eldest son's sobs against him. Had felt panic invade him – and then found long-forgotten gestures back, had dragged his head against his shoulder and buried his fingers into his hair, gently rocking him against him.

No tears, dashatê. No tears, please. Not worth it. Never worth it.”

But it had not soothed his son. Not this time. It had only made him cling to him, still sobbing, and that was when it had became so clear to him – that he had to leave, and would leave, because he was no longer able to dry his son's tears.

Of course you are worth it. Of course you are, 'adad...

- Sleep. Please sleep.”

Thorin had pulled back, and there was barely any tear on his pale, drawn face – he had cried almost silently, was always crying silently now...

You want to go to sleep, 'adad? You are tired, surely – come, let me help you, it's not far...

- No. Sleep. You. I keep watch.

- There's no need to keep watch, ' adad . You are safe, you are safe, and loved, and I am here – I will always be here, forgive my words, I did not think about them, I am not tired, I am never tired...

- Both sleep. I keep you safe.”

He had watched his son's face closely – had watched him press his palms against his eyes, breathing heavily, and then nodding, forcing himself to smile at him.

Right, 'adad. Let's both sleep. Come.”

He had held him against him, that night. Had forced him to lay his head against his breast, and had placed his palm against his chest, where he had seen him clutch his ribs. Thorin had flinched, slightly , but then he had grown still against him, letting him stroke his skin, on and on, as exhaustion was taking its toll upon him .

He had pulled one of his blankets up, wrapping it around them both, trying to keep his son warm because he was cold, so pale and cold...

No tears. Sleep. Sleep, dashat.”

Thank Mahal he has managed to leave him – to free him, so that he could live his life fully, unburdened by his madness and grief... It does not matter he misses him more than his eye, his finger, his heart and his mind... It does not matter, as long as he is free and alive and happy...

How he misses him, though. Especially now – especially when he shivers so much his head knocks against the wall, helplessly... There is no firm grasp to keep him grounded, no gentle hand against his waist to keep him upright, he is alone, alone, alone...

That is why. That is why when a hand finds his cheek he still thinks it is Thorin, even though it is impossible, even though he knows for certain this cannot be.

He shivers, and tries to open his eye, and just like decades ago a gentle voice keeps him from that strain, cradling his face.

“Shhhh, Thráin, do not move, my friend. You are safe now.”

Friend – that is a word that has lost its meaning long ago. He doesn't understand, doesn't care to understand, all he knows is that the hand on his face is different, different from theirs , and strangely soothing.

“Thorin”, he croaks, and the hand never stops stroking his skin.

“No, Thráin. I am not Thorin, but I know you never left his heart and thoughts, just like he never left yours, for the bonds between your kin do not alter with time.”

That voice... He knows that voice... Deep, often amused and always speaking in riddles – yet kind, so kind, never judging, always offering comfort and advice... He likes that voice, always has, it has always sounded as comforting as the promise of a good pipe to him... Grey as smoke, strong as granite, oh yes, he likes that voice...

“Grey”, he whispers, and the hand pushes back a loose, tangled strain from his face.

Yes, Thráin. You do remember, don't you? Darkness has left this place – you are safe now, my friend, and I am here to bring you home.”

T he word sends a shiver down his spine – and as the hand goes on stroking his face, settling on his forehead while strange words are whispe red , he lets out a deep sigh, and ends up opening his eye.

The face he has before him is bearded, but it is not a Dwarf. He is clad in grey and Thráin is surprised at this, surprised to have remembered – and he frowns, through the cold and weakness that is slowly claiming his body, gazing up at the Wizard's face.

For it is a Wizard – he remembers now, just as he remembers fragments he thought to have forgotten forever. He remembers that clear, compassionate gaze, and is surprised to see it shine as it meets his – it makes him sad, it hurts, it is strange...

That is why his hand moves, feebly – and he doesn't notice the shackles have gone, he just extends his fingers towards the Wizard's face, who bends down, allowing the poor, wasted fingers to meet his skin.

No tears, Tharkûn...”, Thráin croaks – and he wonders, idly, at the knowledge coming back, at that strange awareness returning now, now that it is almost too late.

The Wizard shakes his head and embraces him gently. He is tall, and Thráin knows he is strong, despite his seemingly old age – he knows the staff has nothing to do with steadying him, but still... as the Wizard holds him against him, cradling him, shielding him from the cold with his thick, grey cloak, Thráin realizes just how little is left of himself.

His arms are tiny, his fingers a shadow of what they used to be. His ribs are the only thing still holding his chest together – and his beard and hair are tangled, without any adornment for they have all been stolen, ripped away by those creatures, left there to whiten against his skin...

He is shivering, he has closed his eye again, resting his head against the Wizard's shoulder – he wants to sleep, he wants to dive into endless slumber, he wants Mahal to be merciful with him, and take him, take him at last...

But there is one last thing he has to do. One last thing before he gives in – the fog in his mind has cleared, the clouds fading like mist under the first ray of a bright winter's morning, and this is a blessing he cannot ignore...

They kept searching for it...”, he whispers, and this time it is his voice, not a helpless, broken sound – his voice as she used to love it.

They kept asking me for it, but I did not give it to them.

- What do you mean, my friend? What did you keep from them?”

The Wizard's voice is full of concern, he gently takes his hand and his thumb rests against the scar of his missing finger, stroking it all these endless minutes Thráin struggles to find enough breath to go on – because he has to.

“The key opening the Hidden Door”, he whispers, at last – and he shivers, because to get rid of that burden is more painful than it seems.

I still have it. It is always with me. They did not search properly. They do not know us – these Rakhâs, they do not know where we keep our most precious treasures...”

The weakness in his limbs has begun to worsen, and though he wants to reach out for it he cannot, he only manages to break free from the Wizard – and the effort is crowding his vision with black.

The hair, Tharkûn... They forgot to search the hair... You search, Tharkûn... You look for it, hidden in my braids – cut the locks, if needed, I do not mind, I will be gone...

- Do not say such things...”

The Wizard's voice is sad, so sad – and Thráin leans against him once more, trying to comfort him, to tell him silently it does not matter, that he is ready and yearning for it...

Take the key and keep it, for it is the key to Erebor's treasure – and yet, Tharkûn, they is no joy and peace to be found in that gold, only Evil – the Dragon, he... he knows the One, he's speaking to him, he's answering to him... Promise me to use it well, promise me to use it only in greatest need – promise me you will do the right thing, because I have not, I never have, I never knew, you see, I never did...

- You have. You have, my friend. You brought them to the world, have you not?”

Thráin is tired. So tired. His limbs are lead, his breathing so faint he barely feels his chest rise – and yet he smiles. For that golden-haired son, always smiling, always shining, and whose grey eyes left this world unharmed, much too soon. For that wonderful daughter that always seemed so tiny and small to him, who had the grace of his One and her strength, also... And for that other son, the eldest, always so grave, his eyes so old, his face so drawn – somehow Thráin has always known that he's the most fragile of the three, that behind his strength and resolution, that will of iron and that thundering temper, there is a small boy who never had the chance to cry for help, ever since Fire came to destroy it all ...

His boy – his wonderful boy... His boy is King now, a great king, a worthy king, and yet – Thráin's smile fades slowly, as he thinks of the crushing burden it is, and Thorin won't share it, this he knows, he's not one to shrink from duty, never was and never will be.

Take care of him. Dashatê. He will need you. Take care of him.”

And with these words he allows himself to fade away, finally. Buries his face in the Wizard's cloak – the friend who freed him from darkness at last, who allowed him to see them clearly one last time, the children that never needed to be woven into dark strains of hair to be called his most precious treasure s : Frerin, Dís, Thorin... Dashtith, mamarlûna, dashat ...

His last thoughts are for them.

And then Thráin leaves.

Silently, peacefully, huddled in that warm, grey cloak that engulfs him fully, body, mind, and soul... He leaves, and he does not wonder when the cloak turns to a white nothingness around him, as all sounds fade, leaving only light, silver and gentle like the ray of the Moon...

He lets the light take him, guide him to wherever it will suit his Maker, he is ready, he is calm and he is happy, truly happy, and relieved – so relieved.

And when the light fades – when that journey stops and the silver rays soften enough for him to see that there is stone again below him, white marble that looks so soothing and inviting compared to the damp, dark walls he has laid against so long – Thráin sighs, accepting it without any question.

He lies down, or perhaps the soft, warm light around him gently guides him towards the ground, Thráin would not know, and it does not trouble him. He lies down gratefully, wrapping his arms against his chest to keep himself warm, and then he closes his eyes.

He is tired – too tired to notice he has closed them both, too exhausted to be aware that his chest is no longer frail and tiny, but warm and broad, too stunned by his last journey to see his hair is raven-black again, shining where their silver beads meet the light.

The only thing he is aware of is peace. Finally, and wholly – the voices in him are all quiet, have all gone, and the silence is such a blessing, such a blessing after so many years of helpless raging...

He does not move, he just lies there, his eyes closed and his arms around his chest, reveling in the light, and silence, and warmth.

And then he sleeps, for the first time in years. He sleeps, and it will be a long time before he wakes, before a gentle touch and a voice raise him from that refreshing slumber... Thráin sleeps, not yet knowing it is the first step on the new path laid before him.

A path of healing, of closing age-old wounds, of clear-sight, chasing away madness, hurt and grief like clouds in a bright winter sky.

Finally leading to peace.

Chapter Text

“Thráin...”

The voice who is speaking next to him is soft, and the fingers stroking the back of his hand have nothing to do with the hard-nailed, hostile grips he has endured for so long.

But Thráin is a warrior. Has seen too many battles, has fought too many times – not only against bodies, but against shadows, ghosts, and illusions as well. There is no reason for him to be treated kindly – he has no one left, and he has failed everyone, for ages and ages, probably ever since he has drawn his first breath.

There is no way this voice and this hand can be anything else than a foe in disguise, and so, when he finally opens his eyes and wakes – it is with bared teeth and a deep, threatening snarl, like a wounded animal, fierce, savage, once mighty and now brought low.

He hurls himself at the creature – but before, in the blink of an eye, his hands have searched his belt for a weapon, found that there was none, and decided to fight on their own. He does not even take the time to look at whoever is facing him, he just fights, his breath uneven and hot, determined to shake the creature off – and he does not realize that his body is responding perfectly, that his gaze encompasses every possible movement, that his limbs are strong and graceful once more.

That he is facing his opponent upright and standing, their wrestle slowly turning into a dance.

It could have gone on for ages – yet there is a sound that brings Thráin's moves to a standstill, even as he has pinned his opponent down, his thighs around its chest and his hands circling its wrists, ready to choke it.

Laughter.

He flinches – confusion, fear and anger still clouding his mind, and before he has thought about what he is doing he's fleeing, freeing his opponent from his grip, standing up and staggering backwards. He has to lean against a pillar – suddenly feeling weak, the raven strains of his hair soaked, and his legs shaking.

“Who are you...?”, he whispers, as he watches the silhouette recover, standing up with a graceful move – like a dancer, even though he has felt the hard, unyielding strength in that body as they both fought.

She is a Dwarrowdam, Thráin assesses quickly, as she faces him, looking at him with a smile still playing around her lips. And he also knows, for sure, that they have never met. He would have remembered these eyes – grey with a tinge of gold playing in them, like the purest of moonstones. He would have remembered that face – the features full of a savage grace that reminds him of the fascination he always had for Wolves. For the dangers they embodied, but for the fierce and noble way the would always fight for their own and their kin's survival.

Even her beard looks like a fur – it is short, barely braided, just a thin collar that leaves her cheekbones free, and make her long, black hair look even more abundant.

He would have remembered her, be it only for the yearning this face is awakening in his chest – it is not desire, it is not longing... It is just finding something that has been missing ever since he has been able to feel and see.

They have never met.

But as he looks at her, he realizes he has never stopped missing her.

“'Amad...?”, Thráin whispers, his voice hoarse, still leaning against the pillar.

She is still facing him. She is not moving. She is like a statue of some long-forgotten Kingdom – there are no faces like hers anymore. Sharp as a blade, almost without softness, save in the curve of her lips, and the perfect shape of her ears.

Her eyes are so clear. He can see they have often been hard, and ruthless, that she has never been one to close her eyes when it came to acknowledging truths, deceptions, pains – and when acting was required. There is granite in these eyes, granite speaking of will, and strength, and determination.

But there is also gold. Warming up the stone, melting the harshness in this amazing face that Thráin wants so desperately to recognize. Shining when her eyes finally meet his.

He is not aware of having moved. He is just aware of his arms circling her chest, as fiercely as in battle, but with an entirely different purpose. His face finds her neck and he inhales deeply – searching for more proofs, more clues about her existence, she who has ever been unmentioned and missing. Forever missing.

He shudders when her hands circle his head, digging deep into his locks, drawing circles and curves the way he has always done with his children, each and everyone of them, boy or girl. And he cries out in pure grief – that ever-present wound finally bared, and raw – when her lips find his forehead, again, and again.

“'Amad...”, he whispers, the word leaving his lips like a sob. “'Amad...

- I knew you would be just like that... Fast, and swift. Unpredictable.”

Her voice is low – she is speaking so close to him that he feels her breath on his cheek, and it makes him shudder even more, clinging to her, afraid to lose her – afraid to discover it has only been a delusion of his fevered, broken mind.

“I did not get any rounder. I did not even get any sign. I was still bleeding, I was still thin, and able to fight – I had even more strength than before, it was so strange... I just felt weary, on some mornings, and sick every once in a while – but I always thought it was because of the meat. We dried it, but some of it still rotted, and I thought it explained the heaviness in my stomach, the strange moves I would feel inside, every now and then...

- I killed you...”, Thráin whispers, and his mother's arms tighten around him.

“No. You did not.

- I killed you. I made you bleed to death. I was too big. I... broke you.

- Lies.”

She hisses the word in a strange, savage way that makes Thráin break free from her embrace to look at her. Her eyes are shining, her face is pale and he sees for the first time that some of the anger he has felt so often rage inside him actually comes from her...

“This is what they told you because they could not come up with anything better to explain what happened. I told you. There was no sign. At least none that I managed to see – there were so few women among us, none who could have helped me, we were all so focused on surviving... I was entranced by him – I admired his will, and I was moved by his strength, and yes, though we never really courted, it happened one night. One night we had both finished our watch – and after that he left, for weeks of hunting. He was never there. Never truly there. Until it happened.”

She shudders. This time she is the one overwhelmed by emotion, and Thráin wavers, for some seconds. And then he draws her against him, slowly, wrapping his arms around her shoulders, yearning to warm her up. To ease the pain, anger and sadness that is pouring from her – now that she is finally able to tell him the truth.

“He was back. And I was so happy. You see, he was so strong – it did not matter he barely ever smiled, it did not matter that he was not even really kind, we just felt safer when he was around. And I knew he liked me. I saw it in his gaze that day, when he came back – it lightened up for some seconds, and that night he asked me to take my watch-turn with him once more.”

She shudders again.

“I was happy. But as night set in I began to feel strange. I was weary, my back hurt and I could not find any comfortable position. He noticed. He tried to do something – made me settle on his fur coat, and in the end he even massaged my back. It helped, for a while. And then I began to feel pain. Cramps, in my stomach, so violent they made me sweat. I threw up, as well, but it did not help. I just lay there, in his arms, doubled up, shaking, reduced to nothing... We both thought it was poison, and in the end he ran to find Nár.”

Thráin's vision is clouding. Her voice comes from far away, but his grip is still strong around her – it is just that the violence in what she's telling him is getting almost unbearable. There is so much pain, and despair in that tale – but he has been so weak in life that he is determined to be strong in death. He will listen. He will hold her, and let her tell the truth, finally.

“I wish he had not. I wish I could forget the way he looked at me – he was so gentle, he used to have sisters, you see? He felt for my belly, and he saw the way my trousers were drenched – and then he told me I was with child, and that the labour was advanced already.”

She is crying, now. She is burying her face in her son's shoulder and is crying, softly – and Thráin strokes her hair, on and on, feeling unable to weep, his own sorrow nothing compared to hers.

“I refused to believe him, but he was right, of course. And so, that night... That night he was back, finally, I had to... I had to let your father hold me, while Nár was taking care of what happened between my... looking at what should never have been... It was like a curse... Like a nightmare... My body... my body was acting on its own, and I could not control it anymore... My... my stomach – it just swelled, within minutes, because my muscles stopped fighting against the truth once it was plain, and I... I could not... It was so hard, to try to control the pain while fighting that anguish... I kept feeling for that belly I did not even recognize – I felt it harden, and the only thing I could do was to moan, trying to bite back my screams...

- I am sorry...”, Thráin whispers, his face ashen. “I am so sorry...

- I am the one who is sorry... I did not even realize you existed... I went on with my life, carrying you for eight months, not even noticing it, I took none of the precautions I should have taken, and so that night, when you finally came, when Nár was able to drag you out of my body – we all saw you were tiny, and fragile, because it was too early... It was too early, and it was my fault...

- No. It was not. It was not. It was never your fault.”

The words are so difficult to frame – and yet, Thráin feels soothed once they are out. It is as if they had waited, for decades and decades, to be spoken between them – so as to erase the violence in that unexpected birth leading to who he has become.

“I... I held you, that night. Held you against my breast, not knowing what to do with you – I was so shocked, I could not even realize what had happened, all I could think of was the shame, because I had just brought a fatherless son to the world...

- He... he did not acknowledge me?”, Thráin whispered, and her mother wipes her eyes.

“He did, mamarlûn. He was an honourable Dwarf – he knew we were both responsible for this, and somehow he... I don't know why, but he never doubted me. He never doubted that he had been the only one sharing a night with me – and so, once you were asleep, he promised me to set everything right. To wed me at once, so that there was no doubt concerning my honour – and that he would kill every Dwarf daring to cast a depreciative eye on us both.”

Thráin swallows, hard. His fingers are icy, and cold is spreading in his chest. This is not the story he has known – imagined, actually, because no one ever truly spoke of his mother, of his birth. It had happened before they all moved back to Erebor – and there he had ever been Thrór's son, the little motherless Crown-Prince, whose life had taken another.

“A fine Queen I was, that morning”, his mother says. “My breasts quelling with milk, my belly slack and hurting... The Maker knows I could barely stand, and yet he took me for his One, before the sun was out – and told everyone they had a Queen, and a Prince, daring them to voice their astonishment.

- But... You died...”

His words are thin, his voice ragged. The truth is crumbling around him, and he shivers. Cold. He feels so cold. He is dead, and should be allowed to rest, and yet he feels icy and weak and sick.

“Not then”, his mother said softly. “Not then. I held you, mamarlûn, even though I never really managed to make myself believe you were comfortable against me. You were such a silent little baby – barely ever crying, so unobtrusive... And I kept thinking you should have cried, and screamed – that it was because I had hidden you in my very being that your voice remained choked... I fed you, the first month at least, after that my breast went dry. I could not handle it, you see... I could not handle my body anymore. It had betrayed me – and I... I was a batshûna, a warrior's-daughter, I had ever stood tall, relying on that strength... So – even as I stroked your locks, even as he was trying to come closer to me, I... I just gave up. I got thin, and thinner, and I pushed him away, every day – I could not stand his embrace, could not stand his presence, after all he had done it to me, had he not...? And so... one day I just... died. Curled up in that cave, with you sleeping at my side.

- How long...?”, Thráin asks, and his voice is hoarse.

His mother's hands stroke his back, once, and then they grew still.

“A year after your birth.”

Thráin's heart skips a beat. It is still beating, even in death, and for some seconds his mind dwells upon that mystery, so that it doesn't have to deal with the truth instead. But the truth comes crashing in, eventually – and when it does he pulls away.

Away from his mother he has always thought to have killed – and perhaps he did, in a way, but certainly not like his father told him. She has not bled to death. She has not bled to death. She has spent a whole year at his side before she died, snatched away too soon by fate.

He pulls away, taking a few staggering steps back. He falls on his knees, and within moments he is vomiting. He has not eaten for days, and he is dead, so nothing should have been coming up, and yet it does. It is black, sticky – and it keeps quelling from his lips, in dark, tidal waves.

That's what guilt looks like.

