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Children of the Lonely Mountain

Chapter Text

Bilbo fussed with his hair. He knew he was doing it, and he knew it was irrational and more than a bit silly, but it didn’t stop him. He pulled at a stray curl, trying to tug it into some semblance of neatness, and then gave up. People could think whatever they wanted of him.

He sighed and turned away from the mirror, going to tidy some of the toys that were currently spread out across every inch of the floor. Frodo had only been with them for two weeks, but it seemed that eight-year-old boys had need of a great many more toys these days than Bilbo remembered having in his youth. Fili and Kili were spoiling him dreadfully, Bilbo thought sternly as he picked up the six comic books, three stuffed bears, and eleven little cars that he had bought for the lad in the past few days. Of course, when you were an orphan, you were entitled to a bit of spoiling, he decided.

Frodo was home from school before he had half finished the job, and thumped his way quickly up the stairs, dragging his bag behind him so that it bumped on every stair. Bilbo smiled at the sound, already turning to greet the boy.

He was a tiny child, all dark curls and huge blue eyes, and he had an unnerving tendency to look like he was staring straight through you. Bilbo could vaguely remember meeting his little cousin a time or two during family gatherings, but he hadn’t been close to Drogo or Primula, and the whole Brandybuck connection had scared him off a bit. It had come as quite a surprise when a well-meaning social worker had rung to ask him whether he had any interest in taking in the son. Of course, she was only trying to be thorough, and clearly didn’t expect a middle-aged bachelor who’d recently been the subject of intense media scrutiny to take on a traumatised, frightened eight-year-old - but Bilbo thought about Fili and Kili, growing up in the middle of their mad, wonderful family, and hadn’t hesitated.

“Of course,” he’d told her quickly. “He should be with family.”

They’d had to inspect everything, of course, and he’d filled out a mountain of paperwork - but Frodo had moved in a fortnight earlier, and legal proceedings for Bilbo to formally adopt him were in motion.

Which led, of course, to the reason that Bilbo was arranging his hair in front of a mirror and trying not to dissolve into a complete pile of unwound nerves. He smiled and beckoned Frodo over, sitting down on the couch with the boy at his side. For not having known him long, Frodo was a very trusting lad, and he climbed easily up next to Bilbo, smiling up at him cheerfully.

“How was your day, my lad?” Bilbo asked, reaching out to rifle through Frodo’s bag in search of any notes meant for him. “Settling in well at school, I hope?”

“Mostly,” Frodo said with a shrug. “Sam Gamgee ate lunch with me today, even though he says his granny says he’s not to talk to me because you’re strange.”

Bilbo chuckled at that. “I may just be, at that! Does it bother you?”

Frodo shook his head. “No! It means you have interesting stories to tell about your adventures!” His eyes went even wider as he leaned close to whisper in Bilbo’s ear. “And I haven’t told about Fili and Kili living here, like you said.”

“Good lad,” Bilbo said, ruffling his hair approvingly. There would be plenty of time for Frodo to learn who ought to know that two members of the ex-criminal association known as the Sons of Durin lived with him - but he’d thought that allowing the poor boy a few weeks of peace from the inevitable questioning at school would be a kindness. He’d worried a bit in the first few days about speaking so openly of his adventures, but Frodo was so eager to hear them that he hadn’t had the heart to stop. “Speaking of my adventures, Frodo, what do you think of going on one of your own?”

His eyes were round and frightfully excited. “Yes, please, Uncle Bill! Can we go to the mountain and see where you had your battle?”

“Not tonight, I’m afraid,” Bilbo sad regretfully. “I think we need to start a little closer to home, first. I’d like to take you to meet them all - the Sons of Durin.”

His mouth dropped open. “Really? Thorin and Dwalin and Balin and everyone! Just like in your stories?”

“Yes!” Bilbo was pleased that he seemed so excited. “We’re waiting for Fili and Kili to get home, and then I thought we’d go straight out to visit. You don’t mind going to a prison, do you?”

“No,” Frodo said thoughtfully. “Not so long as I don’t have to be locked up. Is it the same prison that you rescued them from? Can we do it again?”

“We could swoop in like eagles and steal them all out from under their noses!” Fili said, having successfully crept up behind them. He grabbed Frodo from behind, swinging him up onto his shoulders, and Frodo giggled. “We’d be out of town before they even knew we were gone!”

Bilbo pointed at him threateningly. “You’d better be joking, Fili Oakenshield. Don’t think I won’t put you to work scrubbing toilets if I catch a hint of that sort of behaviour from you!”

“But we were born to it, Uncle Bill!” Kili protested, bumping shoulders with his brother and reaching up to tickle Frodo until his feet kicked wildly. “We’re incorrigible! Beorn says so every day!”

“Be that as it may,” Bilbo said dryly, “if I find so much as a lockpick on either of you, or catch you hacking one official database, you’ll both be grounded until you’re old enough to know better.” He shook his head at the pair of them, stifling a smile as hard as he could. It didn’t do to encourage them.

“Fine,” Fili allowed with a sigh, and he lowered Frodo gently to the ground. “Are we going tonight?”

“Yes, just as soon as you can be ready,” Bilbo promised. It didn’t take long for all three of the boys to clean up and change into suitable clothing, and then they were walking to the train station together, preparing for the trip that was becoming so familiar that Bilbo could make it in his sleep. He’d been to Edinburgh more times in the past three months than in his whole life before that - first, attending the trials, and then slipping into a comfortable routine of weekly visits. It wasn’t the same as having all of them together, but at least this way he knew that they were all alive from moment to moment.

