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The Secret Language of Brothers

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When they were little—very, very little, no more than the size of a drawer and barely able to walk on their own unsteady feet—Fili hadn't realized it was anything strange.


Dis would turn from Kili, bouncing up and down and quivering with excitement over whatever he had just said, and her gaze would land upon Fili.

“He wants to go to the field and play miners,” Fili would dutifully repeat. If he had given any thought at all to why Mother needed him to repeat everything Kili said, he would have said that Mother just stood so much higher up from Kili than Fili. The extra height must make a difference when it came to hearing the words that tumbled over each other out of Kili's mouth. Being only a head taller than him, Fili was just in a better position to hear his little brother.

Fili reached out his hand to his baby brother before Mother had a chance to reply. “Come on,” he said. “I'll play miners with you, but only if you play exactly how I like.”

“llplevooanFeeomis!” In Fili's mind, this of course read easily as “I'll play however you want, Fee, promise!” Fili wasn't exactly well-pleased with the nickname his baby brother had given him, but he couldn't get him to say the whole name. Mother reassured Fili that he would, eventually.

“Alright, Kee,” Fili replied, teasing him with his own equivalently silly nickname. Kili's hand slipped easily into Fili's outstretched one before Fili lead the way to the field with the most rocks—a vital component of a mining-themed pretend adventure.

Dis just clucked her tongue at them as they scurried out and told them to be back for supper.


“We will!” Fili promised, repeating his brother.

Kili slipped four times and knocked his head hard and sharp against a rock once before the sky grew dark. Fili had to sit with him for a half hour before he calmed his crying, repeating “You're fine,” in response to every “urFee! Iur!” and “I know it hurts, but it won't soon, you'll be fine.”

Fili sighed, holding Kili close to his chest and petting his hair. He knew Kili would end up messing up play-adventures. He always did, thanks to a combination of being barely able to stand on two feet and a propensity to try to do more than the sturdiest of adult dwarves.

“You're fine.”

It wasn't until Fili and Kili were nearly in their tweens, sitting at their uncle's side and listening to Mother tell stories, that Fili even realized anything was odd.

“And no one could understand a word that Kili said. Fili was his translator for the first half-dozen years, for truth.”

Uncle Thorin laughed in that deep, somber way he had. But Fili was focused on his mother, eyes sharp and searching. “What do you mean?” He glanced over at Kili, who shrugged one shoulder and wriggled his eyebrows in the universal expression of “I don't know, either.”

“When you were younger,” Dis explained. Her smile was bright, warming the room as a balance to Thorin's general air of bleakness. “You were Kili's translator. No one could understand anything he said. It was like you two had your very own twin-speak, even born five years apart as you were.”

The brothers spoke as one, without even a glance for each other:

“I spoke just fine.

“Kili spoke just fine.

Uncle Thorin chuckled at that, and Fili flushed. He didn't want to seem like a petulant child in front of his brave uncle.

Dis' hearty laughter filled the room, like warmth from a fire. “No one could understand Kili, not even I! He spoke too fast and cut off the ends of his words. Too much too say and too impatient to take the time to actually say it. But he never needed to learn the patience, not for a long time, with you acting as his translator.”

Fili frowned, and looked to his brother. That made it sound like he was hurting him, somehow. Even though all Fili ever did was take care of him, and watch over him, and try to protect him from everything. Though, maybe that was what mother was saying. Maybe that was what he did wrong?

But then Fili looked at his brother and saw him smiling reassuringly. Kili grinned to one side, shook his head, raised and eyebrow, and smiled some more. So then it was okay, and his little brother never thought Fili did anything but right by him.

Fili relaxed and laughed with his mother as she continued to tell stories about their impetuous youth.

“Stop it!”

Fili turned sharply at the teenaged human who had spoken to them. Subconsciously he moved in front of his brother. Teenaged humans were younglings still, but many were grown as tall as humans grew. It was a dangerous combination: none of the caution and even-headedness of maturity, all of the strength. And they tended to think themselves older and wiser than Fili and his brother, even though Fili had just celebrated his second score birthday.