Thráin retches, and heaves, and it feels awful, but somehow these words keep ringing into his ears, in a deep, kind voice he recognizes as his Maker's.

Get rid of it. Once and for all.

He is panting once it is over, and he raises a shaky hand to his lips so as to wipe them. His mother has been at his side, holding back his hair, and she runs her fingers through his mane, once, in a gesture that speaks of regret, and sorrow.

The mess at his feet has vanished as soon as he spat it out. The marble floor is unsoiled – and Thráin feels empty. This is not what he has imagined. That's not the kind of embrace, or words he has ever thought to share with his mother.

He doesn't even know what it is, to have a mother.

He doesn't know what to say to her.

He's not even sure he wants her there anymore.

He weeps.

For that birth between hostile Mountains, that wound and shame that must have been engraved into his very Soul, making him feel unwanted and out of place almost all his life.

For the suffering his 'amad has felt – so young, so fierce and proud, yet broken because life never taught her to be something else than a fighter.

For the guilt in his 'adad – so sharp and deep that the only way he found to deal with it was to lie to him. Probably not knowing he was just heaping part of the guilt onto his shoulders – probably thinking he was shielding him, as usual, when it was just a lie.

He weeps, and this time he notices, dimly, that his cheeks are both wet. That he has tears flowing from both eyes, so as to be able to mourn properly – and so he allows himself to mourn it, the love between his parents that led to so much pain and sorrow, because the world was hostile and dark around them, because they were both young, and helpless, and shattered.

“I am sorry, mamarlûn...”

His mother's voice is calm, and loving.

“I have been so selfish. Even now, I claimed I had the right to see you first... I wanted to see you, and hold you. I am so proud of you. No one ever pinned me down like you did. No one.”

There is a smile in her voice. Offering a truce – asking him if he feels able to let lighter words form a bridge between them. It will take him so much time to trust her, so much time to get to know her and to shape his Soul anew, without any lie or guilt, without any sorrow.

“I did not mean to, 'amad.”

He is glad for the calm in his voice. He has raged enough in life – he still feels sad, and wary, and does not know if he feels like having suffered a loss or gained an unexpected present. Somehow it feels the same. Somehow it does not really matter.

He leans his head against her shoulder. They are both sitting on the ground, leaning against the pillar, and Thráin is weary. So weary. He feels like an entire year of sleeping could not suffice to fight the weariness in his limbs, and heart.

“No one ever called me like that...”, she says softly, and Thráin closes his eyes.

Souls are more fragile than bodies.

Again that gentle voice – his Maker's voice.

They need rest after the storm.

Sleep, my child.

Sleep.

However, as he leans his head against his 'amad's shoulder, there is something Thráin feels he has the right to ask.

“And what did they call you...?”

His voice is trailing off. He is so tired. He lets out a groan when she gently pulls him against him, lowering his body so that he can rest his head on her lap, while she begins to stroke his hair.

“They called me by my name. Always.

- Say it. Please, 'amad. Say it. I want to hear it. I never got to hear it.”

She is silent for some minutes. She is so hard, and proud – he can see that she has not often allowed herself to cry and be comforted. Not even to be loved.

His mother is fierce and untamed, has yet to find out what it is to be a mother, even after decades in the Halls, even after such a long time.

“Arnóra...”, she whispers, in the end, her fingertips buried deep into her son's locks.

It means 'bird', but also 'thunder'.

It is a name that tells Thráin where his rage come from – but also how it came that he has always been able to speak to Ravens, finding friendship in them, even as he grew up alone, shy and fierce in Erebor, always seeking to please and yet failing.

More than anything, it is a name that binds them, gently chasing the cold in his chest away.

He falls asleep with the ghost of a smile around his lips.

Chapter Text

Time has always been so difficult to grasp.

Even back then, even that day his daughter ran her fingers through his hair, smiling with glee when she found the first grey strand in it, mistaking it for silver, Thráin's mind struggled to believe it real. Time was passing around him, and yet for him, sometimes, it seemed to last ages.

Ages when it hurt. An eyeblink when there was joy, and love, and laughter. Ages when it scorched like fire. An eyeblink when it flew by like a shooting-star, like a willow-wisp...

And often... often he has only been confused. Thinking he should be waking up in Erebor, and finding himself in a tiny wooden house in Dunland he had built himself – still searching for her, close to him, and yet he had made sure to shape the bed narrow, for one Dwarrow only, so that he remembered she was gone and could try, at last, to get used to it.

To stay rooted, and grounded, because it had to be so. They needed him. Not his 'adad, of course, never his 'adad – except when it came to bring him some warmth, and the comfort his age required, despite his spiteful words.

But his children. His three, priceless treasures. He looked at them, and struggled to believe they had grown so much – even Dís was getting taller, though he could still scoop her up single-handed, though she remained lighter than his axe...

And Frerin... His dashtith's sunny, clear-shaped face – he had his eyes, true enough, and something of him in the shape of the brow, but his features were more like her's. That's what made him so bright, so loveable, like a soothing balm – a promise that, though he was doing his best to get used to it, he would not forget her. Not her, and not her face.

Not her music. Not her strength. Not her eyes – every time he looked at Thorin, or at Dís, there it was. Warm, strong and loving in hers. Bright and secretive, full of repressed fire in his – he was always so guarded, so wary... So ready to act, and try to shield him – each time he would begin to voice his scorn once more... He was used to it. He did not really care for it anymore, not now, not after that last fight he had lost, the last time he ever voiced his feelings and begged him, begged him to leave his children in the Iron Hills, where they could be safe and sheltered...

He was used to it, and there was little he could use against him, now that they had lost so much, once more. He did not care, not really. What broke his heart was to see how much it hurt his son. His faithful boy, who had seen him at his lowest and was trying so hard not to show him his fear, that fear that he might fall apart and lose his senses once more, to prove him he still thought him worthy, who wanted so desperately to look up at him and trust him wholly once more, and yet ever remained wary. Waiting for the blow to hit, both dreading it and determined to prevent it.

All in vain...

Sometimes the only way to soothe him was to lay a hand against his neck, without a word. It had always calmed him, had always helped to reassure Thorin he was there. Fully there – as much as he could be.

That gesture – it had always shown Thráin how slippery and treacherous time was.

He was standing on Ravenhill, his little boy clinging to his waist, afraid of the noise, the crowd of dark, majestic birds, and his hand resting on Thorin's neck – a silent promise that he would let no harm come to him.

He was holding his son against him, pained by the sling around his right arm, thinking he had almost lost him between savage Wolf fangs.

He was trying to reassure him – telling him he was setting out, leaving them in their small settlement in Dunland, to protect merchants and be able to increase their riches, leaving him with his siblings, because he was ready, and able, even though his anguished gaze showed him so clearly he didn't believe him.

He was promising him they would all survive this, that war, that raging battle, and what a lie it had been, Mahal, what a lie – his palm against his son's neck, his son who shielded them all when he could not, his son they didn't even name after him anymore after that, calling him Oakenshield because his deeds had outshone his birthright...

No, time... time is just treacherous. Not to be grasped, or comprehended. Like a fume. A fume full of scorching fire, where shooting-stars pass, and die.

That is why Thráin is not afraid, not struggling, not even wondering, as he sits there between the high Columns in that wide Hall, unable to tell how much time has passed exactly – if time still passes here.

He should be restless, he should get up, walk between these Columns, try to move along – try to find others. There must be others. There is a fair chance they are all here. Not only his mother – not only her... There is a chance he could find them all, get them all back, and yet Thráin seems unable to move. He is so broken. He feels so empty.

He has failed them all, endless times. He has never done the right thing, he has shattered so much. He has not even shaped himself in a right way... The very beginning of his life has ever been hushed, and though his 'adad lied to him, though it fills him with hurt because he had the right to know, on the other hand he still thinks it was the best thing to do.

After all, he had not been enough. Not enough to hold his 'amad back, not enough to bring them together. Not enough to restrain himself and keep her there. Not enough to save his 'adad from Dragon-fire without breaking down. Not enough to protect his dashtith, and not enough to ease his dashat's burden.

Not enough to get up, and search for them, because he has no strength and no right to face them. It fills him with shame, to be so weak and afraid, and yet... it is still not enough to shake him. He knows the feeling, he knows it so well. He is so used to sitting against a wall, waiting for time to pass around him, not even feeling the need to move. Time is like a fume, and Thráin is nothing more than a tiny swirl of smoke, as it shifts and winds around him.

His mother does not scold him. She simply sits there. She offers him her shoulder to lean against, she is not asking anything, she simply runs her hand through his hair, and sometimes – sometimes she loosens his braids to weave them again, fastening his clasps around them. A silent proof that time passes around them – yet Thráin is unable to care.

“'Amad...”, he whispers – as he feels her fingers around his face once more, and Arnóra's fingertips ghost upon his beard, her grey eyes meeting his.

“'Amad, you do not have to stay here.

- No. I do not have to. But this is where I want to be.

- Why?”, Thráin asks, and his voice is weary. “I don't... I don't have anything to give. There's nothing left, 'amad. I spent it all. I cannot give you what you seek.

- And what is it you think I seek?”

Her voice is soft. So is her touch – she seems more confident, somehow, closer, and yet they haven't talked. Not since he woke up, his face still resting against her lap, feeling so empty. She has just held him. Has drawn her arms around him and held him close when he had begun to shiver again – has wrapped her white furs around him with determined moves that speak of a lifetime fighting back cold, and somehow Thráin knows she has killed that wolf herself.

His 'amad who is as savage, mighty and fierce as a wolf herself – he knows she has fought it with respect, must have skinned it with moves that were as slow and caring as if she was carving silver. He knows she has taken everything of that wolf, and yet has made sure to bear his gift with grace, and pride, as a silent hommage to that worthy foe that once kept her alive.

He just knows, without having an idea where that certitude comes from. He has leant his cheek against her soft, warm furs, and simply known, just like he knows he's not the son she deserves.

“I am not weighing out what you have lost”, he simply says. “I am not like you. I am not like him either. I tried... and I failed. You do not have to stay here.

- You do not see it, do you?”, she replies softly, her fingers finishing to weave his braid. “How glad I am. How I thank Mahal every day, for the fact that you are not like him, and not like me. How much I treasure absolutely everything you have been, and still are.”

Her words draw a smile on Thráin's lips. A sad, weary smile.

“There is not much to treasure, 'amad. There has never been much, and now... Now there's nothing left. I wish I could give you more. I wish I could be more, for you, but I do not want to lie to you, and to give you false hopes. You have not seen... you have not seen what I have become.

- Have I not?”, Arnóra lets out, her tone savage and yet full of love. “I have seen everything, Thráin. Everything. My boy. My wonderful boy.

- No...”

Thráin shakes his head, feeling the cold return. He's always cold. Every time he thinks about his life, about all this waste, it seems that there is no fire, no possible way he could ever warm up again. He would never have thought it, but it pains him beyond measure, the fact to be able to have every thought under control again – everything is so clear, so unforgivingly clear...

“I have seen you. As a baby, so tiny, huddled against your 'adad. As a boy as well – you were so brave, so determined to be strong, and yet so loving. You made me blush, you made me burn with shame to have left you like that, and yet I could not stop looking at you... I could not believe how much love and will you harboured – that I, of all Dwarrowdams, had given birth to such a wonderful son...

- I was nothing!”

Thráin almost laughs aloud, but there is pain in his chest and his eyes sting.

“I was tiny. I was weak, I was such a burden to him and I knew it, I knew he hated to have me around... Especially in Erebor... 'Amad – I was nothing more than a burden. Believe me. I remember. I remember wishing so desperately to be stronger – I knew I had to, and yet I kept falling sick, and it annoyed him, it annoyed him so much...

- That year you had to replace the pipes?”, his mother asks, and there is intensity in her voice that Thráin finds strange, even stranger than her unimpassioned question.

“Yes. They were rusty, they were full of leaks, and the water... The water carried germs. They didn't notice, at first, because they were all tough, and hardened. Everyone save me. I wasn't strong. I was used to clear water from wild springs. I fell ill. Several times. Until other Dwarves started being bothered too. Then 'adad saw what was wrong, and got them replaced.

- No...”, Arnóra says, softly. “Not like that, mamarlûn.

- I was eight”, Thráin replies, his grey eyes shining with the hurt he withholds. “I remember. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I wanted him so much. I tried to be strong. And I just thrust more worries upon his shoulders... No wonder he wished me to be different. He could never bear any weakness – he always hated it. He was patient with me, he truly was. But I... I think that... in the end... he could not bring himself to...”

But Thráin does not manage to finish the sentence. The words hurt too much, even here, and silent tears fall down his cheeks, once more. He turns in disgust, not wanting his 'amad to witness that, he is already such a disappointment to her...

“I see...”, Arnóra says, quietly. “It is as I feared, then.”

You are less than I expected. I have been mistaken. I shall leave now.

But she does not say anything like that. She just forces Thráin to turn towards her once more, and then she brings her forehead against his, cupping his face between her palms, firmly.

“There is a reason why we are both here. Alone. Together. Something that I... need to set right. I hadn't understood. I had thought the Maker was granting me a favour... and He did, in a way, but on the other hand... Mamarlûn, I am not tender. I am not loving. I never was. I still am not, and I will never be. Even after all these years... I still cannot speak to him. I look at him, and then I turn – and yet... there is something I need to set right.

- What... what are you talking about?”, Thráin whispers, his eyes closed as he leans against her, unable to resist the warmth of her hands, burning with savage love.

“I need to set something right about him. About... the way he felt about you. About the words he never said, but that I heard so clearly as I was watching you both.

- I...”, Thráin begins, but his mother gently brushes a thumb against his lips.

“I know you remember, mamarlûn. You have a wonderful memory – and you have loved so fiercely that each remembrance has been branded there, behind your forehead. Now, if you will let me... If you will let me, I will show you... I will show you what is missing, what has been unvoiced yet still was there, and then – then perhaps you will see. Believe me when I say I could not feel anything but awe, just like he has...”

She strokes his face once more, and then she speaks again, very quietly.

“Think about that day, mamarlûn. And do not be afraid if I add something to it. I'm your 'amad, and I have keen eyes. I have seen everything, and it has just made me love you more, and yearn for you, and wish I had been there with you.”

Her forehead touches Thráin's and their black locks mingle as he moves, slowly, cupping her hands with his own. Giving in to her wish, to the magic the words she whispers next still hold, because it has always been Erebor's strong-word, carved into every warrior's ring.

Mahizli. Mahizli, mamarlûn.”

And Thráin remembers.

*



This day, his bowels have turned to water. It often happens, it's something he knows well even if he's just a scrap of a Dwarfling – he knows what it means, when his belly twists and winds and hurts, making him sweat and head for the latrines with staggering steps.

Thráin is just a little boy, but he has already learned to take care of himself when such things happen. It happens to everyone, or so Nár said to comfort him one day he did not manage to reach the latrines on time and soiled himself – and he has also promised not to tell ' adad , has just led the little Prince back to his chamber and made sure someone stayed with him during the day.

But this was already months ago, and Thráin has vowed not to let anyone see him like this again. It's humiliating, it makes him feel even smaller than he already is – and his father would hate it. It makes him frown, when he's slow, and pale, and sweaty – he picks him up, feels for his forehead and grunts in annoyance, and Thráin knows he's angry at him for being so weak.

So that day, even though the pain in his bowels is so sharp he actually doubles up – he takes care of himself. He just lets it happen, steadying himself against the wall, and after that he washes his hands carefully, because he knows it's important, has heard his father repeat it often enough.

After that he lies down, because he truly feels weak. The pain doesn't stop, not really, coming and going even as he draws up his knees, and he lets his hand rest against his belly, closing his eyes. He doesn't call for anyone – because he knows everyone is busy. There's so much to do, so many things to fix, and he would only be in everyone's way, his father has told him so the previous evening and has ordered him to keep to his rooms.

It happens so many times that the only comfort Thráin manages to find lies in counting. He knows the numbers, he's proud of it, and often distracts himself with them. He knows his father has exactly forty-nine shining beads in his beard, that he has three different swords and at least two axes. That Nár has five scars on his left forearm, two on his right, and one right behind the ear. That Itô has no less than three necklaces, around her neck, even though he has not managed to count the black onyx pearls properly, because he's never close enough, even though he'd like it.

He had no bead, not even a hair clasp – he's too small. He has a tiny sword, though, but they keep it blunt so that he doesn't hurt himself, because it's heavy. And he has thirteen Dwarven soldiers, thirteen batshân , that Nár has made for him so that he can amuse himself.

That day, his bowels empty themselves eleven times. And after the eighth time he just stays in the latrines, waiting for the next wave. It's a good decision, because after that his stomach begins to betray him as well. He's sweating, his legs are trembling, his hands are clenching his belly, and suddenly his stomach heaves and he doesn't really know from where his body is getting rid of whatever remains inside. It happens three times, and Thráin just stays there – he knows it is going to stop, it always does. It's just that this time, it seems to last ages.

When he manages to drag himself up, he has to lean against the sink. He closes his eyes, because the small room is spinning around him, and feels for the tap. He hears the water run, and his small hand reaches for it – he bathes his fingers, and then he rinses his face. His forehead and cheeks are hot, and he can't bring himself to drink, he just relishes the cool, wet touch of water against his skin. It gives him enough strength to turn, and to lift the heavy bucket full of water so as to rinse away the mess – he has to, it's important, he cannot let anyone see how weak his body has just been.

He's proud of himself when he manages to do it, when he washes his hands and is able to stagger back to his bed. He feels hot, and nauseous, and not well at all, but he has done it, he has taken care of himself alone and even though his father will scold him for staying in bed the whole day – at least he has not bothered anyone.

He groans, when a broad hand finds his forehead and pushes back his soaked locks. He has slept for hours, curled upon himself, but his head and stomach ache, and his skin is hot. He struggles to sit up, and through the haze that clouds his eyes he recognises his father's blue gaze.

What is the matter with you?”, his father asks, his voice harsh, and Thráin closes his eyes.

I'm sorry, 'adad...”, he whispers, and with theses words his stomach heaves again, but he has nothing to give back anymore.

His father steadies him – he always does – and mutters a curse under his beard. He forces him to lie down, and then he feels for his stomach, his fingers pressing against his belly, searching for pain – and Thráin groans, his small hand resting against his father's as he looks up at him.

You've been sick the whole day, haven't you?”, Thrór asks. “Just below, or thrown up as well?

- I... Both, 'adad . I'm sorry.

- Mahal, stop that. Just answer. Did you eat anything else than what I have been giving you? Did somebody offer you anything – did you take anything without telling me?”

There's something in his father's voice that is new – something Thráin would later recognise as fear, but as it is he only looks up to Thrór, his grey eyes shining with fever, yet truthful.

No, 'adad. I know you forbid that.”

His voice is thin, and his head hurts – he wants the pain to stop, he's tired and he's afraid to throw up again, but he never stops looking at his father, who releases a breath and frowns at him, his hand still resting against his stomach.

I think it's the water...”, Thráin adds faintly

{ and Thrór's eyebrows shoot up at these words, looking at his little boy, lying there all pale and tiny and sweaty under his broad hand, yet still thinking.

Always thinking, Mahal. }

It has a strange taste sometimes... It tastes like... like the dust in the forges. And when it does, I always...”

He crinkles his nose.

{ in an expression that is so like his mother's that Thrór wants to run his thumbs on his small cheekbones, just to make sure he actually exists – he's so unlike him, has neither his hair, his eyes nor his stature, and he's so tiny, so incredibly tiny... But he doesn't, because he can't allow himself to do so – his little son is sick, and he's right, it's because of the water, these accursed pipes that are so rusty and that still do not run well, no matter how hard he tries... }

Are you thirsty?”, Thrór asks,

{ instead }

and Thráin winces and shakes his head. He's hot as a coal stove

{ and Thrór knows he has to get some water into him. But he can also see him struggle against nausea, and cannot bring himself to force him. Not just yet. Instead he just looks at him, thinking it's the third time this year he has to watch him like that – and he cannot help but to feel dread, dread because it's a sign that he's fragile, that his body cannot handle hardship as well as grown-up Dwarves, and yet he only has him. }

I'm fine, 'adad...”, his little son whispers, and Thrór snorts at the lie.