They found seats close together on the train, and Fili and Kili fell into a quiet discussion that Bilbo was going to choose to believe was entirely law-abiding in nature and content. Frodo sat next to Bilbo, inching a bit closer as a tea trolley went by, and then stayed there, tucked close to his side. It was a strange thing, to have such a little person so dependent on him - but Bilbo didn’t find it entirely unpleasant. He let his arm fall around Frodo’s shoulders as the view outside blurred into motion.

“Uncle Bill?” Frodo asked, now sounding a little nervous. “Will they like me?”

“Who, the Sons of Durin? Of course they will! What’s not to like?” Bilbo squeezed Frodo’s shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting fashion, but Frodo stared down at his shoes.

“You said they only like their family.”

“I said they only do immensely stupid things for their family,” Bilbo corrected. “Besides. You’re my family, and I’m part of theirs now, so that makes you family!”

The lads turned around from where they were sitting, just in front of Bilbo, and grinned over the seat at Frodo. “That’s right,” Fili said, nodding. “So you’d best call them all Uncle. It’ll help them adjust.”

“And as soon as they’re free again, they’ll spoil you something awful!” Kili added, with a look of experience. “Very keen on seeing that children have a proper childhood, as far as they can.”

Frodo nodded seriously, but he still sat close and allowed Bilbo to keep his arm around his shoulders. The trip was monotonous, but Frodo’s questions about everything they saw was enough to keep it lively. He’d been raised on Skye until coming to live with Bilbo, and the sight of a city as large and grand as Edinburgh was more than a little overwhelming. Fili and Kili caught hold of his hands as they walked, occasionally lifting him up to swing merrily between them as they walked.

Bilbo was glad that he’d called ahead to be sure that young visitors were allowed, because the security staff were extra kind and courteous to their little guest, and he was more than half sure that Thranduil was to be thanked for that kindness. He himself was not exactly trusted in the prison, given his earlier escapades there, and Thranduil had mandated that a guard stay with him at all times. It was still better than no contact with the family, though.

They let Bilbo and the lads into the visiting lounge first, and Bilbo was pleased to see that no other guests were there. If they could have the room to themselves, the visits were always a great deal more fun. Kili was nearly hopping from foot to foot with excitement, and Fili watched him, amused.

They came into the room in a rush - following Thorin, of course, which only seemed right. Dwalin and Balin and Bifur and Bofur and Dori and Nori and Ori and Oin, all at once, in a quiet line that burst into joyous noise as soon as they caught sight of their visitors. Bilbo knew that Gandalf had been forced to go to great lengths to get such group visits approved - but he couldn’t imagine it any other way. As soon as the door closed and they were permitted to move around, Fili and Kili threw themselves into the group, welcomed with open arms and impatient hands. It was hard for them to be apart from their family, Bilbo knew, and it did him great good to see them all happy together, even in such short fragments of time.

“Bilbo!” A roar came up from the group, and they were gesturing for him to join them, too.

Frodo had vanished suddenly, and Bilbo looked for him - only to find that the little boy had disappeared behind his back, clinging nervously to the back of his parka. He waved his hands in the air, trying to get them to be quiet. It took a long while, and eventually Fili and Kili had to help hush them and encourage everyone to sit, although they refused to let Thorin get more than a foot away from them. Bilbo cleared his throat, suddenly nervous.

He hadn’t told any of them yet. He could have sent a letter, or let Fili and Kili tell the rest when they’d gone to visit the previous week, but he hadn’t. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of Frodo, or of the family, of course - but taking Frodo to live with him permanently was a huge step, and he hadn’t been ready to share just yet. Now, they were looking at him curiously.

“It’s good to see you all,” he said warmly, offering them a genuine smile - and it was, despite the circumstances. “Look, I’ve got something to share with all of you. My cousin Drogo and his wife passed away a few weeks ago, and they’ve left me something of an inheritance.”

“Oh, and the reward for helping to bring down Smaug wasn’t enough for you?” Bofur teased, smiling gently. “Seems we’ve awoken your taste for treasure, lad!”

“Not that kind of treasure!” Bilbo objected. He turned around, taking Frodo’s hand, and smiled at him encouragingly before stepping to the side enough to let them all get a glimpse at the boy. “This is my cousin, Frodo Baggins. He’s come to live with me.”

Thorin’s mouth dropped open a bit, and the rest looked stunned - and a little amused, which grew quickly as Frodo pressed himself to Bilbo’s leg, staring at them all with wide eyes.

“He’s bloody brilliant,” Kili told them all, beaming as proudly as if he’d been Frodo’s older brother. “We’re adopting him.”

“Technically, Uncle Bill is adopting him,” Fili corrected, stretching out lethargically, and letting his head drop against Thorin’s shoulder. “But it’s all the same to us, of course.”

They were all looking to Thorin for their cue, of course, and Bilbo swallowed hard, hoping that he wouldn’t have some unexpected problem with the boy. Frodo was growing braver, putting his head out to stare at all of them, and Thorin stood up slowly, moving forward to meet them. He got down on one knee when he got close, and Bilbo felt a rush of gratitude.

“Are you Thorin?” Frodo asked shyly - perhaps spurred by Fili and Kili, who were giving him enthusiastic waves of encouragement and mouthing ‘this is Thorin!’ at him.