“Stop what?” Fili asked, cautious, careful. He could feel Kili squirming behind him, itching for a fight. A fight he would start, and Fili would have to finish.

“You're signing, aren't you? That dwarf-language. Father says you folk do it when you're trying to trick us.”

Fili's eyebrows shot up. “Iglishmêk?” That was the sign-language the angry blonde boy was asking about, Fili was sure of it. But he didn't know it. It was taught to dwarves by their fathers, and theirs had passed before they were old enough to start learning it.

Fili explained as much to the teenaged boys, who just seemed more angered by his response.

“We saw you!” The head-boy said.

Fili didn't take a step back, though he wanted to. They were alone this time of night, this end of the human town. And the teenaged boy and his friends had been drinking plenty that evening: even if Fili couldn't smell the bitter sting of alcohol coming off them in waves, he had seen them in the pub that evening, getting louder and angrier as the night progressed.

“We don't know Iglishmêk,” Fili repeated.

“Twin speak,” Kili cut in.

Fili blinked, turning to silence his little brother. But Kili was grinning, expression light and easy and excited at his new idea.

“We're twins. We've got a... a connection. You know. Twins.”

Blonde head-boy narrowed his eyes. Fili swallowed thickly, hair hanging sweaty and limp against temples. How was that supposed to make it better?

But one of the other boys was stepping forward, a red-head, and poking blonde-boy in the side. “It's like the Potterbarrels, remember?”

Blonde-boy snorted: a sloppy, wet thing. But he did nothing more than shove past the dwarf-brothers and head on his stumbling way, the rest of his company following.

Once the humans had rounded a street corner, Fili turned to his brother with wide eyes and a gaping mouth. “What was that?!”

Kili laughed uproariously and grabbed his brother, jumping around and holding him close. “I knew it would work!”

“You knew nothing, you daft sod!” Fili knocked Kili upside the head. Kili just laughed and brushed it off, still bouncing around in circles.

Fili rolled his eyes and crossed his arms, trying to look disapproving. But Kili just grinned harder and laughed louder, and Fili knew he was reading him easily. His lips squirming at the edges, wanting to turn up into a smile; his shoulders pulled up just a little too close to his ears in an attempt to hold himself in check; his eyebrows pulled together close in a frown, but too close, because they wanted to spread apart in a smile. Kili could always read those things in Fili, just like Fili could always read him.

“Let's get home before you cause some more trouble,” Fili finally growled. Kili laughed and slung his arm around his brother, holding it there the whole way home.

Dis laughed as Fili grabbed Kili and pulled him in close to his chest. Kili clung right back, arms wrapped tight around his waist.

“No,” Dis reprimanded. “I'm not about to be stuck against you two with your uncle Thorin.”

Uncle grunted, feet propped majestically up on a stone footstool in front of his chair.

“We'll do one we've never done before!” Kili promised from beneath his big brother's arm.

Fili nodded in hasty agreement. “Yeah! I'll think of a song Kili doesn't even know, so he has to guess all the words.”

Dis sighed, defeated. Fili felt a surge of happiness as he squeezed his brother even tighter. “Fine,” she gave in. But a song the other doesn't know!” She settled in next to Thorin and stroked the fuzz on her cheeks.

Fili beamed. Excellent. Even with this forced handicap, he and Kili were still sure to win. In his arms Kili moved away and to the front of the kitchen. He was always the first to go, and Fili always let him. It's what big brothers did, after all: let the baby brothers go first. Even if Kili was over three score years now, and rapidly closing the height gap between the two of them. He was still Fili's little brother—would be even if he surpassed Fili in height, though hopefully it wouldn't ever come to that.

“Okay,” Kili wondered to himself, thinking for a moment. Then he grinned and nodded at Fili, their gazes locking. Fili did't even need to nod, just flicker his eyelashes, subvocal movements in his throat, a flutter of beard fuzz here or there. Kili could always read him—he didn't even have to move the thought from out of his mind and onto his skin, Kili could practically pluck it right out of his head.