Udûn's blazes you are...”, he curses quietly, and

{ the only thing that warms his heart is to see }

Thráin's lips curl up slightly, delighted to hear his father swear like that, when it's just so forbidden.

Up with you”, he adds, and Thráin sits up, obediently, leaning his small palms against the bed.

{ He never complains. He never struggles. He barely ever throws a tantrum, and Thrór has trouble to understand this – he would actually have preferred him not to be so sweet and yielding, it stirs something in him that makes him feel weak and vulnerable inside, and that he'd rather ignore. But as it is }

Thrór just strips Thráin from his breeches and tunic, leaving him with his t hin undershirt so as to let his skin cool down. The movements awake his nausea

{ and Thrór has to watch his little body double up and heave, helplessly. }

There's nothing in him and it makes it more painful, but Thráin doesn't complain, just bites down his lip once it's over , tears glimmering in his eyes.

He doesn't cry, though. And when Thrór takes him in his arms and lifts him, taking him to his own room so as to be able to watch over him the whole night, he nestles against him with a sigh of relief, his small legs anchoring themselves around his waist – he hasn't dared to ask, but that's all he wants, he just wants his ' adad to hold him against him, his strength and presence enough to fight down sickness.

Thrór takes him to his room and makes him lie on his bed. He's still frowning, and Thráin knows he's annoyed. He's so sorry. He knows his ' adad has better things to do than taking care of him, but he cannot prevent himself from feeling mostly grateful, even as his head and stomach hurt, because it means he's going to have his father with him tonight.

Don't move”, Thrór orders, and Thráin wonders why he thinks he'd even want to move.

His father fetches a bucket and puts it down on the floor beneath the bed.

If you feel it come up, make sure to let it out there. I don't want you to ruin the bedclothes, understood?”

His eyebrows are drawn together

{ – and Thrór wonders once more, privately, why in Durin's name he never manages to voice the words he actually wants to say, why it seems so impossible for him to tell his little boy that he doesn't give a damn about the bedclothes, that the only thing that truly matters to him is to see his fever get down, and his eyes fall shut in well-deserved sleep. }

Yet Thráin is used to it

{ and doesn't seem to mind his rough words. }

He just looks up at him

{ and there's so much tru st and love in these grey eyes that Thrór feels his throat tighten, and is unable to add anything. Instead, he busies himself next to the fireplace – makes sure to have water carefully boiled so that every germ is destroyed, pours some hot water in a mug with a pinch of willow-bark, and leaves the rest to cool down so as to give it to Thráin later.

His little boy is backed up against the pillows, heavy-lidded, his cheeks flushed and his curls damp with sweat. He's only eight years old. He's not more than a tiny scrap of a Dwarfling, and yet he has managed to endure a whole day of sickness without even calling for help, when half of his own g uards would already have been wailing and complaining. The thought fills Thrór with so much anger that he actually scowls at Thráin }

as he hands him the cup, his hand gripping his back firmly so as to help him sit up.

It's bitter, son. Don't gulp it down, take it sip by sip. And try to keep it down, will you?”

Thráin nods. And as he swallows the drought, obediently, the only sign of distaste he allows himself is to crinkle his nose

{ and this time Thrór allows his hand to ghost over his locks, just for a second, so lightly that his little boy doesn't even feel it. }

They sit together for a while, silently.

{ Thrór wants to make sure the drought keeps where it should – he knows his son is so tired he'll soon fall asleep, and doesn't want him to choke should the nausea return. And so he just holds him upright, against his broad chest, one hand around his waist and the other resting on his forehead, pained by the heat that radiates against his palm, and by the way his son struggles to keep awake, sliding against him and always dragging himself up with a start. }

Right. Feel like lying down?”, he asks after a while, and Thráin nods, tiredly.

His head is not pounding as much, and the drug seems to have helped settling his stomach. He slides down on the sheets gratefully, and sighs as Thrór spreads his old fur coat on his legs, careful not to cover him too much.

Maikhmin, 'adad”, he whispers as slumber takes him

{ and Thrór cannot believe his boy has actually thanked him, when he should have made sure to have all these pipes checked, Mahal's beard, so that he would never have been sick in the first place.

He will never tell Thráin, but his son is right – there's rust in the pipes and it carries germs. He's going to make sure to have them replaced, will tell the smiths in the forge first thing tomorrow, and will give orders for the water to be boiled until it's finished.

He sighs. He's tired, and yet there are many things that still need to be done, until he'll finally be able to join his son in slumber. He needs to answer a letter from his brother, asking him what has to be shipped to Erebor from the Iron Hills first – weapons, tools or rather raw iron? He needs to read several reports from his scouts, because Orcs and Goblins are roaming the lands around Erebor, attacking Men's settlements, and that he wants to outline his strategy to bring them down, so that Middle Earth knows Dwarves are back into the Mountain, strong and mighty. He has to, so that trade flows back and brings some prosperity to these long-abandoned Halls...

Every once in a while, as he sits on his desk close to the fire, his gaze shifts to the small shape curled up on his bed. His son is not making a sound, he's not even stirring, and Thrór is pleased to see nausea doesn't seem to plague him anymore.

It's embarrassing, the way he keeps staring at him, and so he returns to his papers, trying not to think about what he would do should fever and dehydration claim him once and for all.

And when his tasks are done, when he finally lies down at least, almost too tired to undress, he still finds the strength to check his forehead, sighing when he still finds it damp and hot. He falls asleep his hand inches away from his son, not daring to disturb his rest.

But his sleep is definitely broken not much later – when Thráin's fever flames up again, the willow bark offering only some hours of relief. }

He is staring at the ceiling, rigid with fear, and he cries and cries and just doesn't stop crying, even as Thrór makes sure to light the lantern beneath him, telling him roughly there's nothing to fear.

This time however Thráin doesn't calm down. It is late, he's exhausted – and he's too fevered to remember where he is, and too young to understand that the twisted shapes he sees are not real, that it's only his hazed brain playing tricks. He screams in fear, and struggles when his father tries to make him drink, and in the end Thrór has no choice but to hold him, tightly, against him – lift him from the bed and pace the room, quietly, not singing, not rocking him, just walking.

{ His son moans against him, his small hands balled, his chest quivering with sobs, and Thrór walks, and walks, his hand against his back, until his pace somehow lulls Thráin back to something close to calm. He still hiccups, every now and then, and he's covered in sweat, but his screams have ebbed and he rests his face against his father's shoulder, tiredly.

He ends up throwing up, as well – and Thrór does not scold him even though of course, it's not in the bucket but against his very shirt. His son is shivering and his eyes are glazed, he didn't even realise what happened, and Thrór simply undresses, wiping his mouth with a corner of the shirt that ends up on the floor. And then he strips Thráin from his undershirt, holding him against him. Their skin meet, and Thrór makes sure to wipe his son's back with a cool, damp cloth he holds against his forehead, dipping it into water every now and then, when it gets hot again.

'Adad...”, his son whispers, eventually, against his neck, and Thrór's heart leaps at hearing that little word again.

“Feel like drinking something?”, he asks, calmly – yet all he truly wants is kissing him.

“Mm-hm.”

That's also something he has to make him unlearn. He cannot let him answer with half-articulated sounds when he's perfectly able to say 'yes' or 'no' – but one thing after the other. After all, he has just managed to prevent him from sticking his thumb into his mouth whenever he feels sleepy... well, judging from what he sees, he actually has not.

Thráin's head is still leaning against his shoulder, and his thumb is definitely between his lips – and of course it makes him look even younger than the scrap of a Dwarfling he still is, yet Thrór cannot bring himself to scold him, not tonight. Not when he has just calmed down, plagued by fever-dreams, nausea and fear.

“Well, make room for the cup then”, he says, almost gently, and Thráin reluctantly pulls his thumb from his mouth, accepting some gulps before pushing the cup away.

It's the first expression of will he has in more than a day, and though Thrór should insist, and make him drink more, he's so pleased to witness it that he just puts the cup back. Thráin has put his thumb back between his lips, and his other hand is grabbing his father's shoulder, firmly.

He shakes his head fiercely when Thrór makes a move to lie him down on the bed again – he has lost some restraint with the fever and it actually pleases his father more than anything. }

But Thráin doesn't know. He just knows he doesn't want his 'adad away – not now, and actually never.

And so his little fingers curl around his shoulder, even as he falls asleep again, his damp locks plastered against his father's neck, his tiny chest pressed against his beard.

{ And Thrór holds him. Thinking he actually doesn't deserve him – that he's so afraid to lose him, and to raise him in a wrong way... He doesn't know how to handle a sick, little child – he doesn't know what to say to his small boy when he looks up at him in that heartbreaking, trusting way he has... It was not planned like this... It should never have been like this...

He strokes his locks, once Thráin is asleep – and he focuses on the pipes, on the way he's going to have everybody strive and tremble until they are all replaced, Mahal, so that his little boy never gets sick again. And then he falls asleep as well, still holding his son against him, determined to watch over him the whole night, if needed, because he simply cannot do without him.

Even if, in the end, he will never be able to tell him. }



*



Thráin opens his eyes slowly, and for a while he doesn't know where he is. Everything is blurred, and the only thing grounding him are Arnóra's hands that are still resting against his cheekbones.

Cradling his head. Wiping away his tears.

“He never said...”, he whispers, and his voice is as broken as his soul.

He wants to add that it must be a lie, that it cannot be true, because his father is simply not like that. Not full of fear, not full of doubts, and certainly not loving... He is a rock, crushing, unforgiving, not caring for cold or loneliness – revelling in them, basking in their harshness because they have made him strong, and unvulnerable.

But Thráin has seen him. As clearly as he has seen himself as a tiny little boy, the vision more real than the most vivid memory. Has seen his 'adad bare-chested, cradling him, sitting cross-legged on his old fur-coat, his arctic eyes burning with silent pain – not a King, not a leader, but a scarred Dwarf that had had to become a father.

It makes him weep. Because he sees, suddenly, that they might actually be more alike than he ever thought – could have shared so much more, had one of them not made sure to crush every tiny sign of love with spiteful words, and had the other not been too shy and afraid to speak up...

“He never said...”, he repeats, and it feels like the bleeding of a life-long wound.

“I know...”, Arnóra replies, very quietly. “I know, mamarlûn. We are no speakers. We are both cowards. We never had your courage...

- Courage...?”

Thráin repeats the word in a toneless whisper, and his grey eyes search for his mother's face, because surely, she would not be so cruel as to mock him, not here, not now...

“Courage, mamarlûn. What else is it, to feel so deeply, and to let these feelings show...? Not caring for the pain, for the fire – rage, fear, hurt, grief, of course... but also joy. And love. You have been brave enough to let them show, and it never ceased to amaze me... I would have been so afraid...

- Afraid...?”, Thráin repeats, and she kisses his cheek, softly, thinking she will never tire to hear that deep voice echo her words, never tire of the silken touch of his long, dark locks against her fingers, of his warmth, of the swirling fire that rests in his eyes, still smothered, almost guttering, but real, and only waiting to spread...

“Yes. I would have been afraid to break. Just as I did, in the end...”

Thráin's eyes cloud, and his arms circle her chest, instantly. He is strong, he is warm, he is real and he holds her close, his embrace worth more than any reply – and Arnóra allows her face to rest against his neck, breathing in his scent.

Her boy. Her wonderful boy...

“I do not know what to say to him...”, she whispers in the end, closing her eyes because the words hurt, because she has never laid her guard down as much in life or in death.

“There is only anger and fear, and hurt. I know his life, and his death – but I know nothing of him. And he knows nothing of me. He looks at me, and I know he is waiting for something. Anything but silence – but I cannot speak. I cannot speak... And so we round each other, and throw hurt and silence at each other, decade after decade... And I thought it made me feel whole – that it made up for everything to see him lost, and unable to act... That I rejoiced in seeing him brought so low, begging silently me for a word, just a word... I thought I was whole, but I am so empty... So, when you tell me I should go, and leave you – do you not see that I cannot, that you are the only treasure I still have, the only pride I can cling to...? What am I without you, mamarlûn, but an empty shell...?

- You are no empty shell.”

This time Thráin's voice is assured, and firm. It is a strange – there are moments where he feels like a boy, a child, where Arnóra's arms look like the only refuge still remaining. And there are others where he is the one holding her – where she seems smaller, because she died so much younger than him, because the shape of her soul is that of Dwarrowdam in her prime, exactly like Thráin's...

There are moments where they talk as equals, and when they do, Thráin feels the beginning of something he cannot name yet stir in his chest.

“You are wonderful. You are... everything I wished for. You are my 'amad, my treasure... and his treasure as well.”

She flinches and draws back, her eyes – these eyes she passed on to him – full of disbelief and hurt, and Thráin smiles at her, sadly.

“There were no words, but I know. That silence I never mistook. That silence we shared, you see... He did not talk about you. He never ever said your name aloud – just like I never could bear to voice hers, once she was... gone.”

And there his voice trembles. That hurt is beyond anything – that hurt tore his heart apart, leaving only half of his soul, bleeding, shivering, screaming silently in the darkness.

“He loved you. He still does. He never stopped missing you, and what happened... what happened hurt him so much that he never let anyone truly close afterwards. I thought... I thought he was blaming me... I still do... but I also see, now... that above all, he blames himself.

- And this is not right...?”

Arnóra has hissed the words savagely, her eyes burning with unshed tears.

“Is he not to blame? He was not the one with the broken body! He was not the weak and helpless one! He has been the one thrusting all his failures upon others, basking in his own glory, alone, alone, alone and rightly so!”

Her fists are clenched now – she needs her son to back her up, she needs Thráin to take her side, she needs it so badly that she trembles. And thank Mahal her son takes her in his arms again. Cradles her against him, his cheek meeting her head.

“Yes. Alone.”, Thráin whispers. “This is what hurts me so.”

His words are simple. He is no wordsmith. In his golden days, he has been a thinker, a gifted craftsman, a skilled swordman, a fierce warrior... but words were always her domain.

“I never understood. Why, while I was yearning for closeness, he kept pushing me away. Why he let no one reach him... not close enough... not close enough... I would have done anything to give him something he accepted. Something to break through his solitude. 'Amad...”

And that small, loving word is enough to free Arnóra's sobs, at last. They are loud, they are terrible and she hates the very sound of it, but they shake her frame like a storm and she cannot fight them back. Not anymore. Because even sobs are better than emptiness.

“I watched him fighting with open wounds on his back. Opening every day, making him shiver in pain and fever, but he would pull that chainmail back on, every morning, his eyes ablaze and his teeth bared, determined to fight them all, to win that battle... I watched him as he was rising, leading meeting after meeting, making Erebor's name ringing mightily among Men and Elves... I watched him fall, losing himself in gold and empty treasures... I watched him being saved from that Fire, watched him turn against you, watched his mind crumble as his body aged... I watched him go – I watched him enter the walls of Khazad-Dûm and... I watched him die, watched his head being severed from his shoulders, watched his brow being defiled and his name being sullied... I saw everything, I could only watch, because I was not there!”

She is still sobbing, clinging to her son's strong, warm body.

“I am a batshûna. We do not abandon our King to his fight, we shield him! We protect him, we are ready to die for him! We do not crumble, and fade away, leaving him to his doom... What do you want me to say – what could I possibly say to him, knowing I have abandoned him? Left him alone... left him alone, because I thought I hated him... because I thought he deserved it...

- And does he, 'amad?”, Thráin asks softly, his fingers resting against her shoulder-blades, and when she answers... when she answers, at last – that is when Thráin gets the first glimpse of a certitude, a glimmer in the darkness that has threatened to engulf him.

The certitude that, soon, he will be able to leave the Columns, because they are both more than empty shells.

“Does he...?”

They both look at each other – eyes so alike they are almost mirrors. Both broken, both full of love. So alike that when Arnóra finally says it, it feels like one of Thráin's thoughts voiced aloud.

“No, mamarlûn. He does not.”

Nobody does.

Not him, not her... and not you, my child.

Have faith.

Have faith. Light will come.

His Maker's voice, once more... so caring, so full of love, and forgiveness. It makes Thráin shiver – makes him long for something he has forgotten for ages.

It makes him long for light.

It makes him long for her.

It makes him long for him.

It makes him want to take his mother's hand, and to let her lead him out of here, because it is time for them to leave emptiness behind.

“Come, 'amad”, Thráin says softly.

And then they leave, together.

Chapter Text

The first times he sees her she is among friends. They have all come from the Iron Hills to visit Erebor, to look upon her walls now that they have regained part of their splendour of old, and Thráin is twenty-six.

Tall, just like his father, but lean. His hair carefully braided – Itô's doing, always Itô's doing. Even that day, she has entered his rooms shortly after dawn, waiting for his soft “come in”, and has pulled him close, has drawn his back close to her chest and begun to comb his hair, taming his raven locks with slow, caring moves.

“You look handsome, hulwel...”

That soft nickname is a secret between them. Ever since that day she has found him, in the armoury, curled upon himself, almost ten years ago. She had not asked anything, and he had been glad – because he would not have known what to answer. There were no words, no possible justification for his feelings, no cause for the despair he felt, so crushing that his knees had simply given way, after his last training.

Alone in the dark. He had stripped himself out of his training gear, cleaned his weapons and put them back where they belonged, and then had simply slid down the wall, burying his face in his knees, thinking he had to get up, and unable to achieve it.

They were too heavy. His body and his heart – there was a crushing weight dragging him into the ground, into the wall, yearning to become one with the stone at last. His father was away – on battlefields beneath the Mountains. It had been going on for months. Weeks and weeks where they were all away, fighting – coming back to Erebor for short days of rest where Thrór barely had the time to acknowledge Thráin's presence, did not even seem to notice he had grown, that he had learnt to sharpen swords and to mend mesh coats, helping the war-smiths in their seemingly endless tasks.

His 'adad did not see him, no matter what he did, and Thráin felt like a ghost. Shapeless. Meaningless. Empty. So empty that no sparring-session, no forging helped to convince himself he was still alive.

That day his knees had simply given way, and Thráin had cowered on the ground, his thin body curled upon itself in a fruitless attempt to stay warm. Until fingers had found his hair, making him flinch.

He had jerked up, recognising Itô – the proud batshûna Nár spoke so reverently of, the Dwarrowdam who was able to make even his father's gaze soften, and had felt shame invade his heart, so burning it hurt.

“Forgive me. I did not mean to linger...”

His voice was hoarse – not deep yet, but definitely brittle with unuse. They did not notice he barely talked, did not notice he was barely eating. Himself did not. Just went on with whatever it was he had to do, not noticing he was fading away.

“Linger...? These are your training grounds, my Prince. Your realm. Your home.

- No.”

The word had broken from his lips before he could hold it back, and Thráin's hand had shot up to cover his mouth.

“You do not feel at home, my Prince?”

Her voice was gentle, despite her black, hard gaze, and her hand had found his hair again, stroking it gently, her fingertips running through his locks, still damp from his sparring session.

And Thráin had felt something in him unravel. Something lessening the tension in his muscles, in his back, in his heart. He had reached out, shily, his fingers brushing the black, bright beads of her three onyx necklaces.

“No...”, he had said, very quietly, very earnestly.

His grey eyes were still riveted on the pearls, but he had found enough strength to meet her gaze, once he had felt her palm on his back, nudging him gently towards her.

“He is away”, he had whispered, just before his chest met hers, just before his face found the soft skin of her neck – an unknown scent of iron and leather, mixed with a discreet perfume that reminded him of pine-needles.

“He is always away.

- I know, hulwel.”

She was brushing his back, her fingers circling his chest, the hard, tiny cage his ribs drew around his heart, beating fast and wildly. Her skin was warm, so warm where they touched, it seemed almost impossible after so many weeks of feeling so cold...

“We are doing this for you. For all these lives that will unfold, here, in this mighty stronghold. That is why we fight. That is the reason that keep us going.

- I want to be with him. I want to fight at his side. I don't want to be left here.”

Thráin's voice was so low it had almost sounded like a breath. But she had heard it, and her lips had found his hair, at last, with a soft sound that could have looked like a sob, yet was too subdued for that.

“I know.”

She had not mocked him. She had just held him. And when he had been able to look up, he had noticed the thick bandage around her left hand and wrist.

“You are hurt...