Thorin nodded gravely, eyes soft and amused. “I am. It’s an honour to meet you, Frodo.” He put out a hand to shake Frodo’s, which was dwarfed in his. Frodo looked down at their joined hands, confidence growing, and looked back up to Thorin.

“Uncle Bill told me about you,” he said confidentially. “He didn’t say, but I think you must be a superhero. Are you really?”

“Would a superhero give away his secret so easily?” Thorin murmured, giving a little wink. Frodo’s eyes went wider, and he looked up at Bilbo in wild excitement. With that, the ice was broken, and the gathering swung into life.

Bofur glued himself to Frodo’s side, and within ten minutes Frodo was riding on his shoulders, imperiously directing his steed where to take him as he made his way around the room, meeting everyone. The older members of the group grilled Fili and Kili on how they were doing, and about their progress in their respective jobs. Bilbo had to let them all grab his shoulders and tell him what a fantastic job he was doing with all the boys, even though he would much rather simply disappear into the ground. Being isolated made the Sons of Durin much more ready to express themselves honestly when they were together, Bilbo though somewhat wearily.

It wouldn’t have been a proper gathering without everyone, of course, and a further cheer of excitement went up when Bombur and Gloin came in, apologising for being late. And it wouldn’t have been much of a meeting of the Sons of Durin if there hadn’t been a sudden outbreak of song, and another of threatened violence - though Bilbo was amused when it turned out that the almost-fight had been over who would get to buy Frodo a leather jacket when they got out, so that he would fit in with the rest of them.

They only had an hour, and it passed far too quickly for Bilbo’s liking. There were so many of them there that he only was able to snatch a few moment with each, and he could barely exchange a word with Thorin when both of his nephews insisted on sticking with him so closely. He doted on them, though, and it was so good to see it expressed openly that Bilbo watched from a slight distance, a wistful smile on his face. He only hoped that he could be half the parent to Frodo that Thorin had been to Fili and Kili.

They left in a roar of farewells, promising to be back in a week, and Fili slung an arm around Kili’s shoulders as they walked away. It was always hard leaving, and Kili took it worse than the rest. Bilbo knew he would sulk for the next day or two, and then Fili would coax him back to his normal, cheerful self. Frodo’s little hand slipped into his, and Bilbo squeezed it gently.

The city was brightly lit as they made their way back to the train station in the dark, and Bilbo let out a slow breath as he looked around. It was a beautiful sight at night - and one that Bilbo had never really experienced before his association with the Sons of Durin. It was just one more gift they’d given him, all unawares.

“So what do you think?” he asked Frodo gently, smiling down at the little boy. “I told you they were mad!”

“Mad, and lovely!” Frodo answered, swinging their clasped hands back and forth. “There are so many of them!”

“I know it!” Bilbo had to shake his head a bit, since that was so close to his reaction to them in the beginning. “I’m sorry to spring them on you all at once. I know they can be a bit much.”

“No!” Frodo looked up at him, face glowing in astounded wonder. “It’s amazing, Uncle Bill!” He tugged on Bilbo’s hand, and Bilbo sank down on a bench, pulling Frodo into his lap gently. “Before I came to live with you, I thought I was going to be alone.” He gave an unconscious little shiver, and Bilbo rubbed a hand up and down his back. “But Fili and Kili said I was family. So now I have such a big family!”

“Yes, you do,” Bilbo agreed, smiling down at him, amazing by how much of Frodo’s emotional revelation was familiar territory to him. “You may spend the rest of your life trying to keep them all out of trouble, but they’ll be there for you, too.”

“I won’t,” Frodo started, and gave a nervous little cough. “I won’t have to be alone? Even if something happens to you?”

Bilbo didn’t know what the future would hold for them, or where the Sons of Durin would go once they were free - but it almost didn’t matter. He knew what family meant to them, and how hard they would fight for Frodo. His heart felt too full, and he smiled a little tremulously, knowing that every bit of that truth applied to himself as well. He nodded, cupping Frodo’s soft cheek gently with one hand.

“Never. I promise you that.”

Fili and Kili wandered back, having finally noticed that they’d lost their followers, and Frodo slid off Bilbo’s lap, offering him a quick backwards grin. They took his hands, swinging him high, and Frodo let out a real, clear laugh. Bilbo knew he was still processing his parents’ deaths in his own way, and that he had a long way still to go - but tonight, he was part of the most notorious family in Scotland, and he was laughing, and he knew he was not alone. Bilbo didn’t think either of them could ask for much more.

Chapter Text

Bombur was not at the mountain on the day of Burning. Sometimes he regrets that fact fiercely.

He heard of it right away, of course, when his brother and cousin came flying to him for aid, and he let them into his little flat quickly, smelling the smoke on their hair and clothes, and seeing the wildness in their eyes. Bofur wept that night, silently, and Bifur closed up on himself like an animal in a shell, and Bombur could not imagine what they had seen.

More than houses had burned that night. Young Frerin was lost, and with him, it seemed, all the hopes and dreams of the people of the mountain had gone up in the smoke of that night.

Thorin came to him that night as well, though the sky was beginning to lighten by the time his knock was heard. He was wild and raging, but kept his head long enough to work out a plan. Bombur was already a respected member of his party, with clear chances at making MP before long. It would not do for him to be tainted by their association - not when they would need every political weapon they could muster against Smaug.

If he had known what was to come, he would have walked out of his flat with his family the next morning, and never looked back.