Fili watched as his brother straightened just before he began. One beat, two, three. Then his index finger and thumb were close together, and the game began.

“A, an, the-” Kili nodded, sharp and quick. “The,” Fili repeated, locking in the first word.

Mother and Uncle never stood a chance.

Kili kept going, quick and quicker with the gestures as the brothers found a rhythm. It wasn't Iglishmêk—that would be cheating. But for them two, this was better than Iglishmêk. They could convey more, faster, with more memories and meanings entwined in just little movements of eye and finger and hair.

Lips pursed, fingers wiggling. “Wind.”

Little word, thrown over the shoulder. Past. “Was.”

Little word, one hand slapped down on the back of the other. “On.”

Little word, one index held up, gesture sweep backwards. Beginning word. “The.”

Arms branching up like a tree, but then Kili wrinkling himself downwards, frowning mightily. “Dead, dying, hurt, sick, poisoned, wilting-” Squinting, nodding: not right, but close, “Withered-” Nod. “Withered.”

Rolling planes, lots of flowers and trees and grass in the ground, showing by sprouting hands and wriggling fingers upright close to the ground. “Plane, garden, forest, meadow, heath-” Nod. “Heath.”

Slash. End line. “The wind was on the withered heath,” Fili repeated back, locking in the first line.

Behind him, Dis groaned and Thorin grunted. But Kili was standing before Fili, nodding and grinning so proudly. Fili beamed right back, a happy swell of pride bubbling up in his chest. No one could beat him and his Kili at games like this. No one could understand the language of their brother like they could.

It wasn't until five lines in that Fili was stuck. He frowned at Kili, who was panicking in his gestures just a little bit. Rule was, sixty seconds on one word. If you couldn't guess it, you forfeited to the other team. Most people forfeited somewhere in the first line. Fili couldn't remember the last time him and Kili hadn't managed to finish a whole song.

Fili was drawing a triangle, base on the floor, peak up at his head. His eyes were wide and saying “this is very obvious and I am utterly ashamed to have you as my big brother how can you not understand what word I'm gesturing, honestly, you bring shame to us both.”

Fili groaned. He could understand that, but he couldn't guess this single word.

Behind them, Dis started counting out loud. “Fifty! Fifty-one... fifty-two...” Panicking. What was it?! Fili gestured, a “trying another way” gesture, that was something like a shook head, frowning mouth coupled with wide eyes, and a flapping of hands like he was trying to slide a sheet of metal away from him.

Kili understood, of course he did, and he stopped drawing his blasted triangle with... lumps, and zigzags, and it didn't make any sense. He took a few seconds to think, making use of that oh-so-rare patience Fili tried so hard to teach him. Then his eyes alight, and he pointed to the top of his head. He drew a bunch of triangles, and held his head aloof. “King.” Yes, that was right. But there was more to it, that wasn't the word, because Kili held up one finger and then pointed straight behind Fili. He spun around, realizing that his brother was pointing at their uncle Thorin, who looked just as confused by this turn of events as Fili.

But then, a flash of inspiration. Fili choked out a laugh, realizing with abrupt clarity what word Kili had been trying so desperately to sign. “Mountain! King under the Mountain, it's mountain!”

Kili thrust his fist into the air, jumping up and spinning around victoriously. Fili stomped in place, face in his hands. It was truly terrible of him that he hadn't realized what Kili was signing, but they got it, they really-

A chair scraped behind them. Then the sound of soft boots sliding over stone. Kili stopped his victory dance, and Fili lifted his head from his hands. He could already read what he would find behind him in Kili's expression—he didn't have to turn around to confirm it. But he did, with a sinking feeling in his chest and shame like he hadn't felt since he was a tween.

Uncle Thorin was standing, pipe in his hand, mug of ale abandoned on the table. Mother spared a sad glance for her sons, just long enough to shake her head and tell them with her eyes: “It's okay, don't make a fuss. It's okay.” Mothers could communicate with sons in a silent language, too.