- I was. It is healing. I am allowed to use it again – this is why I am here. I have to get used to the weight of my axe once more.

- If you wish...”

But he had not been able to go on. He was unused to speaking, unused to voicing his thoughts, he only knew how to use his hands to work and fight. He was unused to being touched, unused to the warmth of his skin meeting another.

“Yes, my Prince?”

And in the end he had spoken. Shyly, almost stumbling upon the words.

“I could help you. Spar against you. I will not harm you. I am too small...

- You are not too small. It is more than I could wish for.

- Today?”, Thráin had asked, and she had lifted her injured hand to brush his cheekbone with her thumb, trailing down his jaw, taking in his pale, drawn face.

“No, hulwel. You already fought today, and you need your rest. Tomorrow.”

He had nodded, and forced himself to pull back from her embrace so as to bow. And she had smiled at him, and helped him back on his feet, not adding a word. Yet knowing, somehow, that this evening he would eat, and the day afterwards also – now that someone was needing him, now that there was a small purpose to his days.

They had fought, indeed, and got to know each other, as Itô's hand was mending. She was older than his father, and her One had died when the great Drake came, along with her two small sons. She had told him about them, not in so many words, but through small touches – after they sparred, and the day she first asked him if he wanted her to braid his hair.

It was right after his father had come back victorious, right before the battle banket, and Thráin had nodded. Relishing the touch of her fingers against his skull, gazing up at her as she wove braid after braid, her black gaze soft, and loving.

“You look handsome, hulwel...”

That day he had smiled.

But not this morning.

This morning he just stays silent, sitting upright and grave in the costly clothes he has pulled on, fully knowing it is his father's wish, that he has to appear as the Prince they keet repeating him he is. He lets her weave his hair, and doesn't say a word when the back of her hand lingers on his nearly-bearded cheek.

“Your skin is cold, though... Do not fear.”

She always guesses it. When his stomach is knotted, when it feels like he has swallowed lead. It happens almost every day, because every day there is something he is forced into achieving when all he wants is to hide away, run up the cool slopes of Ravenhill and spend the day with the birds he loves so much, because they never judge him.

Saying his lessons aloud. Welcoming envoys with his father. Voicing his oath to Erebor in front of all the Dwarrows – that day he had not been able to sleep at all, and Itô had braided his hair with him clutching the hem of his tunic, his face whiter than marble.

That day she taught him to fight back fear between two breaths. Held his cold, clammy hands between hers, had him look at her – and entrusted him with her secret. She had been afraid, before battle, still was. And when fear came, the only way to reassure herself that she was still there, unbent, tall, fighting, was to take a deep breath. Letting her lungs expand, forcing it to fill her body, and then release it, slowly. Not like a small, frightened being, clawing for air – but like a batshûna. A Dwarrowdam who still had enough will and strength to breathe, and to relish it.

“You are a true batshûn, hulwel. You are our Uzbad-dashat, and everybody knows it. The oath is nothing compared to what you already are. You just have to breathe through it.”

He had done it, that day. Had spoken the words loud and clear, his voice unwavering, and yet he had had to take a deep breath before each sentence, a silent deep breath that hid away that he was afraid, so afraid to speak up and shame his father – and as he spoke his oath in his own, soft way, the words stretched slowly, towards every Dwarrow, and towards his batshûna whose hands he could still feel, wrapped around his, calling him her Prince.

He loves her so much he does not even know how to voice it.

“How many knots...?”, Itô asks, in the end, when he still doesn't speak, and Thráin sighs.

“A thousand.”

It is a code between them. She asks him about the knots in his stomach, and he decides of the number. It never fails to draw a smile on his lips, not even that day, because it is a way of letting go – even if, after that, he won't speak of whatever it is that worries him.

“Thank you, Itô. Thank you for everything.”

She just huffs, and then he leaves. Joins his father and arches his eyebrows when Thrór looks at him, nods and lets out a gruff “good”. This is unexpected. This is strange. Just like his father's smile is, when he welcomes the Dwarven lords he will later know as Farin, and Grór.

The latter is his uncle, and he will enter Erebor only two times, the second occasion looming far ahead – a day of boundless happiness, of a joy so exquisite Thráin has no idea of yet.

All Thráin knows is that he loves them. Loves them both, because they laugh and speak and say their minds aloud, because the quiet rumbling of his uncle's voice pleases his father – and because his cousin who is about the same age is one of the most easy-going persons in the world.

He looks pleased with him, and hugs him so hard Thráin almost chokes. He instantly asks him about the forges, and training grounds, and Thráin is surprised at the warmth in his own voice as he describes them to him – he didn't even knew he cared about them as much, but he does.

This is his home, after all. And he is so glad to share it, at last.

He sees her among friends, when they meet for the first time. And that day he is too young still to understand that it is already love, that strange tightness in his chest when his gaze catches her frame - the graceful way she has to tilt her head as she listens, the daring curve of her eyebrows as they shoot up, and the small spark of amusement that lights her blue eyes as she listens to Náin's banter.

He is with his best friend Fundin, and several more Dwarflings, and Náin has just told Dagrún – the Dwarrowlass he will actually wed one day – that they have to keep clear of the training ground when boys are sparring.

“Afraid to get hurt?”

This is the first sentence he hears from her. The first words she utters, in a voice that is so beautiful, so full of mysteries and promises that his breath catches for a while.

Of course he will get hurt.

Of course he is afraid.

“No!”, Náin utters fiercely. “I don't want you to get hurt. You are not trained as we are. I don't want any bones to get broken.

- How sweet of him...”, Dagrún voices, and the Dwarrowlasses all laugh, while Náin fumes.

“And what does the Crown-Prince say...?”

Her voice again. She is backed up against the wall, is eying him with the hint of a challenge in her eyes, and Thráin has to swallow when he realises her blue gaze has just swept his whole body, and is now resting on his face.

Yet he is just a boy, and does not realise this is love, not yet.

Batshâna are as able as warriors”, he simply says, and he could curse himself for the way his voice is breaking, not now in the Maker's name, not now, please...

But she tilts her head and frowns, asking him silently to go on, and Thráin swallows again, heavily, when he realises all have turned silent around him. Because he is the Prince. Because his words weigh more – always will, no matter how much it scares him.

“Have you sparred against women?”, she asks, in the end, and he is not sure if there is mockery in her voice, he is not sure of anything, he just wants to leave, to hide, to be gone...

“Yes”, he whispers, tonelessly, his hands hanging limply at his sides, and he can tell from the gasp his cousin lets out that this was definitely not the right answer to give.

“I told you so!”, she says, triumphantly, taking a step towards Náin that make her brown locks bounce wildly off her shoulders. “I told you you are nothing but a stupid, conservative prig! That they were more open-minded here and that you could just watch and learn!

- Now Bára, just hold it!”, his cousin says warningly, but she just laughs, and takes another step towards him.

“He said so. He has trained against batshâna, he knows there are just as able as Dwarrows! Are they not?”

And then she turns towards Thráin, or rather towards the spot Thráin used to be – and he'll never see her perplexed, somewhat hurt glance because he has turned, has turned his back and is running away, swiftly, silently, his feet barely making a sound against the stone-floor he knows so well...

He runs because it's the only way to keep breathing. He runs because he doesn't know how to handle it, the flutter in his chest and the ache in the back of his throat – he runs because it's the only way to achieve of making a complete fool of himself, because he didn't know how to answer, didn't know how to react, how to behave in the right way, and has ridiculed himself in front of his cousin, his friends and her, her, her...

Bára.

Her name is Bára.

He whispers it, shily, once he has reached the slopes of Ravenhill and slides along a rock, panting, barely able to breathe. The tower where Carc lives is just some steps above and Thráin suddenly yearns to tell him everything, see what his Raven-feathered friend would think about women fighting and Princes running away – but then again, these are his issues, not Carc's, and he is afraid to bore him.

He is always afraid to annoy people, and it happens so often.

What is it?

The claws do not hurt him, they circle his armguard with an ever-careful move, and Thráin looks up, feeling his breath calm down a little, his left hand moving up to touch Carc's feathers.

Nothing”, he voices – and it is not Khuzdûl, or Common-tongue, it is a language that has awakened again right here, more than a decade ago, when Thráin climbed there for the first time and saw the Ravens as his friends.

You look shaken...”, Carc says, and there is concern in his gaze, concern that has always helped to soothe Thráin's aches.

Bára...”, Thráin lets out, and it's almost a moan. “What does it mean?

His friend looks at him, and then he perches himself on his shoulder. Settles against his neck and rubs his cheek gently with his beak – because he has never seen the young Prince like this, panting and flushed, his gaze almost feverish.

It is a wave”, he says simply, and he watches his friend's body tremble, a shiver shaking him from head to toe even as he sits up, and feels a slight pang of worry.

Yes”, Thráin whispers. “It is, Carc.

And then he weeps. Buries his face in his knees and sobs, silently, and Carc's gentle strokes are the only thing still grounding him, as Thráin looses himself in the tremendous ache he feels, deep inside, not knowing it is love.

When he climbs down at last, the sun is setting and Thráin is weary. Yet he is calm, now that the storm has passed, because he always is, always has to be inside of Erebor's walls, because a Prince has to be strong and collected, his father has repeated it to him often enough.

“Where have you been?”, his cousin asks, worriedly, as soon as he spotted him, and Thráin is surprised to realise it mattered – that Náin truly cares for him and has been looking for him, wondering what had been going on.

“I'm sorry...”, he just says, and Náin shakes his head.

“Have I said something wrong?”, his cousin asks. “Have I bothered you? I did not mean to... I did not mean to hurt you.

- You didn't.”

Thráin's voice is earnest, and his hands lock around his cousin's forearms.

“You didn't. It is just...”

He is a bit taller than Náin, but he feels small. He feels curled up, shy and brittle – and he wishes desperately to be able to find words, any words to make him understand it is all his fault.

“You are not used to having people around, are you?”, his cousin says gently. “To speak up. There are no Dwarflings here save you, only babies. And the bunch of old warriors around your father. It must be strange to have us all here.

- No... Yes... A bit.”

They sit down, in the end – the room is small and empty, so they just sit on the floor, their forearms still entwined, and Thráin wonders what he has done to deserve such kindness.

“The girls are just wild. You shouldn't mind them too much”, Náin states quietly, and there is more than a million knots in Thráin's stomach when he speaks the next words.

“There is one... That girl who spoke most...

- Bára?”, Náin asks, and Thráin thinks his chest is going to burst at hearing the name again.

“Yes...”, he whispers. “Who is she?”

His cousin looks up at him and sees anguish in his gaze. He likes Thráin, he really does – there is so much ability and care in him, so many unvoiced secrets as well, and he fascinates him and also makes him feel somewhat responsible. Because Grór has voiced it, the night before, once they were back in their own chambers, has said it to his mother, not caring he might overhear.

“I'm glad we came. My brother really needs to loosen up, just like his lad. I bet that one hasn't had many reasons to smile.

- Can't have been easy. All alone in these halls, without a friend to play with...

- I hope he'll have a bit of fun with the youngsters. He needs playmates, laughter, fights and not just work, care and dull readings. He's able, he really is.

- Aye. He is a lovely boy indeed.”

Lovely – yes, probably. But also scared. Savage. Fragile. He always looks on the verge of running away, and today he has actually done it, making Náin see how hard it will be to make him feel comfortable with them.

“Bára is my father's ward”, he answers, letting his hand linger on his cousin's forearm, because he has noticed that touch soothes him. “She's a cousin on my mother's side. Her father died when she was small, in battle, and her mother is gone as well. Snatched away by the Great Fever.”

Thráin nods. He knows about that plague, that has left Erebor unharmed but left tremendous losses among Dale's Men, and in the Hills, apparently. And for the first time he thinks he is lucky – lucky to be in a Mountain so sheltered and safe that it bars away sickness, ever since it has been restored.

“Does she have siblings?”, he asks, and Náin shakes his head.

“They both died when she was small. But she's a warlord's daughter, and her father was a close friend of mine. That's why he took her in.

- That's why she speaks to you...”

Again, he trails off. He is so shy – every time he actually voices one of his thoughts, he pulls back, and Náin wishes to be able to tell him there is nothing to fear.

“That's why she insults me so freely, you mean?”, he says, and there's a broad smile stretching his lips. “Yeah. That's Bára when she is determined to have her will.”

It aches. That intimacy between them, the fact that his cousin has been able to know her for so long she could almost be a sister. That fondness when he speaks of her.

“You have impressed her, mind. And puzzled her a great deal.

- No.”

Thráin's voice is determined, unwavering, and he pulls his arms free to fold them against his chest. There is darkness in his gaze, sadness in the lines of his face, and Náin wonders once more what it is that ails him.

“You did”, he said softly. “She actually tried to find you with me, and accused me of having made you run away. I think she likes you.

- No.”

There are tears in his cousin's eyes and it pains Náin. He didn't realise before, but he has grown fond of Thráin. A lot. He makes him feel important, he makes him feel loved in a way he also feels with Fundin, but with something else. Loved... and needed, in a way.

“She likes you.”

And with these passionate, burning words Náin finally understands. He is only twenty-six, but he knows that hurt, that struggle as well. That's what happens to him when he hears Dagrún laughing at another boy's joke, when she makes fun of him and turns from him, even though he has vowed to never ever acknowledge this aloud.

“Yes”, he says, quietly. “Of course she does. I'm like a brother to her. But it doesn't mean I own her. She has her friends, girls and boys alike. And I think she'd like to know you better.”

Thráin doesn't say a word, this time. He just stares at the ground, and in the end Náin simply brushes his arm.

“Come. I am hungry, even if you aren't. I love the food here.”

That night, Thráin has trouble to fall asleep and when he finally does, his heart still beats along the words “she'd like to know you better”.

Yet he stays quiet, and it doesn't show – the way he feels both full and fragile inside. He is a tall Dwarfling, he is collected, he is able – and he dresses with care, so that he doesn't shame his father, and braids his hair with steady fingers, fastening his hair-claps that bear Durin's pattern, ever since he has spoken his oath to protect Erebor.

That day he hides in the forge – enters it straight after dawn and takes up the work he has put aside ever since his cousin has arrived. These are better days, and they are in no hurry to shape weapons, not anymore. He can focus on scabbards instead, on adorning shields... and on his latest thought, as well – a device to help lightening some of the deepest rooms.

He loves to learn about light, about the way it breaks and refracts. There must be a way to make it bounce, to make it jump from mirror to mirror... If for example they were to carve a small opening upper in the mountain, where the sun could break against a crystal, and then place several mirrors down the way, surely it could come down like a ray, even into the deepest chambers...

The shield he is adorning is cool against his hand and Thráin carves, silently. This one is for him, it is just a draft, so he allows himself to set his fantasy free – and the shape of a Raven is slowly beginning to unfold itself on polished silver.

He smiles. It is beautiful, if a bit daring. Carc will be pleased, and he can always leave it in Ravenhill's tower, for his friend to see that they all matter.

“These runes you are carving... What are they?”

That voice rising here, in his sanctuary – soft, and clear, with a velvet undertone he has never met in anyone before – shakes him so much he simply freezes.

She is standing some steps away from him, and is looking at him. Her eyes are dark, so blue, searching his face, expecting an answer. Her hair is braided and he has no doubt she has done it swiftly, with deft, impatient moves. Braiding her brown locks around her face, and then fastening them with plain silver clasps that do not reveal anything about her – just that she is still a girl, the thin shadow of her whiskers underlying the soft curve of her jaw.

She has dressed in ample trousers, but her tunic is a girl's as well, held tight around her waist by a silken belt, with a hint of embroidery – refined in its plainness.

“I wondered where you were”, she said simply, and she does not realise how these childish words shake him. “So I asked Itô – because I like her. She said you would be here.”

Is it gratefulness or a sense of betrayal...? Itô knows him, and never gave him away before. Surely this means something. Surely this is a nudge, a sign that he can...

“I am bothering you...”, she states, calmly, and there is hurt in her eyes as she takes a step back. “I am sorry. I did not mean to intrude...

- You are not...”

The words have come out hoarsely, but this time Thráin doesn't scold himself – he's amazed to have spoken, to have been able to speak up, and he's desperate to keep her there.

Because he cannot bear to see her leave.

“You are not bothering me. Not at all. I... I am...”

Her blue eyes soften. She is smiling. Has tilted her head to the side, so happy to hear him speak. And when she notices that he's stuck, that this was his last stand, she quietly finishes his sentence.

“... carving mysterious runes all alone, in the darkness.

- Yes. No.”

He blinks, and Bára thinks, privately, that his soul's míthril must be just as full of runes and complicated patterns. She has never met such deep promises as those hidden in his silence, has never found any Dwarrow so intriguing. He is unpredictable, he has to be tamed and it moves her, because she can tell his own shyness makes him suffer. He clearly has no idea that he is, also, one of the most handsome Dwarves she ever set eyes upon, and that the way she has seen him smile, very privately as he was bent upon his work, made her heart ache with the need of seeing it again.

“They are no runes and... and I am not in the dark. Well... it is dark, but I... I think I found a way to bring more... more light down there. I just have to... give it a try, I...”

His hands are clenched around his hammer and chisel, and he curses himself for the way his words just tumbled down his lips, like a raving fool.

But she smiles, again, and steps up to him. Slowly. Giving him time to withdraw should he want it, but of course he does not.

“Can I...?”, she asks softly, and he nods as she takes a look at the shield.

“Oh. These are birds. Ravens?

- Yes. How do you...?

- The beak. And also... the way it seems to fit. You are alike, somehow.”

It silences him and she looks up at him. Puts a hand on his forearm, quickly, not thinking about it, just eager to make sure he understood it was meant as a compliment.

“They are dark and silent. Full of hidden knowledge.”

He has a shy smile, then. He is just a boy, and she is voicing her thoughts so freely, in a sweet, charming way because she is also, still, nothing more than a girl.

“I'm not...”, he whispers, looking at her hand – the hand he can feel against his skin, making him want to laugh aloud, to sing, to dance, had it just been in his nature.

“Of course you are. Tell me about this idea. About the light.”

And so they end up kneeling on the ground, Thráin drawing the rough pattern of his invention for her so that she can understand it better. He explains, and doesn't notice he is not stuttering, not blushing, just voicing his thoughts quietly, and clearly – and Bára does not interrupt, does not ask for explanations, slightly frowning, listening intently.

“This is brilliant.”

Such are her words when Thráin finishes, and he has brightened up as he was speaking, but the light crossing his face now is even more beautiful to witness.

“You think so?

- Absolutely. We have to give it a try. Build a small model of it, and see if it really works, but I'm sure it will. I can help you shaping the mirrors. I am good at that kind of work, I like that. It is going to be so beautiful...”

Her joy is just infectious. It makes him laugh, quietly and very briefly, but she has heard it and it makes her heart swell. It is just as she thought – he is full of treasures, of promises and of marvels that are just waiting to unfold.

And so they work together, every day, for a few hours – usually early in the morning, when no one will ask them about it, and afterwards returning to their routine. But they meet, of course, several times during the day, and Thráin finds himself more and more at ease with all the Dwarflings.

They spar, they wrestle, they forge and of course, they argue as well, especially Bára, Dagrún and Náin – but there is also that quiet, bonding gaze she will always share with him, even as she teases his cousin, while he stays silent, content to listen.

He watches her fight as well, against her friends, and it is the most beautiful dance he has ever seen. She even spars against Itô, one day, because she has asked and that Itô has agreed – she likes Bára, and afterwards, even though the girl has never been able to even threaten her once during their fight, she tells her she has great potential, because she is blessed with ambidexterity.

And Bára smiles, her cheeks glowing and her beautiful, brown locks curled with sweat against her neck and brow – while Thráin watches her, wishing he could brush them away, thinking he feels so proud of her.

It works. The light of the crystal is refracted against the mirrors, and projects a beautiful, soft light on the ground as it comes to rest against the stone at last. They look at it, mesmerised by the pattern that is adorning the ground, and then Bára moves.

She has been clutching his forearm, fearing it would not work – desperate for it to work, be it only so that Thráin sees just how wonderful he is. And this soft, hexagonal shape of light somehow draws tears to her eyes. Because it is one of the most beautiful things she has ever seen, and because she is leaving on the next day, to return home again.