That first year was not so bad. They keep in regular contact, and Gloin was avoiding the spotlight as well, so there was companionship even in solitude. Bofur came round far more often than was wise, and they had to find a pub where they could meet with some sort of anonymity, hidden in the smoky depths. They were all frightened, scattered and running from the law. Bombur’s career continued to move forward and, most of the time, he could pretend nothing had changed - so long as he never tried to go home.

Then Fíli came, tiny and defenseless, and Bombur watched them shift around him, closing ranks against the world. If some of the fury and recklessness bled away from Thorin, then it was replaced in the rest with a startlingly violent sort of protectiveness. They sent pictures, and occasionally he was able to creep away to some remote corner of the country to find where they were hiding in some cheap flat, and spend time with the whole family. But he went home to an empty flat and a phone that only rang for business.

Bombur ate. He slept, and he worked, and he shook the hands of countless people, and he collected every scrap of information that he could find about Smaug. He sent money and gifts to Bifur and Bofur as often as he could, and let his fingers stray to crisps and biscuits and pastries when he was alone.

Kíli came, scarce three years after the Burning, and the ranks closed tighter. Thorin smiled now, sometimes, and Dís mothered them all. Bombur showed up to visit three months after the little boy came along, bringing shoes that were already too small. They embraced him anyway, warm and solid, and he marveled over Fíli’s ability to walk and talk, and commiserated with poor Ori, whose dreams of going to uni seemed to be fading farther with every passing year. He had never thought it would take so long to find their justice.

There was a fight - a battle, more like - two years later, and Bombur was two years fatter and more important, and could not go. Bofur came to him after - and how many months had it been, then, since he had seen his own brother? - and told him in a hushed voice that their cousin was doing very badly. His head had been nearly split, and they couldn’t take him to hospital - not with attention so high, not with Smaug on their trail all the time. He offered to let Bofur stay for a few days and regain his balance, but Bifur needed him more, and he left with a firm embrace and a promise to come by more often.

It was six months before they spoke again.

Bombur became an MP the next year, and felt like he might burst with pride. Gloin came round and had a drink or six in celebration - but he had a wife and baby son to go home to, and couldn’t stay out too late. Bombur attended political functions and dinners and parties, and ate until he did not feel so empty.

Dís passed away, and Fíli and Kíli were snatched up by well-meaning social workers who grew concerned about their tattered clothes and unkempt hair, and Bombur knew Thorin was doing his best, but wondered whether it was enough. He did what he could, though, using his influence to get information about where the wee lads had been placed and sending it to Thorin. It took too long, and he knew it.

What good was any of it if he couldn’t act when he was needed?

He grew in stature politically, gaining friends and influence. Sometimes he forgot his old childhood nickname entirely, until a note would appear on his desk in Thorin’s hand, or Bofur would find his way by. Bifur never spoke to him again in any words he could understand, though Bofur knew his meaning before he spoke. His brother seemed well, for all the running, and his face lit up when he spoke of the children - Kíli finally talking properly (and incessantly), Fíli copying every move Thorin made. Bombur didn’t tell him that they were strangers.

He tried to have a life outside them, filling his schedule, and found meaning in doing the best he could for his constituents. Thorin promised solemnly, every time they spoke, that the day was coming. They would bring down Smaug and have their homes again. Bombur read the papers carefully for any mention of the Sons of Durin, wincing as their notoriety grew. He wondered how they could ever go home.

It was Gandalf who finally pulled things together, almost twenty years since the Burning. Gandalf who stirred Thorin to action, who found them their crafty, kind, entirely unsuspicious little grocer and promised that he would be the key. He was.

Bombur played his role - taking the step that he’d been waiting to take for two decades, and finally it all clicked into place, igniting a firestorm of accusations and investigations, and bringing Smaug to his knees. They celebrated him even as they went to prison, cheering him and joking about the hardships that had given him so many chins. He laughed, of course - jolly old Bombur, always good for a laugh - and promised to be waiting the day they were set free again. Fíli and Kíli clung to Bilbo, and Gloin to his family, and Bombur went back to work - back to waiting.

He shakes hands, now, and eats fancy dinners and passes laws - and on weekends, he goes up to Beinn Chùirn and lies in the grass, staring up at the sky of his childhood, and wonders how it had all gone so wrong. Once, he finds an old tin cup down by the stream where he and Bofur had played as children, their initials still carved in the handle.

Bombur wishes he had been there on the day that their homes burned - but Bombur is an adult, and a very capable politician, so he bundles the cup into his pack and wanders back down to his car and back into the city, to his empty flat where the phone never rings but for work, and Bombur does his job.

Bombur waits.

Chapter Text

Stirling in April was a lovely sight, even covered with mud. From the heights of the hills, Bilbo could see snow on the mountains to both sides, and the green of new growth was beginning to pop out everywhere. The grey winter of the city was fading fast, and on a day like this, when the breeze was warm and the sun bright, he could forgive the old city a great deal.

They were in Stirling for a truly momentous occasion, as Ori kept reminding them all with slight awe. The British Universities and College Sport Outdoor Championship, no less, which Bilbo had written down and carefully repeated until he knew the words by heart. This was not the time to mess things up. Fíli would never forgive him.

They had ridden down to Stirling in a caravan, with Thorin’s mint-green car in the lead, and the bikes and cars of the rest of the family close behind. Frodo, of course, insisted on riding in Minty, despite the little twitch that appeared in Thorin’s right cheek when he insisted on calling the car by that nickname, and he had crowded in the back between Ori and Bifur, with Bilbo happily claiming the passenger seat next to Thorin. It was a lovely day for a meet, despite the mud, and Thorin had rolled down the windows as they sped down the motorway, the roar of Dwalin’s and Oin’s bikes drowning out any quiet chatter.