Fili felt Kili at his back, and moved in front of him. He bowed his head respectfully to his uncle, hoping that Kili wouldn't raise a fuss. Hoping that Kili could read in the stiffness of his back and the way he held his hands—palms open, facing Thorin, of no threat and as subservient as he could be—that this was not the time, that he would handle it, to just stay silent and still as Fili took the brunt of their uncle's disappointment.

“Uncle Thorin.” Fili bowed his head. They could treat it as just a normal leave-making.

Uncle Thorin didn't incline his head back. He looked Fili up and down, then moved his eyes to Kili behind him. Fili wanted to move in front of Kili some more, protect him from his Uncle's heavy gaze. But then it was off them, and onto their mother. He looked at her, and she at him. She stood proud and defiant, looking up at her big brother. Fili loved his mother.

“Send for me when they've done some more growing,” Uncle Thorin commanded her.

“You as well,” was all she said in response.

Fili didn't draw in a sharp breath, but Kili did it for him. Uncle Thorin just stared at their mother, considering and weighty. Fili wanted to crawl into the tiniest place he could fit himself and Kili to hide away from the tension in the air.

Uncle Thorin left, his footsteps echoing through their home longer than the sound of the door cracking shut did.

Dis just smiled sadly at her boys and nodded. “Help me clean up this mess and you can go about whatever fun you had planned for the evening.”

Fili washed the dishes and Kili dried them in loud silence. With every plate passed and shoulder bumped they were speaking, even though no words broke through the quiet of the air.

It's not your fault.”

He's just a grouch.”

He deserves respect. He's been through much.”

I know.”

I know you know.”

I'm sorry.”

It's not your fault.”

“He's past his half-century!”

“He's still young.”

Fili huffed a sharp breath from behind his teeth at his mother's reply, wisps of beard fluttering in the brisk wind.

“When I was fifty-two, I had already taken up my apprenticeship. I took it up when I was just four decades!”

“You're different people.”

Fili glared at his mother. Yes. They were different people. And Fili didn't want his little brother to grow up exactly like him or anything. He was his own dwarf, had his own interests. But he did want him to just grow up.

As if summoned by the quiet arguing, Kili stumbled into the kitchen of their small house, wiping sleep from his eyes. He perked up at the sight of Fili. “Oh, hello. Not left yet? Aren't you going to be late?”

Fili's lips were pressed together tight. “I'm back. The workday is over. Sun is sinking down over the horizon, not rising up.”

Kili blinked, glancing out a window hole. He peered around, then shrugged. He scratched his unbraided hair, musing it up even worse than it was from sleep. “Oh. Want to head out? Bet we could win some money at the pub, remember-”

“I need to wash.” Without looking too hard at his little brother, Fili brushed past him.

An arm reached out and snatched him up, Kili's dark, wide eyes filling his vision. Fili looked away. He didn't want to say anything hurtful to his little brother, but he would. If he was cornered like this.

“Fili? You're mad?”

“Mister Hogenshed said he offered you an apprenticeship.”

Kili blinked, those big brown eyes not flickering with recognition. Just when it'd be best if he could read Fili's mind, Kili turned the ability right off. Just like him.

“Yeah. I didn't want it.”

“You didn't want to work,” Fili shot back.

Kili blinked, expression gone tighter as he began to understand his brother's anger. Fili shook his head. He was done with this. Done with waiting for his little brother to grow up.

“He tends livestock. That's no job for-”

“I started out cleaning out barns!” Fili snapped back. “Sometimes you need to take work—whatever work it is. Just to prove that you can work.”

Breaking his brother's grip, Fili shoved past him without waiting to hear a response. He didn't want to hurt his little brother. But times like this, Fili thought maybe Kili could do with a little hurt. Maybe it would age him. Maybe that would be for the best.