She rises on tiptoes, and then she kisses his cheek. Her lips press themselves against the warm skin where she can feel the rough stubbles of his beard, and she pours all her love, all her care in that silent kiss – because she is leaving.

And his arms slide around her as she breaks the kiss, gently dragging her against him. He holds her close to his chest, his arms wrapped like a warm, loving scarf around her shoulders, careful not to crush her.

“Promise me you will build it. Light your forge. Promise me.

- I will...”, Thráin answers, very quietly.

He feels so full, holding her against him. It feels so right. She is his lovely, lively friend, his own private ray of sunshine – she has made him so happy, and yet she is crying now, crying softly against his chest as he holds her.

“I don't want to leave. I loved it... I loved it so much. To spend time with you. To talk to you. You never make fun of me. You never say I'm not able, you never say I'm just a girl.

- Because that is not true...”, he voices, and his embrace tightens, just a tiny bit.

“You do not need me to speak up...”, Thráin adds, and he forces himself to smile, because he has to dry her tears, he has to, they only have this one day left and then his heart will break.

She pulls away slightly, and looks at him through a sheen of tears that just seems to make her gaze shine more brightly.

“And you don't need me to shine. Thráin. It's just like this light... You are just like this light...”

She nestles against him, once more. He is warm, he is safe and he is so soft – so soft and loving, her tall, savage, able friend she will miss so much. She is just a girl, she is still innocent, and unlike him, she doesn't know that it is already love, that feeling that no matter her resolutions, it will be so hard to take up her old life again, even in the Hills she loves and still calls home.

They just hold each other for a long, long time, and it feels good. And soothing. He is stroking her locks, very tenderly, and her cheek rests against his shoulder.

“Will you write to me?”, she asks, and Thráin closes his eyes.

“Yes. To you, and to Náin. I promise.

- Will you come and see me?”

And this time it takes him a while to answer. Because he knows this word is not his to give. He will have to ask his father, and there is so much work here in Erebor... but then, the Iron Hills are family as well. Supplying them with ore, and weapons.

Surely he will be able, even though it might take time...

“Yes. As soon as I can.

- I will wait for you.”

And with these quiet words she settles against him. They sit there for another blessed hour, just watching the light dance on the stone floor, and perhaps this is why.

This is why Thráin survives it, that ache of seeing them all go away, because every time he feels like he's going to die, die with that sense of loss that is searing through his heart – he just has to come back to that beautiful device they built together, and he feels them again. Her arms around his waist, and the soothing thought that he is loved, somewhere.

And when he shows his invention to his teachers, when they tell his father about it and Thrór actually agrees to give it a try, when light floods the forge and the lower chambers, Thráin cannot help to think it is her.

Chasing darkness away.

Flooding his rooms with light.

There is light, as well, dancing between the Columns as they leave them – and Thráin blinks, several times, because it is kind of dazzling, because it seems to be flooding the Hall Arnóra and him are entering, making it hard for him to see.

But he hears it at once. The hurried pace of running feet, the cry of joy that seems to be bouncing along the walls, and the warm, soft, perfectly whole shape colliding against him.

“'Adad...!!!

His arms like a scarf around his neck. His legs wrapping around his waist like the softest of belts. His golden hair spread against his chest as he presses himself against him, presses himself so tightly against him that Thráin is barely able to breathe, but he cares not.

“Oh...”, he lets out, and its a broken, broken sound, even more painful than a sob.

“Oh. Oh.”

They are both weeping, both clinging to each other, and it takes Thráin a long, long time to be able to pull away so as to gaze at him. His boy. His lovely little boy, always shining, always so eager to make them all smile. His little light.

He is exactly as he remembers him. Just before he had to endure the most terrible night of his life, even worse than the night he lost her.

Seated at his side. Cleaning his small, lifeless body from the gore that covered him, his hand tightened around his fingers – these tiny fingers that should never have had to clench around a sword. He was so perfect. So young. So pale.

He had vanished in the flames like a light, leaving them all broken. And Thráin had lost the light as well, slowly but surely. Day after day and night after night.

“Frerin...”, he whispers, and his hands cradle his face – he cannot believe he sees them again so clearly, these expressive features, that softness hiding away so much strength, even as silent tears stream down his cheeks.

Dashtith... My boy... My little boy...

- I'm sorry, 'adad...”, Frerin lets out, between sobs, and though he is actually not quite a boy, rather a barely-grown Dwarrow, he still looks so, so young.

“I'm sorry I left you like that... I didn't... I wasn't... I missed you so much.

- And I you. Oh. My boy. My boy.”

He cradles him. He shushes him. He holds him so, so close he is shielding him with his body, like he should always have.

Like it should always have been.

“Have you suffered? Did it hurt?”, Thráin lets out, and he is crying again, struggling to form the words, but he has to know.

It has haunted him for so long. It has made the attempts of these Orcs to hurt and break him so fruitless. He already was. He already was.

“No... A bit... They were so many. I don't remember, not really. I just remember lying there, and it... it was just fading away. The light. And the... and the fear.”

Thráin lets out a sob and Frerin holds him tighter.

“He was there, you know. Thorin. He picked me up. Held me close. And I knew I was safe, then. I tried to tell him... 'Adad... I am so sorry...

- I am. I am. I am...”

It's like a lamentation. It is what he has always whispered to the darkness, to his remaining son, to Thorin who has never uttered a word – has never told him about this last moment he shared with his brother. They found them both so tightly embraced that there was no way to tell where the blood came from – not at once.

He had screamed so loudly, so loudly that terrible day – it had made his eldest flinch, slightly. At least it had made Thorin flinch, and shown them that he, at least, was still alive.

And Thráin doesn't remember, actually. Doesn't remember how he ended up in this tent, cradling his small, dead son against him. He just remembers that night – that night where his heart bled out, truly, where everything crumbled in unvoiced agony, as he cleaned his little son's body from dirt and gore.

And then the fires. All these pyres, one of them swallowing Náin – the faithful, loving cousin, his fiery beard glowing one last time among the flames.

Another taking Fundin away, just like that. The kind, able warrior who had tried to protect his son with his own body – and left his two boys fatherless.

And that pyre. With his tiny dashtith. The youngest among them, barely of age. He had watched him being snatched away, like a small shooting-star, their little blessing, warming them, making them smile, making them strong. And vanishing.

He had watched him so intently he did not even notice, at first. That his remaining boy was not standing upright anymore, that though he still felt his thin, hard body against his side, though he was still clutching his waist in a last attempt to cling to something, Thorin – Thorin who had fought so bravely, who had led their last charge and fought that Orc until he crawled back into the pits of Khazâd-Dum – Thorin had broken against him.

They had all been so slow. So slow to notice. There had been so many wounded, and Thorin did not speak, not a single word – not after the battle, not before the pyres. He just stared at them – and had not let them approach him to help him take off his bloodied armour. Had stayed coated in their blood, his brother's and his own, moving like a sleepwalker, helping to pile wood, dirt and crusted gore hiding his pallor away.

They had all been so overwhelmed with grief, and hurt. It was like walking in a nightmare, these were sights, sounds and stenches that would always come back to haunt them all. They had all been so silent, around these pyres. And he fell like a leaf – just as light, just as unobtrusive. Slumping against his side, held upright by his grasp only. It took them minutes to notice, and even then... Even then nothing was fast, and he could barely react.

Thank Mahal Fundin's lads still stood – Balin, his head so clear even in the depths of grief, and Dwalin, his face scrubbed clean with tears, yet determined.

“Stay here, uzbâd... They need you”, Balin had whispered, and Thráin had watched Dwalin carry his boy away, taking him to the healers.

“I did not notice he was injured...”, Thráin says, quietly, and the tears falling down his cheeks are silent, this time. “He did not say...

- He never said...”, Frerin voiced, smiling sadly at him. “That is how he is. We both know that, 'adad, don't we?

- Aye. My boy. My light. My light...”

He has missed him so much. His lightness, the bond they shared. Frerin had always been searching for his arms, had always tickled him with his kisses – he was so different from Thorin, it had always been so easy to have him close, to make him speak, he was so open, so truthful, so full of joy...

“I pushed him back”, Frerin says, his eyes brimming with tears, but his voice steady. “He almost came along, that day – he had lost so much blood. But I... I pushed him back. I couldn't bear to see him dead. Not Thorin. Not my brother.

- Oh...”

Thráin is weeping again. Because of course, he knows. Knows that his boy never was the same after that. That half of his soul died away, the other half wondering why it still lingered here. That Thorin would have gladly left, along with his little brother, be it only to be spared the hurt that came with living on.

That year, he lost a son and watched the other curl up in pain, day after day. Broken and bleeding. Yet somehow managing to stand up again, Dís, Dwalin and Balin urging him on, shielding him, and holding his shattered pieces together.

“I caused you all so much pain...

- So did I...”, his son says softly, and they are kneeling on the ground, their bodies still pressed against each other, Frerin's arms laced around his chest.

“I am so happy to have you back...”, Frerin says. “I... She didn't want me to see. She forbade me to look, she said you would not have wanted me to. But I still did. I saw... I saw what they did to you, and I prayed... 'adad, forgive me... I prayed every day for you to come and join us...

- I am glad. I am glad to have come. It did not hurt, dashtith, it did not hurt, not really...

- What a terrible liar you are, kurdel...”

And that voice – that voice makes him gasp. Lift his gaze that has never managed to leave Frerin's face – that face he has missed so much, that face that fills one of the many holes in his chest, banishing the images from Azanulbizar once and for all.

“Come on, mamarlûn. We agreed. I have been waiting as well...

- I just got him back, 'amad, please...

- Off his arms, sweetheart. Be generous. Remember – there's something you have to do as well. Some people you have to bring together.

- Right. Just one more thing...”

Thráin is perfectly still, kneeling on the ground. His arms are still wrapped tightly around his son and he clings to him, clings to him because this cannot be, surely – it cannot be her, not after so many years, not like this, tall, smiling and so beautiful it takes his breath away.

“You never told me...”, Frerin whispers, and he presses a kiss into his father's neck, before he gently unwraps his arms, his fingers brushing his knuckles.

“Never told you...”, Thráin repeats, tonelessly, and his son smiles, kisses him one last time and then stands up – and he is actually tall, he is a Dwarrow, almost fully grown but still so young, his grey eyes shining and his blond locks golden in the light surrounding them.

“That I got my hair from grandfather, of course”, Frerin grins, and then he blows them a kiss and is gone, his light feet drumming against the marble floor.

“I'm coming ba-a-ack...”, Thráin hears, dimly, and then the Hall is silent – silent and empty, save for him, and her.

Her, standing there. Her, watching him as he gazes up, still kneeling, and trembling all over – because it hurts, so much, to see her like this, to know that she is just inches away. He has seen her like this so often. And every time he tried to touch her, to have her come closer, she just vanished, leaving him broken, wishing to be gone as well.

“Bára...?”, he whispers, in the end, because she doesn't seem to vanish, just stands there and gazes at him, her blue eyes so bright, so piercing...

And she simply smiles.

Chapter Text

She smiles, and Thráin stares at her.

Stares at her until her frame – her wonderful, strong, gracious frame – blurs and wavers, trembles and shifts. Until his eyelids close, press themselves together, until he feels burning tears press against his lashes, until his chest feels tight and narrow, on the verge to burst, until his shaking hands ball themselves in tight fists, until Thráin finally allows himself to break thoroughly.

There is no word in Khuzdûl or Westron for the sound he lets out.

It is not a roar, it is not a scream, it is a searing, ragged, terrible something that rings through the Hall, breaks against columns, windows, stone and marble – it is deep, it is raw, it is animal, it is rage and hurt and loss and pain and grief and mourning and regret.

It is everything he is, everything he has breathed and transpired for the last ninety years, and there is such a perfect coherence between thought, feeling and sound that when it is over, when the ringing has faded and all is left of him is this, shaky breaths, a raw throat, balled fists and burning eyes, Thráin cannot bring himself to feel anything.

He just breathes. Unevenly, his eyes still closed, because he cannot look at her. There are shivers running through his body, and though Thráin is kneeling already, he seems to sag even more against the ground with each breath he lets out, because this is it – this is what he is, what he was and what he will always be: a savage howl, a wave that destroys everything around him, silence broken by grief.

This is it.

This is all.

Let the walls crumble, let the ground split open, let the stone fall upon him, take him – break him and swallow him, because he is nothing but a waste.

Because the Dwarf she used to smile at is no more, because the Prince she fell in love with has died long ago, because he has blood on his hands, because everything she admired has vanished, day after day and year after year.

Because half of himself died with her, never to return, and the other half was left to decay and disgrace, shame and madness.

There is nothing left, save a howl whose echo has already faded.

And yet...

Yet Thráin swallows, feels his throat burn, and takes in a breath that sounds like a ragged moan, because he knows, deep inside, that escape is not an option, that he will have to atone for all this, for his failures, his madness and even this...

And so he opens his eyes, and though they burn and swim and only see red for a few seconds, he finds enough strength to blink, until the curtain is lifted because tears spill across his cheeks at last, hot and heavy like a gush of blood.

Bára is gone.

Bára is gone, has vanished, as always – and the fact hits Thráin with so much violence that it unmans him, takes the last spark of steel holding his body together, and the light as well. He slumps upon himself and waits for the ground to meet his body and welcome him in everlasting grief, because even here in the Halls of Mandos, he remains deluded and mad.

But the impact never comes. Instead, there are strong arms around his back, warm palms against his chest – and Thráin's fall melts into what can only be an embrace. So tight he can barely breathe, so fierce that it almost hurts, and yet...

And yet there is a face pressed against his cheek, soft, brown locks tumbling across his shoulder and a hand – her hand – that has balled into a fist, is hitting him in the chest, on and on, every blows echoing the sobs she is letting out, cutting through both of them.

She holds him and she hits him and she sobs, and every once in a while she presses a fierce kiss on his cheekbone, while her other arm is wrapped around his waist, restraining him against her.

“How dare you?”

Her voice is broken – there is no velvet there, not here, not now, and it is better this way, there is no room for softness, there are just shards and shatters and ragged edges.

“How dare you think I could ever...”

But she doesn't manage to go on. She just sobs, and she hits him, and in the end her hands falls still against his chest, and she simply rests her face against his neck and cries, quietly – as quietly as she always did, because she is brave and caring and does not burden others with her grief.

Perhaps this is it. That quiet way of crying, that simple, unique way her body has to nestle against him, offering him everything, telling him everything – explaining everything about the marvel she is, and so trusting...

This is what makes Thráin realise. That she might be there, that he might have her back – and though he still believes it impossible, with everything he has done and failed to do... He moves, at last, and raises a hand to enclose her fist, pressing it hard against his chest.

“Will you not look at me?”, she whispers, and there are still tears falling against his neck. “Will you not turn around, and see me? Am I truly nothing but a ghost to you, Thráin? Is it all you see, when you look at me?”

His chest heaves and he lets out a deep, painful sigh. He is shuddering, but his hand holding hers is perfectly still. He is looking at the ground now. At his own knees, and at the arm wrapped tightly around his waist, and at the thin spots appearing on his tunic, right above his belt, because he is crying. Tear after tear, as silently as her.

They used to share that, as well.

“Did I really break you, kurdel? Can I have been so wrong, did I truly fail you so much when I only wanted to love you? When I just wanted you to shine... to be free... to feel joy and love...

- I did...”, Thráin whispers, and his voice is nothing more than thin air. “I did. Long ago. With you. I did. But it broke. Because of me. Because I failed.”

She shakes her head fiercely, and his fingers clench around hers.

“I am empty”, he breathes out. “I don't know how it feels anymore. I am so sorry.”

Her cheek presses itself against his. Her palm is brushing his hip, gently. She is silent. She is there. She is... she is waiting. She knows him. She knows him better than he does, actually... She used to, and still does, because after a while Thráin hears himself speak, without even knowing he had something to add.

“I am scared.”

He swallows, and it burns, and his eyes spill silently once more.

“I don't want to turn and see that you have gone. I cannot do this. Not again. I am... If this is a delusion, then I... then I would rather have you go, because... I cannot go through that again.

- You will not.”, she says, quietly. “I will not leave you. I will never leave you, I promise you. Thráin. I will never leave you again.”

A quiet sob shakes him, this time, and her fist opens, stroking his chest gently.

“You used to say that, before...”

His voice is soft. It is no reproach. It is just grief, and a sense of deep loss, and yet it hurts her more than anything. She curls up against him, buries her face against his neck, and her locks stumble wildly across his chest and shoulder.

“I see you everywhere...”, he whispers. “I can even breathe in your scent. I feel you. I almost touch you. Sometimes I have you in my arms. And then I open my eyes and you are gone.”

He does not accuse her. He just tells her. And Bára closes her eyes, and holds him, and listens, even though her chest aches, even though she already knows because she has seen it, and felt it in the very chore of her being, all these endless years.

“I wish this to no one”, he breathes out, eventually – and he will say no more, there is enough sorrow and unspoken grief in these simple words.

She loves him.

She loves everything about him. Everything. The way he has to fall silent – the way his hand still press hers against his chest. The way he holds himself upright, even kneeling, even weighed down by the grief he carries and her own head against his neck.

She even loved him when she saw him rage – and she has never loved him more than during these awful, terrible moments where he has been lost, where madness has clouded his mind, where he has faded, and been broken more deeply every day.

And she has loved him when he suffered. Has watched everything – his capture, his torture, his finger severed, his endless fights against Wargs – she has watched him become so thin he was nothing more than a shadow, injured, bleeding, starved and fevered.

She has never turned her gaze away. But afterwards – when she saw him fall back into unconsciousness or delirious slumber – afterwards...

Afterwards, Mahal himself could not prevent her from screaming her pain aloud. Afterwards, Mahal could only have mercy. Afterwards, Bára would grasp her axes and hack down at whatever she could reach – pillars, stone and beams alike. Destroying everything around her, and screaming until she was hoarse.

And it was only when it was all spent, all broken, all shattered – only when her arms began to tremble with exhaustion, only when she saw, dimly, that the pillars were raising once more, that the stones fell back into place, that everything became whole again...

Only then did Bára allow her tears to fall, and her Maker speak gentle, soothing words to her. Words helping her to go back, to her parents, to her almost-brother, to her little son, to her people who had loved her so much and who still sought the comfort of the Queen she had almost been for them.

Bára has been brave. Bára has even managed to find some warmth, and happiness. Bára has been strong, and still is.

But Bára loves him, and has only ever missed him. Him, and her other son, and the daughter she was never truly able to meet. Bára has raged here, just like he raged there.

“I feel the same”, she whispers. “I always felt the same.”

She is so still, so perfectly still against him.

“I miss you.”

It is this present... the present she uses. It makes Thráin shiver – makes him see, for the very first time, that something has changed, and for a while he struggles to find out what it is. But then it dawns upon him, and he lets out a ragged, painful breath.

They are finally sharing the same space and time.

They are no longer moving in parallel worlds, meeting only in dreams or visions or memories. The present she uses engulfs them both – and though they suffer, though this has nothing to do with bliss or peace or rest, they do not suffer separately.

Oh.”

It is a soft sound. A tiny, broken sound, leaving Thráin's lips before he moves, finally.

He does not remember turning around. He does not know if she helps him, or if he just shifts until his chest is meeting her breast, until his knees touch hers, until his arms slide around her back, his fingers resting on her shoulder-blades.

He just knows that, within a few heartbeats, he is facing her at last, even though he still does not raise his face. It is pressed against her shoulder, buried deep against her skin, her hair, her warmth – how can she be so strong? How can she be so real, so close, so unwavering...?

Her fingers run through his hair with gentle, loving moves, and her other hand strokes his back, on and on.

They are so close.

There is no space between them anymore.

And with every breath he takes – hidden there in Bára's warmth, Bára's embrace, Bára, Bára, Bára... With every shaky breath, it seems to Thráin that something in his chest is finally beginning to warm, like a spark heating up cold embers again.

“You will not push me away?”

His arms cling to her, even as he speaks. He still hides his face, he still does not face her, but his embrace already speaks of will, of an acknowledgment his mind has not conceived yet.

“Never.”

Steel in her voice, in her fingers, in the way she cradles his head.

“You do not despise me?”