Finding the facility wasn’t hard, and Bilbo counted heads quickly as they all met up. Everyone accounted for but Bombur and Gloin, who would be joining them soon, and Fíli and Kíli, of course. He and Thorin each took one of Frodo’s hands, eager to forestall any of the nine-year-old’s common attempts to run off on an adventure. They stuck together as they wandered toward the field, and Bilbo was quietly amused by how the crowds melted away before them. Apparently a large collection of mostly tattooed and bearded men in dark leather was intimidating for some people in polite society.

They pushed up to the wooden barrier, as close to the field as they could get, and Thorin waved to Fíli who was standing a bit further down, looking deeply anxious. He trotted over, flinging himself at each of them in turn, until he got to Thorin and Bilbo. He grabbed each of them with one arm, clutching them close.

“It’s going to be just fine, lad,” Thorin soothed, sounded mostly amused. “Kíli will do well.”

“But this is so critical!” Fíli said, nearly shaking with tension. “It’s his first major event, and you wouldn’t believe the hell that some of the lads on the team have been giving him. If this doesn’t go well-”

“It’s going to go so well,” Bilbo assured him steadily, squeezing his arm firmly. “You’ll see. He’ll be an absolute nightmare once it’s over!”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the loudspeaker blared. “Please find your places. The tournament is about to begin.” A list of rules followed, but Fíli broke away and pulled them along quickly to where he’d been standing before.

“Here, this is the best spot,” he said certainly. “We’ll be able to see everything here.”

“I can’t see anything!” Frodo piped up, looking fractiously at the wooden barrier just in front of his eyes. “I wanted to see Kíli!”

“Easily solved, lad!” Dwalin growled, and swung him up in a smooth arc, placing Frodo securely on his broad shoulders. He cheered loudly, resting his hands easily on the top of Dwalin’s bald head.

Thorin, in the meantime, had spotted someone just beyond Fíli’s shoulder, and was shaking his head firmly. “No. Absolutely not, no. I will not stand with him.”

Bilbo turned to see who had caused such a reaction, and had to stifle a stunned laugh when the smooth blond head turned to look their way. He pushed past Thorin with a gentle hand on his shoulder, and offered their new neighbor a smile.

“Thranduil! How nice to see you here!”

Thranduil smiled politely at Bilbo, and took his hand in a firm handshake. “The elusive Mr. Baggins! I did not expect to see you outside of the walls of the prison, I must admit!”

Bilbo chucked ruefully. “We’re here to see Kíli, actually - who I suppose you don’t really know. You never did get your hands on him, did you?”

Thranduil made a slightly displeased face, but nodded his head. “I certainly know enough about him, I should say. I didn’t know he was in the sport.”

“It’s a recent development,” Thorin growled, staring over Bilbo’s shoulder. “What are you doing here? Preparing to arrest some well-meaning subject?”

“No more than you are preparing to commit some ill-considered act of violence or petty larceny, I expect,” Thranduil said coolly, and he pointed out into the field where the participants were filing out, dressed in various colours, and all carrying their equipment on their backs. The long, blond hair of the lad that Thranduil was indicating stood out on the field as much as Kíli’s dark, wild curls. “My son Legolas is a keen archer. He’s been practicing for many years, and is the captain of his team.”

“What university?” Bilbo asked politely, though he kept his eyes trained on their lanky lad.

“Cambridge,” Thranduil said, his voice thick with pride. “I hadn’t realised young Kíli had educational aspirations.”

“He’s at Edinburgh,” Fíli cut in, sounding no less proud. “It’s his first year.”

“Kíli shoots recurve,” Thorin said challengingly. He lifted his chin, staring Thranduil down.

“Legolas is the finest longbow archer Cambridge has had in decades,” Thranduil said coldly, not blinking. Thorin nodded slowly, and Bilbo was ridiculously grateful that they weren’t competing in the same category. He placed himself between the two men as the archers were introduced, cheering loudly for Kíli and clapping politely for Legolas.

Thranduil watched the opening shots of longbow intently, fingers interlaced as his hands lay quietly on the wooden barrier. Beyond Thorin, Bilbo could see the glares and hear the whispers of the rest of the family; he was fairly certain they were debating what items they could put in Thranduil’s hair without his noticing, and he shot them a furious, quelling glare. Dori and Nori took their muttering aside, and Ori smiled innocently at him.

Compound were shooting first, and the crowd watched in a mostly respectful hush. Dwalin and Balin were explaining the finer points of the sport to Frodo, and Bilbo had to hide a smile behind his hand, since he knew very well that neither of them had known the first thing about archery before Kíli took it up. Now, of course, the whole family were experts.

“That’s Thomas,” Fíli hissed, glaring darkly at the back of one archer’s head. “He’s the worst of the lot.”

“What’s the trouble?” Thorin asked, immediately on his guard. “I hadn’t known there were problems on the team.”

“When aren’t there problems?” Fíli asked moodily, continuing to stare daggers at the young man. “Kíli doesn’t exactly fit in. It’s been a struggle for him, learning what’s expected at uni, and then his chosen course-” he trailed off, fingers jumping to his mobile. “Bet I could set that little bastard’s mobile off right in the middle of his shot.”