That night, Kili slunk into the room they shared at an almost reasonable hour. Fili fought back a disappointed sigh. He had been hoping Kili would stumble in, nearly at first light, and fall straight to his bedsheets. It was a normal routine for him: nights out and about, days spent in their bed, wretched and exhausted. Fili had hoped he would stick to his normal routine tonight, so he wouldn't have to answer any questions about packed bags and empty chests.

He should have known better than that. His brother would have read something, all over his face, his body language, in just those few minutes downstairs. Kili could probably smell his intended deceit, his conflicted plans. There wasn't a time in his life that Fili could keep anything secret from Kili. Even as a baby, he'd cry if Fili was upset, and gurgle when he was happy.

Kili didn't even speak, just look around the room before his eyes settled on Fili's bag packed by the door. Fili watched him from their bed, waiting for Kili to speak. Kili always spoke. He was always talking—even as a baby lying in his drawer he'd giggle and click his tongue and gurgle nonsense until he fell to sleep. But Kili wasn't speaking now. Instead he just kicked a foot out and knocked it into Fili's pack. It lolled to the ground, pointing at Fili in an accusation.

“There's more jobs on the other side of Carnen,” Fili explained without being asked.

A small little sob escaped Kili's throat before he was on Fili in a second, folding himself up in his brothers arms. He was of the same height as Fili, now: maybe even a hair higher. But Fili bundled his brother up, tugging him onto their bed and against his chest. Kili's face was pressed into Fili's shoulder, his nightshirt growing damp and hot with silent tears. Fili wanted to cry, too: his eyes were hot, the light from their single candle blurring and smearing wildly in his vision. But he couldn’t, because it was Kili crying right now. That meant Fili had to be the strong one and comfort him. If Fili started crying, too, then there'd be no one to take care of Kili.

“I'll find work,” Kili gasped out.

Fili shook his head and brushed a hand down Kili's back. He whispered nonsense phrases: a tune from a lullaby, a phrase from a poem. Little bits of comfort, senseless in their content but clear in their intentions. Slowly Kili melted against Fili, his tears slackening, his breath coming more easily. Fili just pressed his cheek against his brother's hair, feeling the smooth silkiness through his full beard.

“Don't leave me.”

Tears spilled over already-red rims and Fili had to squeeze his eyes shut against Kili's hair.

“I have to go.”

“Not without me.”

The two brothers held each other close as their candle slowly burned itself out in the dark.

The next morning Fili decided to delay his journey, based on how little rest he had gotten the night before.

A day later, Kili was up the same time as Fili, tugging on boots in a stumbling mess as he headed out to his new job working for a fletcher. He grumbled about “elf-work” the whole time, but he was out the door with Fili, and didn't return home until nearly an hour after Fili did.

Every morning Fili decided to delay his travels just one more day. The smithee wasn't such bad work, as it turned out.


Fili strained his ears, trying to hear what Bombur, Bifur, and Bofur were laughing so heartily over with his brother.

Bifur turned around on his mount and said... something. Fili blinked, then shook his head. “What?”

Again, it was Bifur who tried to answer him. Fili threw his head back in exasperation. It sounded like he was asking a question, but other than that Fili had no idea what those string of sounds were supposed to be. He tried to urge his mount closer, hoping maybe it was just the distance.


In front of him, Kili twisted his body around to face him. With a grin, he did nothing more than sweep his hand through his hair. Fili understood instantly.

“The hobbits! Yes, seems it. Remember?”

Kili nodded in response, grinning.

Now it was Bofur's turn to look confused. He glanced between the two brothers. “What was the question? What was the answer?”

“I was asking if all hobbits have hair like Bilbo's: sort of wavy, pretty. All gentle swoops of silk,” Kili explained.

“And I reminded him that we had seen several hobbits on our way to Bilbo's house, the ones that had given us a decidedly unwelcome welcoming to the Shire, and they all had hair in the same style as Bilbo's. So it must be a fairly common trait amongst the hobbits.”

Bombur burped loudly. “You didn't say that.”

Fili and Kili grinned at each other, sharing a small conversation from atop their mounts. All it really amounted to was “Yes we did.”