She is the one taking in a breath, then. He feels her tremble, ever so slightly, and his fingers clench around her frame, but then Bára just leans in and kisses his hair.

“If you say that again, I do not answer for my actions, kurdel.

- Oh...”

It is a wave. It is. It always was. The way feeling rises, deep in his chest – but this time he is not afraid, he is with the only person who can handle it, who has always known, who is not scared, who even loves it and always told him so...

And so Thráin allows it to rise, and to break, and this time it is no howl, no explosion, no shatter – this time it is just letting go, allowing his eyes and chest to flow freely, and he weeps, weeps until it seems to him he has no more tears, not a single drop to spare, because he has spilled it all.

“I thought you would hate me. I thought you would push me away. I thought you would blame me. I thought you would never want to touch me again. I have been so...

- Hush. Please. Do not say it. Do not say it. It is not true.

- But I...

- Thráin, please... Don't. I am the one who left. I am the one who died...”

Even here, with her, these words hurt so much that he flinches and goes all rigid. She feels it, as she holds him against her, and she closes her eyes and prays, silently, for her One to see, for her One to believe that it does not matter anymore.

“I wish it could have been me.”

There.

He has finally said it. That very forbidden thought, unworthy of a Dwarrow, of a Prince, of a King, of a husband and a father. That thought that always made him feel shame, hate himself for it with every chore of his being, especially with his children – facing Frerin's faithful gaze, feeling Dís' embrace around him, watching Thorin square his shoulders and move on, as always... That thought that used to shake him, make him close his hands around hammer and chisel, focus his mind on what was to be done, and fight it, desperately, because it was wrong and forbidden and unworthy.

“I knew it should have been me.”

It would have been so much better. It would have been so much smoother. Him gone, lying in that grave, his sons mourning him for a while but forgetting him, gradually, because they were still so young, and Bára with them, steeling them, teaching their little Thorin how to become the King Thráin never managed to be...

She would have stood up against his father, she would have been able to see what was wrong so much sooner – and she would have been so much braver.

She would not have let it happen like that. There would not have been war, with Bára as a Queen. There would not have been so many deaths, especially not his father's – why would he set out to find long-forgotten Halls with her there, smiling at him and making him feel loved? He loved her so much. He always used to listen to her, so much more than to him...

It would all have been so different. His father ending his days quietly, and his children... His children living such a better life. Frerin still there, still living, oh Mahal... Dís never lacking of guidance, of love and trust, and of what it meant to have a mother... And Thorin... Thorin allowed to live every year as he should have – Thorin with his childhood back, instead of having to step in for his failures. Thorin remaining loving, and smiling, and trusting, and unburdened, because she would have been there to help him, to guide him, to let him become ready in his own time...

“No.”

Her voice is firm, and unwavering. There is authority, there is iron – there is utter surety, and how he has missed it... How he has missed this strong presence at his side, so reassuring, always eager to share whatever burden he had to carry...

“These are just shadows, and maybes, and none of them is true.”

She kisses him, again, and then she adds:

“It is so easy, to pass away. The real challenge is to remain. And you have. You never fled. You tried your best. You have made them strong, and loving, and able. You had them looking up at you, you mattered, you left your mark. There is nothing I could have done that you have not achieved. I was not there, I shall not judge you...”

Her lips on his hair, and then...

“I cannot, because I love you too much.”

This time her voice wavers, and there is no velvet, not yet – but there is vulnerability, and longing, and so much care... It makes him shift, against her shoulder, makes him raise a shaky hand to his face and then voice the words he has been meant to say for so long.

“May I look at you, then?”

Just a whisper, but it makes Bára shiver, and swallow back tears so as to meet his request properly – because she has dreamt for this moment for so long that she cannot believe they are finally there.

“Always, magabshûn.”

It is like a dream. It is all so clear, so slow – and yet there is no perfection in it, no foolish impression of finding sense, of fixing it, of being done with hurt and grief.

It is just two Souls facing each other, finally able to unite their gaze and become aware once more of what it means to be One. The challenge, the vulnerability, the suffering... and the blessing.

He looks up – and he is exactly as she has dreamt him to be. His eyes bright, grey as moonstones – both eyes, wonderful, expressive eyes, without scar to steal the light from his face. His beard soft, raven-black again, and displaying her beads, just like his are woven into the thin braids of her collar-beard. His hair, long and luxurious again, with braids and hair-clasps finally showing his worth once more. And his nose, the sharp-lined nose he passed on to his sons and daughter, and against which she used to run her thumb, on and on. The blue pattern of his tattoos, adorning his forehead – the only crown Thráin has always worn with grace and pride, because it speaks of bonding, of honour and of memory.

He looks at her – and she is exactly as he has dreamt her to be. Her eyes so blue, so full of love, so aware, so shining. The soft curves of her face, the way her collar-beard cradles her cheekbones, the way her beautiful brown hair curls around her ears, and jaw, and neck. The daring arch of her eyebrows, and lips. The way her silver tiara catches the lights – that tiara he has made for her as a wedding present, crowning their courtship with the utmost craftmanship he could think of, the one making her his, his Queen, his One and only.

They look at each other, and for a while they just stay like this. His hands have moved up, are cradling her head now, and hers circle his waist and rest against his back. It seems to Thráin he is soaking in each detail, each little feature of the face he has never forgotten. He is aware of each breath he takes against her, and of the softness of her skin as he allows his thumb to caress her cheekbone, shyly, ever so slightly...

She does not smile, she just looks up, and there are tears in her eyes, but she does not cry. She just waits – she is there, she is not vanishing, she is not leaving, she is there, right between his hands, right against him, and slowly, very slowly, Thráin feels the grip of dread and fear lessen around his chest. It is not gone, it is still there somewhere, but he can afford to feel something, something close to hope as he holds her and gazes at her, drawing strength and love from her very frame.

“You have not changed.”

His voice comes low, and it is not broken, this time. It is an unvoiced question he has turned into an affirmation, and this shows Bára that Thráin has begun to hope indeed.

“These years... they did not make you age.

- No... Time has no power here, kurdel. We cannot age beyond our death. Our Soul choses its frame, and though we feel, and think, and grow wiser, we do not age. It is all unseen.

- But I... I used to be older. I used to be... withered. Faded. Old. I never thought we would... I never thought we would match again. I used to think that... that every year without you brought me further away from you. I remember thinking that... that I wished to die before you could not recognise me.

- I still would have. I would always have. I would not have minded old age, white hair, fading strength, not even illness. As long as it would have been together. I... I would have loved to age with you. With all of you. I have felt so alone, kurdel...”

She looks so sad now that he cannot bear it. He leans in closer, his fingers bury themselves in her hair and his body presses itself against hers, eager to warm her up. He is strong, he realises. He is... It is as if time has moved backwards, as if he was nothing more than a hundred years old, still young, still able, and full of hope – and for a while he forgets to focus solely on her.

“I do not look as I should...”, he says, and the furrow between his eyes is so different from that lost, broken and pained expression he used to have that Bára feels some of her grief ebb, and step back once more, because it is not needed now.

It is a boy's frown – eager to solve a riddle he cannot begin to conceive. It is Thráin's way to cope – Thráin's lovely way to try and shape the world around him, so that he can finally know how to move in it as expected.

“Not to me...”, she answers, and there is the beginning of a smile showing on her lips. “You see, kurdel, here... Here, when we arrive, our Soul finally speaks. Tells us when it has been happiest, when it has felt most whole, and choses to shape itself exactly like that. Some might shift, ever so slightly. Adjust the shape to those they meet, so as to be recognised. But often a Soul does not waver, and shows itself in its wholeness and truth – as a child, a boy, or a Dwarrow, young or old. And deep inside... deep inside we all know that precise moment, that precise age where there was no dam, no conflict between thought, feeling and move.”

He is still frowning. She can almost sense him think, and this sends down a flutter of joy into her heart – because she loves him, and has always loved to watch his mind work.

“When?”, he simply asks, and she instantly knows he asks about her.

“Tell me”, she answers, and Thráin wavers, before he shakes his head.

“And you?”, she asks, and this time her One is brave enough to close his eyes, take a deep breath, and answer.

“One hundred and sixteen.”

It is the year where he still had them. The four of them, his two little boys and his One and Queen. Where everything still seemed possible, where they had just realised they would soon be blessed with a third child, a rare blessing, perhaps even a girl... A year where it had seemed to him he had everything a Dwarrow could desire – until he lost her.

She gently stokes his back, and it makes him come back to her. Her who is gazing at him so lovingly, so sadly, and yet so warmly.

“One hundred and twelve for me”, she whispers.

And Thráin's heart leaps up, and begins to throb wildly, when he realises that for her, it is exactly the same. The same year. The same time. The same hope. The same sense of utter wholeness.

“So you see, kurdel... It seems that despite everything, we still do match...”

She is asking something of him. He knows that. She is asking for enough strength to hope, enough strength to believe, enough strength to begin to fight for what they used to have, what they have now and what they might get back.

She asks him to dare. She asks him to give in. She asks him to trust – not her, but himself.

He knows that.

He would never have thought it so hard to lean forward. So hard to feel her against him, so hard to bend until his face meets her face, until his lips finally brush hers. So hard to take what is offered so lovingly, so willingly, and what he has desired so badly – but it is.

Their kiss does not feel like coming back, like finding back something they both knew. It feels like something new, something fragile, something they both have to discover again.

It is a Soul meeting another Soul, a ragged edge colliding with another – just like fragments of metals are thrown against each other upon the anvil, until heat and hammer bring them together, making them melt and bent until iron gives birth to craft, and beauty.

He kisses her, deeply, and his eyes have fallen shut once more – he is not there anymore, he is lost, lost in this frame, this face, these lips, this love... and she kisses back, firmly, steadfastly, kisses him until it feels right.

Until they are not facing each other anymore.

Until they are, finally, thoroughly together.

Chapter Text

The staircase is narrow, and dark where the torches' light are unable to stretch. They draw long shadows on the walls, shadows looking like claws, like crooked columns, leading deep down, in a place Thráin has no wish to enter.

It should not be so difficult.

It should not feel so thoroughly, utterly impossible.

It should not cost him, should not scare him, should not make him feel so small, so brittle, so fragile – he is no tiny boy anymore, no frail Dwarfling striving so hard to be worthy...

He is a Dwarf. Grown-up, and strong. He is a warrior – the tattoos on his brow a proof for everyone to see. He is a husband – her beads woven into his beard, the ghost of her caress against his chest his own, very private shield. He is a father – a father, a father, for his sons and his daughter, for the one who is dead and the two still living.

But he is a son as well.

He is a son, and sometimes it seems to him he has never been able to be more than that: Thráin son of Thrór – the runes of his father's name the warrant of his right to breathe, to be, to become...

He is her son, of course. And how glad he is to have her, to share eyes and hair with her, to know that it is Arnóra who has given him the skill to talk to Ravens, to roam hostile rocks unafraid, unable to explain why he often slept sounder in narrow, damp caves of the Misty Mountains or the Iron Hills, and was unable to feel at home in Erebor's luxuries...

But he is also his son. And it has shaped him more than anything, forcing him to bend, to fit in, inexorably, without even thinking of struggling, of fighting... Metal is powerless in the craftsman's hands – and who would be mad enough to wish for rough iron instead of a sword...?

He wanted it so much. He wished for it so desperately, so fervently. He was willing to bend, and even break, if only to make his father proud, if only to fullfil this one, simple desire – to be the son he wanted him to be.

It should not have been so hard. It should not have been so utterly impossible. And yet it has been. Because he has never achieved it. Has never been able to reach it, to shape himself so as to please him. Everything in him seemed to be crooked, bent the wrong way – and weak, so terribly weak...

He has seen disappointment and anger cloud these cold eyes so often. He has heard this harsh voice abuse him more than once – and though Thráin knows that their last decades together were clouded by a madness that was not his own, not yet... he also remembers a time where there was no true malice in his father's words. No real wish to lash out, no thoughts about hurting him – just a hard, unyielding way to voice expectations, to tell him what was to be done, and how it had to be done better, in order to become.

And gestures, as well. Worse than words.

A frown. A way to shrink back. A nudge, pushing him away.

Behave, will you?

What in the Maker's name were you thinking?

Now go.

Thráin is shivering. He is two hundred and six years old, he is dead – there should be nothing more to fear, no reason to dread this confrontation so much. There should be nothing left to prove, but there is...

There is, and he lingers on the first of the steps leading downwards, towards the place his father is – towards depths Thráin has no wish to explore, shadows he is afraid to enter, because he dreads what he knows he will find there.

Because he has nothing left, nothing to show as a proof that he has not failed.

It does not matter that Bára has whispered to him more than once that Thrór needs him, that he yearns for him, that his father is unwell and unreachable, that they have all worried silently for him ever since he has joined these Halls, and that he waits for him.

It has been easy to let these words sink in, in the intimacy of their room, in the beautiful darkness only stone can offer, in which he has been able to hold her in his arms, and let her embrace him back, for what has seemed to him a blissful eternity.

He does not even remember how they ended up there. Death seems to be free of time and space, allowing moments to shine out, without asking them to make sense together. Their Souls are already shaped, they have already experienced a linear life, there is no timeline to fill anymore. They can allow themselves to simply be, forever, and Thráin is still struggling to get used to it.

So, when he finds himself lying in dark shadows, Bára's arms around him and her strong, warm frame curled up against his, he does not bother to ask, or to question. He just holds her, caresses her long, silken hair, feels her breath against his chest, her fingers buried under his tunic, against his very skin, warming him up.

Shaping him. With her fingertips and her words.

They do not make love. He would have found it impossible, had he considered it, but he does not. He is still barely believing he has her back, that it is safe for him to let go of her touch, if only for a while.

The dread always returns.

He always has to reach out, his fingers grasping hers convulsively, afraid to close upon nothingness, to know it has been a delusion – the final, bitter delusion of death, showing him he is alone, that she is gone forever.

Shame does not change anything.

It simply clouds his gaze even more, makes his shoulders sag, every time he is finally able to clasp his arms around her – and though she assures him, on and on, that there is no reason for it, that she understands, he always ends up shaking against her, his eyes shut tightly so that they cannot spill.

It is so hard.

She has always been his reason to keep going, his own, private strength – but she has also been the main ghost in his madness... and there is no way to help it, even though it makes them both suffer, even though Thráin wishes he could fight it, almost as desperately as he used to call for death.

They fight dread together, silently, in the darkness of their private room, carved into cool, forbearing stone. Fight dread with his arms, and her words.

Until he is kneeling, on the bed, kneeling with his hands clutched around hers, his eyes wide-open and pleading and terrified, his breath hitching and his heart hammering so wildly in his chest the room seems to spin.

"Kurdel, look at me. Magabshûn. Trust me."

He does. Looks at her, at this entrancing gaze he still finds so blue in the dim light of the candle, at this face he loves so much, so much it hurts, at this hair he wants to touch, to cradle, to caress, to braid, to call his forever...

"I will not leave you, Thráin. I promise I will never leave you. You do not need to touch me to have me there. It is safe. You can let go. In your own time."

It takes him ages. To loosen his grip around her hand, the other still prisoner of his grasp, his palm sweaty, his body shaking – because he is reliving his madness, because every possible way she has to be with him has been real, then deformed by delusion.

Because she has been his dearest dream and his worst nightmare.

"Please..."

He hears himself beg, and it shames him, shames him so thoroughly he could scream, but he simply repeats it, on and on, because it is too much, because he has been broken and still is, because it is more than he can bear.

"Do not leave me..."

A never-ending prayer, a spell against bone-deep fear.

He is still voicing the words when his fingers uncurl, slowly, when he lets her free, when her touch vanishes, when she draws back. When she leaves him. When he is still kneeling on the bed, alone, silent tears streaming down his cheeks, while she is standing, out of his reach, standing and watching him, grief clouding her gaze.

"Please..."

He is so cold. He is so afraid. It curls around his ribs, around his stomach, making it churn, making it hard for him to breathe – and he should be ashamed, he should, but he is in their own room and he is with her, used to be with her, and she is gazing at him and is asking him to do something, her lips move but he does not hear, does not understand, he just wants her to be there, to come back, to hold him close and safe and please please please...

"Look at me, magabshûn. I am there. I am still there. I am no vision, no memory, no delusion. I am here. I am here.

- Please...

- Where are you, kurdel? Where are you, tell me...?

- I... please... Bára..."

Bára. Bára. Bára.

In the end this is the sole word able to leave his lips. He has crumbled, on the bed, unable to see, unable to think, giving in to fear – a shadow of the Dwarf he used to be, scared to death and even more, so weak, so unworthy...

It takes her ages. To calm him down. To come back to him, to curl around him, to embrace him and kiss him, to let his sobs melt with her own, to soothe the shivers that keep running through his body, and to help loosening the iron grip around his chest and stomach. Fear seats bone-deep into him, even dead, and his very Soul quivers between her arms, making her weep, quietly.

"Forgive me...", he whispers, when it is over, when he is cradled in her arms, still afraid, still hurting and so exhausted.

"There is nothing to forgive", she answers, quietly. "Thráin. Magabshûn. I love you."

That one time, he simply buries his face into her neck. Let her stroke his hair and falls asleep at once, spent and broken and past anything that is not her.

And when he wakes, she is still there, smiling at him, her hair spread against his chest and her leg wrapped tightly around his. When he wakes, there she is – and somehow, in that hazed moment where he realises he is not dreaming anymore, is not dreaming of her but has her, Thráin feels some of the fear inside recede at last.

"You never used to stay", he lets out, his voice hoarse, still laced with exhaustion. "I never had you there for so long.

- I am glad...", she answers, stroking his chest. "I am so glad to be able to stay.

- I do not wish to cage you.

- This is no cage, kurdel.

- But I... I should be able to..."

His words trail off, and she shifts. Slide her palms under his shirt, and allows her legs to straddle him properly before she sits up. And the shiver running through Thráin's body has nothing to do with desire or arousal, when he finds her settled on his stomach, her knees brushing his hips, her hands stroking his chest gently.

Because this used to be their own, very private way to keep going. To shape the world anew together. Him, lying down, finally allowed to rest and gaze up, to let another set the road for him – allowed to simply feel, to give in to emotions, to let his brain quieten... And her, upright, her hair brushing his stomach as she frowned, and warmed up, and talked – her mind running, explaining, displaying every feeling like jewels, gazing at them, sorting them out, marvelling at them, because in the end they made sense, and allowed to set a cape.

His wonderful, amazing compass rose.

His light.

"Kurdel, you know where this comes from."

Her voice is velvet again, but her eyes are sharp, and deep in thought once more – and Thráin relishes it, relishes it so much that it sends another shiver down his spine.

Her fingers stop their caresses for a while, and he finds her gazing down at him, the hint of a smile playing around her perfect, perfect lips.

"Are you with me, magabshûn?

- I am...", he whispers, his hands searching for her knees, touching them tentatively – their hardness, their angular shape, thumbs stroking bones. "I am listening.

- No. You are not. I know that look.

- You... I have missed that."

He says it very simply, his hands closing around her knees, looking up at her, his gaze calm and loving – and this time it is her turn to freeze, her turn to shiver, as her eyes fill up with tears. She looks down, her hair falling around her face like a curtain, and this time he is the one cradling her, circling her back to draw her against his chest, his fingers tracing the words he does not say aloud.

And Bára weeps, eventually. Into his tunic, his beard, into his skin. Weeps because it has been too much, for her as well, because she is exhausted, because it had been so hard to hold up hope for them both, to bear Thráin's anguish and guilt while discarding her own.

"I have failed you. I have left you. I... I am the one who should ask for forgiveness...

- No. Magabshûna. No. Never."

He kisses her, afterwards. Once her tears dry. Kisses her as tenderly as in their youth, when they had been discovering each other's bodies, when they had been afraid and daring at the same time, when life had seemed full of unspoken promises.

And this time... This time, that was probably an age after their first reunion – this time Thráin still has trouble to place, for it hardly matters – this time they make love. Slowly. Very carefully. Their eyes locked, their hands entwined, like young, tender Dwarrows. Him still lying there, and her above him, her strong legs crushing his hips – and it feels so right, so known, so familiar...