“Don’t even think about it!” Bilbo hissed, grabbing at his hand.

“Why is Kíli’s course a problem?” Thorin asked, turning all his attention to Fíli. “He’s doing well, isn’t he?”

“Of course he is!” Fíli was insulted by the question on his brother’s behalf. “But there aren’t so many lads on the nursing course, and none who stand out the way he does. Some of the lads on the team won’t leave off. They say he’s soft - not a real man.” His eyes were icy, and Bilbo worried more than a bit for the fate of the lads who were tormenting his brother.

“We can show them the error of their ways,” Dwalin growled, face set in angry lines. Thorin didn’t answer, but his eyes narrowed to match Fíli’s, and Bilbo shook his head.

“Will you please stop threatening people within earshot of a police official?” he whispered. Thranduil didn’t seem to be listening, but he was doing so with such calculated disinterest that Bilbo was certain he was taking in every word. “And the last thing Kíli needs is for his family to step in and threaten people for him. If he’s going to make his way in the world, he needs to learn to handle these things himself.” He gestured toward the field, where Kíli was chatting easily - with Legolas, of all people. “He looks perfectly content to me.”

They calmed down, but cheered rather viciously when Thomas sent a shot so far afield that his chances for victory were gone.

Bombur turned up soon after, greeting by loud cheers, and Gloin wasn’t far behind. Bilbo was slightly surprised to see that he’d brought his son along. While he knew that Gimli was his father’s pride and joy, Bilbo had only met the lad a handful of times - and had always been more than a bit amused by how similar father and son were, in temperament as well as in looks. He shot them a cheerful smile, but there were too many people in the way for him to wander down for a conversation.

Longbow was next, and Bilbo was quietly amused when Kíli stopped Legolas to shake his hand in a gesture of good wishes. Thranduil gave a quiet sound of surprise. They took up positions in front of the targets, and Bilbo wished he knew a bit more about the technical details of the sport himself. It was clear from the first shots, though, that Legolas was far and away the best of the lot.

“What does that little lass think she’s playing at?” Balin asked, a bit too loudly, as a girl shooting next to Legolas clearly tried to throw off his aim by letting her long hair flutter near his face

“Doesn’t matter,” Bofur said cheerfully, leaning casually on the barrier and watching the show. “The lad’s got it sewn up, and that’s clear. Almost not sporting, if you ask me!”

Thranduil looked quietly satisfied, and gave a pleased nod as another of Legolas’ shots flew straight to the centre of the target. “I’m afraid he’s always put others at a bit of a disadvantage.”

They watched another round, Legolas dominating the competition handily, and Thorin snorted a bit as another archer’s arrow flew far afield, missing the target entirely. “Bit of a shame, coming all this way only to fall apart now.”

“Well, we’re not all gifted with the same natural poise,” Thranduil said, shooting Thorin an approving glance. Bilbo stepped back a little, fascinated by the exchanged, and watched with growing amusement as Thorin and Thranduil moved a bit closer together. They began pointing out specific individuals and shots, analysing them like professionals, and Bilbo had to clap a hand over his mouth to hide his laughter as their conversation quickly developed into bonding over how poorly everyone else’s offspring were shooting. By the time the longbow archers were moving off the field, Thorin was applauding nearly as loud for Legolas as Thranduil was, and Bilbo drifted to his other side, where he could keep an eye on Fíli.

Recurve was finally shooting, and Kíli moved into position just in front of where they were standing, turning to shoot them a quick, brilliant smile before he settled into position. Fíli had his arms wrapped nervously around his chest, and was chewing on one thumbnail, eyes fixed on his brother.

“Breathe, lad,” Bilbo said, only a little mocking. “The fate of the world isn’t hanging on this competition.”

“It’s important, Uncle Bill!” Fíli insisted, not looking away. “It means so much to him.”

From looking at Kíli, though, Bilbo would have thought this was nothing but a day’s amusement for the lad. He stood easily, shoulders straight but relaxed, and shared a laugh with the archer to his left as they prepared to shoot. Bilbo leaned forward anxiously as Kíli prepared to shoot. He knew how important the sport had become to the lad, but he hadn’t actually had an opportunity to see him shoot yet.

Kíli’s arrow flew through the air, straight and sure, and hit the dead centre of the target. A roar went up from the Sons of Durin, and Thranduil added an approving nod and more than polite applause. Fíli let out a breath in a rush of relief, and immediately began fretting over the next shot. Bilbo noticed, through his own shout of excitement, that Thomas from the team was watching Kíli with surprise. Bilbo rather figured that, by the time the match was done, Kíli might not have problems with his teammates any longer.

The rest of the match flew by in a wave of excitement and joy, for the Sons of Durin. Every shot flew true and struck solidly, and Kíli never lost his calm confidence.

“By god, your son is almost as much of a natural as mine!” Thranduil shouted over the roar of the crowd, and Thorin slapped his back, eyes alight with delight and pride.

“Wait until we get him properly trained up!” he bellowed. “I expect he’ll make the Olympics!”

Bilbo had to put an arm around Fíli’s shoulders at the last shot, worried that he might fret himself into an injury - and then was almost injured himself when Fíli swept him off his feet into a congratulatory embrace when Kíli’s last shot was magnificent, cementing his victory.

“He did it, Uncle Bill!” Fíli roared, and Bilbo suspected he was near tears in his joy. “That’s my boy!”