It feels like coming home, like meeting a very old friend – so relieved to see that nothing has changed, and yet it has. The awareness that they still have everything, buried down deep into their Souls – this is what has changed, what makes everything seem even more special, without any urgency or loss, and it feels like nothing they have known before.

That time he falls asleep buried deep inside her, his legs entwined with hers, his breath slowing down gradually as his eyelids grow heavy.

He feels sheeted. He feels safe. He feels guarded.

She feels whole. She feels loved. She will guard him.

And so they find their way back to each other – not wholly, not yet, but move after move and word after word.

Until he is able to let go, until he finds the strength to leave their room, their shelter, their secret place – until they leave it their hands still entwined, Thráin only letting go to embrace Frerin, scooping him up like a Dwarfling, still unable to think of him as an almost fully grown-up Dwarf, he is so tiny, so wonderful, so young...

He should wonder, perhaps. Wonder where they all are, the others – he only sees Bára, Frerin, and Arnóra, every now and then, sharing small moments with his mother, his son, and returning to his One afterwards.

He should wonder, but he does not. It is so hard to become whole again, so hard to believe his hardly acquired treasures will not leave him again.

And so it takes him almost by surprise, that night, when Bára mentions him for the first time. Very softly. Very guardedly. Careful not to awake anguish, guilt and fear once more – without being able to prevent it.

"No. Please. Do not ask me to do this."

His own answer surprises him – it is determined, it is quick, it comes from something deeper than his guts, and yet afterwards he feels his stomach knot, begin to hurt, a dull, familiar ache he knows from childhood.

"He needs you, kurdel. He is not well. He has missed you.

- No. Bára. No."

That night, he turns from her. He turns, proof that he is better, that he is stronger, that he is not mad anymore – not mad enough to go and find his father, to let him gaze upon the failure he is, to allow him to break the feeble strength it has cost him so much to gain back.

Her arm slides around his waist, resting against his stomach.

She knows. Has always known. Sometimes the pain would wake him up, in the middle of the night, forcing him to curl up – usually after fighting expeditions, coming back from campaigns where he had seen death without meeting it. But more often after councils, after days and days spent with his father, without being able to be more than his shadow.

"It is nothing", he would whisper, through clenched teeth. "It will pass."

Her hand simply rested against his stomach, her warmth fighting his ache. He was still so young, back then. So young, even though he had already lost his eye. He only had her, and she never spoke of these moments where pain simply got the better of him, when all she could do was holding him, telling him she was there.

It passed, though. From the day he stopped to be simply a son to become a father. It stopped. Stopped with Thorin drawing his first breath, never to return, because there was someone needing him, someone more important than any fear, than any possible or imagined failure – someone grounding him just as much as his father.

It stopped, until there. In the very Halls of his Fathers.

There, where nothing should have been left to fear.

That night, the dull ache returns, causing him to turn from her. That night, pain creeps back into his guts, forcing him to drag up his knees to fight its bite. That night, he lies awake with Bára holding him tightly, pained by his sharp, flat breathing and his silence.

That morning finds him pale and drawn, and so angry against himself that he could scream. That morning, Bára forces him to lie down in warm water and steam, joining him there, and he should wonder where they all are, why these wonderful sources and cascades and drops are there for them only. Why it is possible for him to bathe in water so warm it looks like a dream, with Bára sitting behind him, trailing her fingers through his hair, undoing braid after braid to massage his scalp, until he is sighing with bliss and is finally able to forget pain and sorrow.

"What should I do?"

He ends up asking it, without her having to allude to his father again.

"What do you want me to do?"

He is lying in her arms, his head against her breast. It is not long afterwards... at least it does not seem long to him. He is tired. They have made love again, and it always fills him with wonder, and so much quiet joy there is not much left of him afterwards.

And yet... He also feels guilty. For that happiness, for that sense of wholeness that never lasts for long, but that still is there. Because of his shadow, looming in a corner of his mind.

His dark, lonely shadow.

"Nothing. Nothing you have not desired and decided yourself."

She sounds adamant, and yet... there is no judgment, no implied order. There is just love, and somehow it makes Thráin's breath choke.

"I... I don't know.

- Then wait. Kurdel. Sweetheart. You have just died, after all."

He could swear her lips are curling up – it is just too dark to see, and he is too busy fighting back a chuckle. It is impossible. It is something he has forgotten to do. He has not laughed for decades, has not felt so light for ages... and yet he still feels his chest quiver, for a second, and so does she.

"Is he waiting...? Is he... angry...?"

Mahal how he hates the hitch in his voice, that childish tone, the way his heart hammers in his chest, waiting for her answer...

"Oh Thráin..."

Her mouth searches for his and her fingers card through his hair, pulling him closer, eager to reassure him.

"Please don't. Do not fear him. Please. There is no reason to fear him, because he loves you, because he is waiting for you, and because he is your father."

It has been easy to let these words sink in, in the intimacy of their room, in the safety of Bára's embrace, in cool stone meant to shelter, in a place that only speaks of bonding and love.

But the stairs he is facing are dark. There are only torches lightening them, every now and then – and the shadows they draw on the stones are tall, sharp, and almost threatening.

It reminds Thráin of long-forgotten fears, of shadows growing against marble walls, of him curling up in an oversized bed, of naked feet drumming against a stone corridor, until he reached the room – his room, only to find him bent upon his desk, still awake, of course.

Always awake.

Stop that, Thráin. How old are you, in the Maker's name? Say it. Say it aloud. Is this an age to come running back to your father like a Dwarfling? Is this a way to behave, for one expected to lead and command one day? Would you respect someone doing that? Now go back to bed. No more nonsense.

He has spent entire nights curled against the closed door of his father's room, the soft noise of his snores the only way to lull him. Not caring for the cold. Not caring for his scolds.

He has even learnt to wake up at the slightest noise inside, so as to run back to his own room in time. After the first beating. After his father lost patience with his weakness and hit him. Never to hurt. Only to make him understand. He deserved it, he knows that. But he still could not sleep, and so he learnt, and trained his ears so as to be able to get at least some hours of rest, as close to his father as he could get.

Each step feels like a leap backwards.

He entered the staircase as a grown-up Dwarf, but as he descends it seems to Thráin he is getting tinier, smaller, and more scared each second.

It reminds him of the Treasure Room in Erebor. Of that famous staircase he had been forced to climb down endless times a-day, those last years where his father's mind seemed to shrink with each adding pile of gold. Where his father drowned in greed, forcing him to undo some of his actions, to deceive him, to bar harsh, senseless orders with soft commands that left the guards puzzled, the counsellors sceptic, and himself drained, his strength breaking a bit more every day.

It reminds him of that last, desperate run, on that day of fire and smoke.

The day they faced the Dragon, his ire and his fierce, ruthless breath. The day he knew they had lost, the day where no bravery, no courage, no strength could ever be enough.

He remembers that fight, close to the main door, he remembers that singeing wave crashing down upon his men and him, leaving dozens dead, broken, while he was hurled against the wall, his ribs breaking like wooden sticks against Erebor's burnt stone.

He remembers standing up, reaching out for Balin's hand – his friend, so much younger, with a wisdom and sharpness beyond his age. Who had chosen to follow him after one of his last trips to the Iron Hills, and who ended up being his mamarrakhûn – the age gap between them vanishing with each discussion, each passing year of shared knowledge and strength.

He remembers running with Balin towards the Treasure Hall, because he knew he would find his father there, and had to reach him before the Dragon. And he had. Had outrun the Beast, just for a few seconds, enough to pull his father away from the gold, enough to shield him with his body, so that the Dragon's breath harmed no one but himself.

He remembers the pain. Washing through his legs, arms, and chest. The fear, also, that maddening fear that allowed him to keep moving, even burnt and broken, and to drag his father away with Balin, for they had to bring him out.

And then... he remembers being hit. With a violence that almost matched the Dragon, with fists and words, his father's voice shrieking curses, spitting years and years of bitterness and disappointment upon him.

Calling him unworthy.

Wishing him to be dead if it allowed him to get back the Arkenstone, that Stone that had achieved everything Thráin could not.

That Stone his father held dearer than his own son's life.

The rest is blurred, in his memory. Nothing but a haze of pain and panic, of confusion, anger and heat. Cursing through his body, pulsing from his wounds, sirring through his brain. It is all blurred, and still so painful, because try as he might he cannot find any coherence in what happened next.

He has no memory of the tents, not really. He just remembers hazy fragments, hands holding him down, something cool against his chest, and a terrified gaze looking up at him, so blue, so frightened... Sapphire eyes, grounding him somehow, yet unable to call him back.

And then he remembers fighting, Orc blood against his chest and face – but sense there was none, he had already been there, fighting them between high peaks, losing the light of his eye in a dark, dark war, ages and ages ago.

Fighting, and blood. And music. In the wind, eerie, strange but so familiar. Tiny fingers against chords, stroking them softly, and that blue gaze, still so frightened, so exhausted. Fingers playing his One's harp, but back then it did not make any sense, and his brain was unsure, unsure about the one playing and the one missing, there was just music and this sapphire gaze, and he was lost, lost in his pain and his longing...

But not in the snow. Snow he knew, and did not fear. Snow cooled his ache, and eased the fire in his chest. Snow allowed a tiny, grey-eyed frame to curl against him, and Thráin's arms to find some purpose again, even as he struggled to remember who he was.

Snow was silence, so powerful and mighty it silenced the raging voices in his mind and heart, allowing him to move on. To search for that blue gaze, every day, that gaze that stirred something deep inside his chest, even with the fire in them almost gone.

Snow was a silent tomb for Thráin to carve, each time it was needed. Snow swallowed warriors and children, but not that soft grey gaze soothing him so much, and not that burning, sapphire one that was urging him on, eager to find it back so as to protect it forever.

The day he saw these eyes spilling, torn by a pain too overwhelming to be voiced aloud, because another child had died – that day he carved the most beautiful tomb he could think of. So that the pain inside could recede, just a tiny bit. So that they could soften enough to trust him again, even though they turned from him, in the end.

And when the Boars came, when he was able to entrust his grey-eyed treasure to abler hands – when all that was left to the snow were hardened warriors just as he used to be... When all was silence again, silence and weariness and almost peace... That was when he heard it. That softness of a thin body meeting icy ground. Collapsing and staying like this, curled up on the snow – just like he had been, against a stony door that would not open.

He stepped up to him then.

To that tiny shape, clad in iron and faded leather, with dark, matted hair and eyes so blue it made his heart ache. Pulled him up, cradled him against his chest, eager to warm him up, eager to see pain and exhaustion recede in that entrancing gaze he finally recognised as his son's, moments before Thorin closed his eyes, unable to go on.

He closed his arms around him and did not let go.

Not even when they entered the Hills he was unable to recognise as such, not until weeks. He held him, shielding him from the cold, determined to keep him warm. Held him until Thorin stirred, and freed himself from his embrace, and after that Thráin does not remember anything, because there was no need for him to do so, not with his son gone, and saved, and alive.

It is all blurred. These days in the Hills, where he searched for her yet knew, deep inside, that she was no more. These days where Frerin and Dís huddled against him, but where Thorin seemed forever missing. These days he had Náin back, as well as his uncle Grór, but could not understand where his son had gone.

Until he came back. Until they both came back. His son and his father. One grounding him, the other crushing him mercilessly, with his bitterness and his disappointment, and his never-ending anger. One reminding him of the father he had been and still was, the other how deeply he had failed as a son.

He has been caught between them for so long. Between the light of his son, and the shadow of his father – what is left of him...? What mark did he leave upon the world, save as the mad King who led his people to their ruin...?

He cannot face him.

There is nothing he can do against the burn of that icy gaze. His father has every right to despise him. He cannot face him. But he has to.

And so Thráin braces himself, and rests his hand against the stone arch, for some last precious seconds, before he leaves the staircase's shadows to enter the deep, dark cave where they have told him he will find his father.

There are torches burning there as well, but what strikes Thráin at once is that, though it looks so similar to Erebor's Treasure Hall that it aches, there is not a single golden coin to be found there. No stones. No necklaces, no cups, no rings, no jewels and no gold.

There is just water – it's surface so dark and smooth it seems to be obsidian. And somehow it seems to fit. Water looking like burnt stone, a mirror gentle enough to stay unreflecting.

There is no light down there, no light save the flickering flame of torches keeping watch.

It is so dark. So dark and harsh, these tall, rough stones and that obsidian lake.

Dark and harsh just like the frame he sees leaning, tall and still, against one of the columns. So huge it seems to Thráin his shadow stretches even further than the stone, all angles and strength and iron and rock. Hands clenched into tight fists, his gaze unwavering as he watches him approach. The braids in his beard tight, and stern, forty-nine silver beads shielding his chest, in a mesh solid enough to repel blows and embraces. The rings around his fingers gleaming slightly, against the dark, dark furs of his coat, just as the buckle of his belt, keeping tunic and mail in place.

His father watches him approach without a word, and Thráin forces his breath to even out as he meets these cold, cold eyes that have haunted him for so long.

They are so dark, so dark and harsh, the shadows in that icy gaze.

They are so dark it takes Thráin a small eternity to realise that, though his father is clad as the King he has always been for him, there is no crown upon his brow. That the hair and beard he has always remembered as silver, has only ever known as grey, because war and kingship took their toll upon his father as an age as young as forty-seven – that his hair and beard are lighter.

Softer. Their shade hard to define in the flickering light of the torches, torn between silver and gold, making him look both as a mighty King in his prime, and as a strong, fierce Dwarrow, according to the shades drawn upon his features.

"'Adad...", Thráin says softly, almost without thinking, and then he bows.

To his father and King, as he has always done it, as he has been taught ever since childhood. As it is expected of him – and he does so gladly, but Thrór only frowns, his fists so tight they seem chiselled into marble.

"You will never learn...", Thrór lets out, and his voice is rough as crushed stone, but it is still clear and hurts beyond measure.

The words sink deep into Thráin's chest and he swallows, feeling the iron grip around his stomach tighten, but he stays as he is, his grey eyes searching for his father's face once more.

"Forgive me, 'adad. I have tried."

His voice is so soft.

He has barely ever shouted at him. Just that one, terrible time in the Hills where he has almost hit him, because his words had reached a forbidden, sacred place only his children had the right to roam. And that time, he had not even been himself, that time does not count because he was barely there – he has never truly stood up against him, because he had no right to and still has none.

He has failed him, after all. And they both know.

Thráin has spoken these bone-crushing words as softly as he would have said I missed you – and for a while he almost thinks it is over, that this awful, terrible moment between them has passed and that they can finally begin to try to mend things between them..

But then his father's face hardens even more, and he takes a step back – shrinks away from him in disgust, his gaze even colder, and Thráin barely has time to brace himself before he speaks.

"Are you mocking me?", he lets out, and there is so much fierceness in that harsh whisper that Thráin flinches, feeling his knees begin to shake yet able to hold his ground, for a while more.

"Is it some device of your mother, to have you come here to throw yourself at my feet? Have you been planning this together, so that you can gloat over my actions and words? Is this some kind of game – because if it is, I would be much obliged to know the rules and terms before I join in..."

There are tears in his father's eyes.

Tears, unmistakable yet carefully held back.

It shocks Thráin so much that he is unable to answer, and just gazes up at him, his eyes wide and his hands slack at his sides.

Until Thrór lets out a low, mirthless laugh and shakes his head.

"Go away. Enjoy your time with her, now that you are finally reunited. Now that she can tell you what a liar, what a terrible husband and father I have been – no doubt you can share your tale of woe, no doubt my deeds will be enough for you to never run out of conversations until these Halls crumble for good...

- She did not send me."

Thráin would have whispered the words, had honor not bound him to say them loud and clear – he falls back into habits as old as breathing, habits of speaking and moving he has taken so that he does not wake his father's anger, but it is all for nothing.

Thrór just raises his eyebrows, his face even darker than before, full of disbelief.

"You are there on your own, then...", he says, and though he probably wishes to coat his words with contempt, it sounds more like an unvoiced question. "The dutiful son, as always... Covering up mistakes, avenging deaths, and asking for forgiveness... Forgiveness, Mahal..."

And there Thrór's voice breaks around the word, quivering with what Thráin can only imagine to be anger – still repressed, but so raw it seems to sear through his father's very being.

"I have not come to pry, 'adad...", Thráin voices, very softly – and he is scared.

So scared. And yet the words have to be spoken.

"I..." – his breath hitches, but he quickly braces himself and finishes his sentence in the same even tone – "I have no wish to upset you.

- Stop it!", Thrór hisses, and this time Thráin flinches, because his father's eyes are burning. "Stop being so... servile, in the Maker's name! Bowing, whispering, apologising – what is it you fear, what is it in you to cause you to look like a frightened doe whenever you look at me?!

- I...

- I have tried! I have told you endless times! A King does not bow, a King does not apologise, a King stands up for what he is even when he is facing nothing but hostile backs! I have told you! Do not dare to say I did not! I have told you to guard yourself, I have told you not to let feelings overwhelm you, and break you, and hurt you... I have told you to keep your thoughts guarded, to shield your heart and mind, to let nothing shake you from your purpose – I have told you there is nothing to fear if you keep strong, if you keep feelings at bay, but you...

- Forgive me, 'adad..."

Thráin's voice shakes, and quivers. The words have left his lips unchecked, and they terrify him, because of course this was the worst thing to say – of course it sends Thrór's anger loose.

"Forgive you? Forgive you, Thráin?! Is that all you can say, are these the only, pitiful words I will get to hear, even here? What is it you have in you, tell me? Where is your pride, where is your worth, oh Mahal..."

Thrór is still leaning against the column, and his body is shaking. Shaking with what Thráin assumed to be rage – he looks so mighty, so dark, so crushing...

"I... 'adad, I...

- Why did you have to go to war?", Thrór lets out, and his voice is broken. "What kind of a plan was that, to gather the Seven Houses together and try to reclaim Khazâd-Dum?! Did you not see it was madness? Was my own death not enough to teach you that? Why did you have to be so faithful, why in the Maker's name was what I did to you not enough...?

- They beheaded you", Thráin chokes out, and he barely notices the tears streaming down his own face, because he is back to that terrible, terrible day where Nár brought back his father's head.

"They defiled your body. They scarred your brow."

Sobs are laced around the words, but he still stands tall, even though the shadows around him seems to spin, and quiver around the dark surface of the lake.

"So what...?", Thrór spits out. "I was dead. I did not mind."

It is untrue. Thráin knows it. He knows the brand upon his father's forehead has been prior to his death – that the pain must have been enough for him to pass out, thankfully, before his head was severed, before his life bled out on the steps of Khazâd-Dum, before his body was thrown to the Crows nesting on the merciless slopes of Barazinbar.

"It was not to be borne...", Thráin whispers, and he closes his eyes and wipes his cheek.

Because these are exactly the words he said back then – because he cannot take them back. Because his father should not have borne such suffering, and such horror.

"And afterwards?", Thrór asks, his voice sharp and unmoved. "Khazâd-Dum might have made sense, but Erebor? Erebor, Thráin...?

- You... I had to try. I had the map. The key. I... It was not enough."

He gives up, then. Gives up the pretence. Stands there, facing his father, and breaks before that icy gaze – because he cannot tell him. Cannot tell him how horrible life seemed to him, in these dark dark days after Frerin's death, where he saw them both every night in his dreams, grounded by Thorin's arms only.

Cannot tell his father just how much he haunted him – because it should not have ended like this, because he had been unable to reclaim Durin's Halls as a small compensation for the bloodshed, the massacre, the sacrifice...

Cannot tell Thrór how little he felt and lived, in the Blue Mountains his remaining children tried so desperately to build up as a new home – how Erebor still loomed in a corner of his mind, because it was the place her tomb lay, the place known as his father's kingdom...

And because it was a lost cause. Because he felt, deep inside, that he was setting out for his last journey and was yearning for death to find him – a honorable death, a death that would erase some of his deeds, so as to be remembered as someone who tried, at least, even though it would never be enough...

And in the end, he died unseen and unknown, just as he always should have lived – a famished, broken prisoner, lost in the jails of Dol Guldur, squirming before the Voice, that evil Voice that encompassed every darkness he could think of...