As soon as they were officially released from the competition, Kíli dashed over to them, face alight with joy. Fíli had to be stopped from climbing the fence, and had to settle for throwing himself at his brother over the top of the barrier. The family swarmed around to cover him in enthusiastic hands, all clapping him on the back and ruffling his hair.

They were still making a fuss over him when a few other archers came by, standing a bit awkwardly to the side until Kíli noticed them, and pulled away to wave a hand at them all. “Oh! This is my team! Everyone, this is the Edinburgh University Archery Club!”

“We wanted to say congratulations,” Thomas said uncertainly, eyeing the family a bit nervously. Bilbo groaned and dropped his head when he caught sight of the glares the Sons of Durin were shooting at the young man. “That was fantastic. For a first outing, that is.”

“Look, aren’t you-” another young archer asked nervously, pointing at them. “I mean, you’re not, are you? Only I think I’ve seen you in the papers.”

“Oh, right!” Kíli cried, shaking his head at his own forgetfulness, and beaming back at his family. “This is my family! You probably read about them when we were all arrested, and when we brought down the most corrupt man in the Scottish government.” A flash of something hard and bitter flickered behind his brilliant smile, and Bilbo remembered again that Kíli had been fighting battles when most of the youngsters on his team were too young for video games.

“The Sons of Durin, at your service,” Thorin said regally. It sounded like a threat. Thomas swallowed hard, and the team stared at Kíli with an entirely new kind of respect growing in their eyes.

“Look, we ought to go take care of our equipment,” Thomas offered, backing away a bit. “See you at practice on Monday, yeah?”

“Cheers,” Kíli called, and the team scattered at what Bilbo would choose not to call a run, for the sake of their dignity.

Legolas made his way over as they fled, with considerably more dignity and gravitas than Kíli had bothered to effect. Thranduil greeted him in a more contained manner, though he grasped his son’s shoulders tightly and beamed at him with more emotion than Bilbo had thought the man possessed.

“Well done!” he said proudly. “If only your mother were here to see you now.” He dropped his forehead to Legolas’, pressing their heads together for a long moment. When they broke apart, Kíli offered his hand in congratulations - though he looked at Thranduil in surprise.

“I didn’t know you were his son!” he said, sounding a little hurt. Legolas looked entirely confused, and Thranduil sighed, gesturing to the whole rowdy crowd.

“The Sons of Durin, son. It seems I cannot be rid of them even on a day such as this.”

The boys had to race away for a few minutes, then, to be presented with awards for their respective victories, and the crowd began to thin out at once. By the time they had made their way back over, Frodo had fallen asleep, slumped over Dwalin’s head.

“We need to celebrate!” Bofur grinned, wrapping an arm around Bombur’s shoulders and dragging him closer to the group. “Not so often that we have such distinguished visitors, nor such an auspicious occasion!”

“Do you have to go back to Edinburgh right away?” Bilbo asked, and Fíli and Kíli shook their heads in unison.

“We’ve got the whole weekend!” Fíli said. His arm was wrapped around Kíli’s shoulders now, pride in every inch of his bearing.

“We thought maybe we’d come back to Beinn Chùirn,” Kíli added, beaming. “Edinburgh is lovely, but it’s not home.”

A warm murmur of approval went up at that, and they turned to leave. Bilbo hesitated a moment, turning back to say farewell to Thranduil, and Thorin stayed with him.

“Look,” Thorin said hesitantly, not making eye contact. “You should come out some time and see what we’ve made of the place. It’s far from finished, but we’re on our feet again.”

Thranduil ducked his head in a slow nod, a small smile twisting one corner of his mouth. “I should like that.”

Kíli popped up next to them, grinning cheekily at Legolas. “You should come too. We’ve got a proper range set up on the mountain now.”

Legolas smirked. “We’ll see if you can shoot a real bow, shall we?” Kíli growled at that, but it was all playful, and Bilbo thought it was about time they started inviting more people to their little corner of the world - but leave it to Thorin to start by inviting the man who’d been one of their greatest enemies.

They left in a rush of farewells, with Dwalin walking with exaggerated care so as not to wake Frodo from his slumber. Thorin watched the family, wandering toward the cars in a jumbled muddle of bodies, and Bilbo couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face.

“Bet you never thought your kid would be shooting against Thranduil’s,” he said wryly, and Thorin barked a rough laugh.

“Not like this, certainly,” he admitted. He turned to Bilbo, a rarely seen grin twisting his face into mischievous lines that made him look a decade younger. “But the best bit is that Kíli clearly has more natural talent than young Legolas could dream of. I think he’s got a brilliant future ahead.”

“I’m sure of it,” Bilbo said warmly, watching Fíli and Kíli exchange playful blows as they scampered down the hill ahead. Gimli followed just behind them, clearly looking up to the brothers with a bit of awe, and complaining loudly to his father about how annoying Legolas had been. Kíli’s bow was strung carefully over his back. Two years ago the weapon would only have been for reasons of desperate self-defense; now, it was part of his passage into a more normal world. The future looked bright indeed.

Chapter Text

They vanish out from under his nose, in the one moment he thinks it is safe not to be watching. What does he know? He isn’t their father.

They set off for school that morning, faces as bright and happy as they ever are these days. Fíli holds his brother’s hand, and Thorin hopes vaguely that he remembered to wash their hands and clean their teeth before they left. For a six-year-old, he is very reliable. Bofur walks them to school in the mornings, but they won’t let him carry them any longer. Kíli waves goodbye cheerfully, irrepressible as ever. Thorin turns back to his coffee and scowls at the paper, where there is yet another story on the dangerous reports of criminal activity invading Inverness.