The words die in Thráin's chest, and never reach his lips, they just choke him from the inside and he is shaking, shaking so badly the cave spins around him – and he is about to fall on his knees, is on the verge to bury his head in his hands, never to lift it again because he is nothing, nothing, nothing... when a determined word stops him.

"Enough."

It is like a rope, a tiny rope he can cling to so as not to drown. Thráin lets out a shaky breath, and blinks, and sees that his father has drawn himself up to his full height, still leaning against the column, his eyes bright and wary.

Arnóra's feet are light, as she descends the last steps towards the cave, and yet she is clad in mail and leather just like them, her white fur-coat draped tightly around her thin, strong frame.

"Enough, mamarlûn...", she says, softly, and the arm she draws around Thráin is warm, and protecting, and so loving he shudders, helplessly, leaning into her embrace without question.

Her eyes are scorching, there is a fire in them that should scare him, but Thráin only relishes the feeling of her grasp around his shoulders, amazed that there is still someone willing to touch him.

Her grey eyes burn, and they search for Thrór's face with a fierce intensity, and yet his father does not lower his gaze. It is ice when hers is fire, and as they lock it seems to Thráin that the very air between them loads with a prickling current he can almost feel on his skin.

And then Thrór's hands unclench, very slowly – and it is no gesture of peace, merely a way to show them he remains unmoved, and untouched.

"So this is it."

His voice is low – measured and toneless, as hard and uninviting as the surface of the lake pooling at his booted feet.

"How considerate of you to join us. And speaking, moreover, bless Mahal...

- Do not use His name."

Arnóra hisses the words back to him and Thrór smiles – a cold, raw smile that bares his teeth, showing them both he does not care.

"Do not sully the Maker's name – do not dare to drag Him in our concerns.

- Afraid now, Arnóra...?", Thrór lets out, and his pale eyes are shining again, because there is a lifetime of hurt in that single name.

"If He made me, He should not shrink back from my words and thoughts. If He is indeed almighty. If He knows. He has been idle enough in my life. This is what I tell Him, every time He stoops from whatever place He dwells in to bestow empty words upon me... And do you know what happens afterwards?"

He lets out a short, barking laugh, and yet his eyes are full of tears.

"He leaves, Arnóra. Just as He ought to."

And with these words Thrór bares his teeth at them again, backed up against the column, standing so tall and upright it hurts.

"Just as you ought. Both of you. Leave."

Thráin is still leaning against his mother, and he feels the grip of her fingers tighten around his shoulder, so hard it almost bruises. And then Arnóra shakes her head, contempt washing over her face, turning it to stone.

"You are past saving", she lets out, and her words are knives.

But Thrór merely laughs.

"Of course. What did you expect, Arnóra...? I am the ruthless husband, the cold, abusing father, the mad, selfish King, and the worst Dwarf who has ever breathed upon that accursed Earth that never bred a proper Mountain.

- This is indecent."

Her voice is icy, and as sharp as a blade, and Thrór bows, mockingly.

"Ever at your service. Fire away. You have eternity to bring me down with words, after all. Suit yourselves. Mother and son, finally reunited. A lovely, touching picture.

- How dare you...?", Arnóra growls, taking a step towards him. "How dare you... I will not let your words bring down my son. Not anymore.

- Hu ya dashatê !"

The words ring loudly through stone and water, echoing against the columns, against Thráin's very bones, until they break, just as Thrór's voice does, because a tearless sob sears through his strong, upright body that is still facing them.

He has screamed the words in their sacred language, raw words that come from the deepest part of his Soul, and they pool through Thráin's chest, through his very limbs, just like Dragon-fire did, and yet that warmth is full of strength, of a will that surprises even him, allowing him to free himself from Arnóra's embrace until he faces his father again.

Alone. Unafraid. With a love that does not shake, does not waver, and that has been there ever since he remembers.

"Hikhthuzul, 'adad."

And as he walks towards his father, his stride determined, his shoulders squared, upright, upright at last because he has every right to, and knows this is the only way Thrór will let him – because strength and will are the sole things his father ever yearned to find in him...

As it finally dawns on Thráin that his father cannot believe he is already forgiven, that he thinks he is the guilty one, the one who failed, never to be redeemed...

As he sees, for the very first time, that he might actually be stronger than his father in this – that Thrór does not understand, and spits and lashes out because he thinks he does not deserve any kindness, any love, without being able to conceive that he does, always did and always will...

As Thráin refuses to choose, as he refuses to let him stand there, alone, hurt and broken yet still determined to push them all away...

As he takes his father's hand because he cannot kiss him or embrace him, his father is not like that and he is overwhelmed, watches him come closer and does not snatch his arm away, just looks at him and quivers and still looks so strong and mighty Thráin feels tears rise in his eyes as well...

As he clasps that calloused, able hand in his, and raises it to his lips, pressing them against it fiercely before holding it against his cheek, he repeats it, once, that word telling his father just how much he loves him – and he does not care to be rejected, because it will take time, because it is worth it and will always be.

"Hikhthuzul."


Neo-Khuzdûl translations :

- mamarrakhûn : a concept I invented, litterally meaning 'he who continues to shield', and that I like to translate as 'shield-brother'. It is what Dwalin is for Thorin, and what I like to imagine that Balin has been for Thrain, nonewithstanding the age-gap between them. It is explained in my fic 'The King of Carven Stone' where you will also find details about what happened after the Dragon and in Exile, from Thorin's point of view, and in the (almost finished!) fic ''Ashur nurtu kuylê 'la murudmi' about Dwalin's bond with Thorin.

- Hu ya dashatê : one of the sentences I love most. Because it means : 'He is my son as well'.

- Hikhthuzul : one of the answers I love most. Because it means : 'Always'.

Much love to you laddies! I will try to get on with my other fics as soon as possible, I promise. Ah and... of course, we have not finished with Thror. Rest assured. This chapter was just awfully long ^^.

Chapter Text

His father’s hand is rough against his cheek. It always was. Thráin knows these callous palms, the cool touch of the rings circling these fingers. He knows them from childhood – his small hand clinging to Thrór’s, anchoring himself to him even as he struggled to keep up with his brisk steps. He also felt their blows, later… and their hard grasp on his forearm or shoulder, over and over again – they have crushed him more than once, dragged him down inch by inch, along with the decaying mind of his once-mighty father.

Thrór’s hand is a stern, unforgiving one. It slaps. It pushes away. It grinds bones, will and hopes to dust. It does not caress, does not stroke, does not really touch, and yet…

Yet this time, his father’s hand quivers. It feels fragile, beneath the strength of the heavy bones and able muscles, and as it curls around his cheek, cradling it, almost hurting him, Thráin feels his father’s thumb around his left eye, feeling for his eyelid, his cheekbone, his eyebrow, and his temple.

It almost hurts. It is so brisk. Thrór does not know how to touch properly, he almost grazes Thráin’s skin, and then his fingers bury themselves in his hair and he pulls, pulls his son’s face towards him, feels him, his eyebrows and nose and beard and ears and hair, and Thráin’s shoulders and chest and stomach and hipbones, his waist and his spine and his shoulder-blades and his arms – and it hurts, it almost bruises, and yet…

And yet it feels like Thrór’s hands are mapping him. Tracing his very shape, making sure he is whole, hale, there, unharmed and unscarred. Thráin would never have dreamt to feel softness under callousness, fear beneath hard bones, and hushed, never-to-be-voiced sobs beneath his father’s ragged breath – and yet he does, and his quiet tears fall softly against Thrór’s hands, as he allows him to trace and draw him.

Since his father does not know yet how to embrace him.

That day”, Thrór lets out – and his voice is just a heavy, painful breath, rough from hurt, and rage, and unvoiced feelings. “That day they told me your eye was lost…”

His hand crushes his cheek and Thráin looks up, searches for his father’s gaze, but Thrór has closed his eyes, has averted his face, because even here he hides, buries it deep down, refuses to bare his weakness, still thinking it’s a threat.

I could have screamed”, Thrór whispers. “I could have screamed and filled every mine, every chamber, every dell and gallery with the sound, and still have air left to scream again. I watched them burn your wound, close your eye forever, scar your face – your face , Thráin… But I… could not afford to scream. They would have known. How to hurt the King, to bring him on his knees, to have me begging and pleading, anything to save your life, to keep you there… You remember, Thráin, do you? That the seven families were not always behind me, that even there in the very walls of Erebor I still had to watch out… That it took many battles, many victories, many treaties to have them fear us, and rally to our strength because they knew we were mightier… And so… When the healers took the light from your face, half of your face, just like that… I learnt to bury that scream deep inside, and pretend it was nothing. That it was your fault. That every warrior was responsible for his life, and body. That my own son’s wound was nothing to me. That I could look at your face – that face and pretend it did not crush my chest, every single time, to see that you had lost an eye for my battles while I was left unscarred.

- Gladly, adad , Thráin answers, and it is true.

He has wept for his eye and struggled to adjust to that loss, having to learn how to move and to fit into space again, but he was not alone. H e had his One and love and Bára helped him, lead him to the light again, fought against him in the secrecy of the training rooms until his battle skills were fully honed again, and Thráin scarred but upright once more…

You were the King. You had to stay unmoved.

- I wish I had screamed”, Thrór chokes out, and this time it is Thráin who reaches out, shyly, touches his father’s hair, and skull, and gently pulls him closer.

Until their foreheads touch.

Their foreheads touch, and Thrór’s skin feels cold, almost like marble, but it is strangely soft, and familiar, because there had been touches like that, once, stolen in hazy moments of childhood, and Thráin shivers and closes his eyes, because it feels right.

And Thrór… Thrór presses his face close to his son’s, and his hands find his back, clench around his shoulders – and it feels like he’s both clinging for support and trying to shield him, and his eyes are still closed and the line around his mouth hard as iron.

I cursed the Maker endless times, Thráin. For each and every one of my failures. Each and every one of your scars. The way He let me crush you. The way He carved so much goodness into my son, and still let him suffer, and get hurt, and lose his strength, his mind and his blood in that forsaken place, for nine endless, accursed , and unforgivable years. I cursed the Maker, and still do, I do not believe in Him anymore, Thráin – because He made you and was still mad enough to entrust you to me… Because He let you break, when you were His treasure to keep and mine as well… Because He claims to be the Maker and yet knows nothing of justice, nothing of what is right, and let my son suffer and die…”

He breathes and it makes him shudder, and then Thrór whispers :

I may not have screamed in life. But believe me, son, I have screamed in death. I have screamed at Him – He has heard me roar, and will again, and again, and again . Until He is the one hurting, until He weeps and tries to atone for what He did to you. I will make Him scream. I swear I will make Him scream.”

His father is so fierce. He is so ruthless. He bows to no one, he is hard and spiteful and proud and unforgiving, and yet…

And yet he breaks. His hands still cradling him, his forehead pressed against Thráin’s. His sobs are quiet, and fierce, and angry – laced with vows of revenge, of deeds to be paid…

And of love – of violent, rough, seething love, bleeding like the core of the Mountain when it spills, bursting through after decades of missed encounters, of hurt, of madness and of grief.

They have lost so much time. Almost a lifetime. But here they are now, facing each other, touching each other, and Thráin is beginning to feel what it means to heal.

“I seek no vengeance. I seek no blood-price. I did not come to claim, to curse or to gloat, 'adad.”

His voice is deep. It is rich, full and as warm as it should be. It covers the steel Thrór is made of with velvet, engulfs him deep in his son's love and new-found wisdom.

Half of my bone's marble. Half of my blood's ore. Half of my hair's silver. Half of my mind's blade. Half of my Name's runes. Half of my Soul's míthril.

Thráin quotes the sacred words quietly, his palms engulfing his father's hands – and the grey in his eyes is almost golden, because he is mending. Bringing the wild, chaotic waters he is made of back to the spring they come from. Hard rock, icy water, cold snow and warm blood.

Thrór and Arnóra.

Khalel”, Thráin whispers, closing his eyes, his forehead still pressed against his father's.

Khalel, 'adad. 'Amad. Naikhlî.”

Peace. Make peace with each other.

His father's hands tighten around him, fiercely, protectively – a mute statement of his fear, his helplessness, and Thráin leans against him, allows him to cradle him, to show every Soul that he has him, will always have him and shield him.

Hu ya dashatê”, Thrór whispers, in a broken, broken voice – and this time he is not talking to Thráin, he is addressing Arnóra, face averted, gaze bleeding into the dark lake's waters.

Say I have hurt him. Say I have broken him. Say I have crushed him, been unworthy of him. Say I have wronged him, failed to understand him, to shield and protect him. To show him how I treasured him, him and his children, the gold of my late days...”

He shudders – he is cold in Thráin's embrace, and he looks so, so young, suddenly, because Souls are changeable, especially when they still seek peace, when the parts shaping them are not fully mended… He shudders, but he still has enough strength to add :

I have tried to raise him. I have fed him. Clothed him. Held him when he was ailing . Taught him how to fight. Made sure he was warm. Rebuilt a Mountain around him. Tried to shield him. From murder and conspiracy, from jealousy and plots. From his own feelings, because they always were so deep, far too deep… Say I have failed. But do not… Do not dare to say I did not try.”

And there Thrór's gaze leaves the lake at last. Facing Arnóra's – her grey eyes bright and scorching, his full of repressed tears.

I did not leave”, Thrór whispers. “I did not leave you in a cold mountain- cave, with a year-old little Dwarfling, a tomb to carve and a life to take care of. I did not push you away – eyes full of hate and disgust, and fear… Your hand barring my chest, your teeth bared, making me feel like a criminal, like the bearer of some… evil curse…”

He is crying quietly now. It has taken him so long, so long to let the words out, and he has to carve them out of his chest himself – he is still embracing Thráin, his arms wrapped around his back, and Thráin does not move, because he knows that doing so will deprive his father from the sole shield he has left. From the solace he deserves.

I have not left you with more regrets and questions than shared memories… Had I just fought against yearning and loneliness once more, had I just never yielded, sat myself at your side and taken that night watch with you... Had I just sent you to your cot and coat, when I felt you shiver, and not offered you my furs, wrapped them around you and…

- Looked at me with those eyes…”

Arnóra's whisper is low, but it still makes Thrór flinch. The light the torches throw upon the scene is scarce, drawing shadows on their faces and softening them. Thrór's hair looks more golden than silver now, and though the pearls in his beard are still tightly woven, it seems shorter to Thráin – his gaze less stony, and his face softer. Younger.

A glacier. Cold. Almost unbreakable. Yet still able to catch sunlight and blind us all. You were the King – the Drake had made a King of the young Prince you were, but doubts and fear there seemed to be none, you led us through Mountains and ravines, through hunts and camps – unwavering. Not losing a moment in useless grief or mourning.

- I was mourning.”

Thrór's arms release Thráin slowly. His breathing is uneven, there are unshed tears in his eyes and he is shaking, but he is looking at her, looking only at her, and Thráin knows he can withdraw now, silently, take a few steps back and lean against a pillow. Not leaving – only allowing his father to stand and face his mother on his own.

“I was mourning with every step I took, every ice axe I buried in the snow, and every fire I lit. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see ashes and blood on the golden stairs I had trod upon, and loved, thinking nothing could outshine them… But you cannot… You cannot wake up screaming, and… waste your breath sobbing, choking with tears when you have… when there is a little brother to take care of, and an old uncle, and everything that is left of your people – what would they think? And who would care – who would respect such a King…? Not you. Certainly not you.”

He has a soft laugh that is void of any joy. His cheeks are wet and yet, Thrór's tears do not unman him, they just make the angles in his face stand out even more – he is a tall Dwarf, a fierce Dwarf, a Dwarf who has loved long ago and struggles to remember.

“I would not know”, Arnóra answers – upright and proud in her white furs, but truthful and honest, even when it scorches and whips. “I have not met that other King you speak of. I just saw you, that night. Ability. Courage. Ferocity. And warmth. Despite the glacier.

- Why did you let me kiss you…? Why did you not push me away…?

- Because I wanted you.”

Thrór laughs again and his eyes spill, because no matter what he does, he cannot make hurt look like scorn any more.

“Just for one night, Arnóra? Just this one night? Because of the cold – of loneliness? A small print in the snow, buried under the next fall?”

Arnóra's eyes burn and she lifts her chin.

“If a man does so, he is a hunter. If a woman does, she becomes a harlot… does she not, uzbadê? Would a yes make me a harlot?”

She bares her teeth, facing him, upright on the last stair, and her hair is dark against her white furs, and her face seems cut into ice – she is beautiful, she is mighty, strong as a warrior, able as a man, and graceful as a dancer.

She is honest, always has been, and her words slice through Thrór's chest like a blade.

He lowers his gaze. Shakes his head. He has always known. Always known it was just a night, just a youthful mistake. Causing a life to begin and another to end.

“It… explains”, he lets out, painfully, because he bleeds, here and there, still bleeds, two hundred years afterwards.

“What does it explain?”

Arnóra's voice is hard and Thrór shakes his head again. Too weary. Too broken. He has not enough strength left, and there is no use, no use to cut his chest open even more. He has his son back – his wonderful son, the gift he never deserved, who has given more sense to his life than any battle or hard-won treasure. And this is enough. Enough to face eternity and its endless taunts.

“I never meant to hurt you”, he lets out, and he feels himself waver, his Soul flickering like a light on the verge of extinguishing itself – fine, it is fine. He is so weary, he has spent it all, let it vanish, loose itself into nothingness for a while, this is what always happens afterwards, for a small, merciful eternity…

“No, 'adad, no… 'Adad, please, no, don't go… Tell her, please tell her… 'Adad...”

His son's voice keeps him there, for a while. It is full of panic, full of so much love, and Thrór cannot bear to scare him – finds enough strength to raise his arm and circle his shoulders, drawing him against him.

“I am not leaving. I just have to… go… for a while.”

I have to mend.

Thrór does not say it aloud, but Thráin seems to hear it nonetheless.

“Where?”, he asks, and his eyes are full of fear, because Thrór is clearly struggling to stay there, his frame shivering, suddenly looking more like air than stone.

“I do not know”, Thrór whispers. “I melt into ice and light, I see high peaks and gilded staircases, I become rock and stone and gold, I am nothing and everything, and when I wake I am with them – my brothers, my father and my mother, all my cousins… Sometimes we speak. Often we don't. They have learned now that I like it best here.

- You did not tell her...”

Thráin's face is buried into his chest – like a very small boy, and this time Thrór allows his hand to card through his locks, brushing them back. He bleeds, he bleeds and yet his son is still there to ground him, to remind him he owes himself the truth.

And so Thrór breathes. His face white as marble, his eyes empty, but meeting Arnóra's.

“It was not just one night for me.”

He longs for emptiness. Nothingness. Air against cold mountain-peaks, and him melting with stone, so that he can begin to forget he bleeds, always has and always will.

“I dreamt of you every night for months. You replaced ashes and blood. You were my northern light, the dawn of my nights, my secret and my pride. I wanted to do it right. To court you. Offer you everything I had. Begin to know you. Ask you to be my One and Queen – not out of duty, out of circumstances, but out of love and will. I never meant to make you scream, and bleed, and become someone you could not recognise.”

Thrór faces her, and he knows he has to say it all, he does not mind tears anymore, they slide down his pale cheeks anyway – is this what expiation feels like? Is it enough to help him vanish…?

“I loved you. I made love to you. I never meant to tear you apart, treat you like a prey… I was young, foolish and rash. But once, Arnóra, long ago, I promise... I did truly and wholly love you.”

He has a small, joyless laugh – because her face is aghast, and frowning, so far from expressing pleasure that Thrór sees once more how unfit they are for each other. Eternity is full of taunts, this is just one more. He is gone anyway.

And so he cards his finger one last time through Thráin's dark locks, presses his forehead against his head and whispers to him he will come back soon.

To Arnóra he says nothing more. His heart is empty, and it is bleeding.

But he will mend. He always mends. He always comes back full of scorn, and anger – it is just a taunt, just a ridiculous little taunt, and his son is waiting for him now…

Thrór leaves, and this time it is just darkness for him, unseeing, unfeeling… Comforting, for a small, merciful eternity.

He just has to mend. And so he leaves.

 


 

Neo-Khuzdul translations :

- Hu ya dashatê : He is also my son.

- Khalel : peace of all peaces

- Naikhlî : make peace with each other.