He works through the morning, grateful for the silence. Kíli doesn’t speak in proper words, but he jabbers incessantly in the language that only Fíli can understand, and it is sometime enough to drive Thorin mad. His sister had known how to handle them. She is two months in her grave. Thorin studies notes and budget reports, everything Bombur has found for him on Smaug, and there is nothing he can grasp. It is like trying to defeat smoke.

He looks up when the post comes, tumbling onto the mat with a dull thud, and frowns at it. The post doesn’t come until two. A quick glance at his watch is enough to have him on his feet, cursing himself for his inattentiveness. He was meant to have picked Kíli up before noon. Shoving his arms into his dark leather jacket, he glares at the silent phone. The school ought to have called.

He stomps along, not bothering to avoid the puddles. It has rained for a solid week, and Fíli has whined every day because he wished to see the dolphins in the Moray Firth. Balin has filled his head with stories, and Thorin is expected to make them come true. The primary school is only a few streets away, and Thorin pushes his way through the doors, ignoring the stares and murmurs on all sides.

He has only been here once before, when he registered the boys, and it takes a moment to remember where the nursery class meets. The bright artwork on the walls is a good clue, though, and his eyes fall on one piece of work that is fastened to the wall. MY FAMILY, it reads in bold letters across the top, and the dozens of black-scribbled, bearded, spider-shaped people leave no doubt as to the artist. Thorin smirks a little, mollified, and opens the door quietly onto a lively scene of children playing. There are hundreds of the little monsters, it seems, and it takes him a moment to be sure. Kíli is not there.

“Mr. Oakenshield?” the teacher asks nervously. She isn’t smiling. Thorin has never seen her round, cheerful face absent of a smile. “I’m so sorry, sir. There wasn’t anything I could do!”

“What are you talking about?” he asks, not caring that he sounds dangerous. “Where is Kíli?”

“I don’t know!” She steps backward, putting a wooden table between them. “They had the appropriate paperwork. Here.” She offers a sheet of paper which trembles between her fingers, and Thorin snatches it roughly, his heart beginning to pound. Words jump out and fade away too quickly to be read, but he understands, and his fingers close sharply on the paper, crushing it into a ball in his hands.

“Taken?” he roars, brandishing the paper at her. The children are not playing now; they are watching him, and some are beginning to cry. “They took my nephews?”

“It-it’s only for their own welfare, Mr. Oakenshield,” she says nervously. “There were concerns!”

“Concerns?” The children huddle together, staring up at him with wide eyes. “My nephews have been stolen away because some primary school teachers had concerns?”

She puts her chin up, moving to stand in front of her students. “There’s nothing that can be done here, Mr. Oakenshield. You’ll have to get in contact with the appropriate authorities. I am very sorry.” She sounds like she means it, but Thorin cannot see anything but Kíli’s bag, abandoned on his little blue peg. He storms out of the room, barely pausing to rip Kíli’s art from the wall.

It is a useless gesture, but he stops in at Fíli’s classroom, where all of the children are stunned and quiet. His teacher is no more helpful, and far more accusing. He stares at Thorin with dark eyes and makes insinuations about the state of Fíli’s clothing and how he will not answer questions about his family, and Thorin knows where the reported concerns stemmed from. He could crush this man with one hand - but there is no time for that.

By the time he reaches home, Thorin is shaking with rage and loss, clutching Kíli’s drawing and the silver clip that Fíli likes to wear in his bright hair - the last thing he has of his mother, and they left it behind when they stole him away. He wants to roar at the sky. He wants to rip out the throats of the people who have taken his nephews. Instead, he goes inside and snatches up the phone, stabbing at the numbers that have been printed in unforgiving ink on the crumpled letter.

“Children’s Services, Inverness,” a woman’s voice answers. It is businesslike and kind, and Thorin feels a murderous rage rising in his throat.

“You’ve taken my nephews,” he growls, and his fingers are clutching the handset so tight they ache. “I want them back NOW.”

“I’m afraid I need a bit more information,” she says. He could scream. “Names?”

“Oakenshield. I’m Thorin Oakenshield, and they are Fíli and Kíli.”

“Hmmmm,” she says, drawing it out. “I do see that we’ve taken custody of two children with those names, but the surname is not Oakenshield. Fíli and Kíli Campbell?”

“They don’t go by that name,” Thorin snaps. “But yes, those are the children I’m looking for.”

“I’m afraid it’s a complicated matter, Mr. Oakenshield,” she says efficiently. “There will be a hearing within three days to determine their placement. If you can prove the allegations of neglect and dangerous conditions for children are unfounded, you may re-take custody at that time.”

“Three days? That’s unacceptable!” He’s nearly hoarse now from the effort of not screaming every thought that passes through his mind. “They’ve just lost their mother two months ago. You can’t take them away from their family this way!”

“We do what we feel is in the best interests of the children,” she shoots back, all fire. “Let me be blunt with you, Mr. Oakenshield. If we had known about this situation, we would have taken the children as soon as the mother passed. It is a clear case of neglect, child endangerment, and possibly criminal charges to follow.”

“They are not neglected! They’ve got many adults looking after them.”

“Their teachers report that they are often unfed in the mornings, their hair and nails not looked after, and their clothing is generally unclean. Furthermore, the little one - Kíli, is it? - is clearly developmentally delayed, but you have done nothing to meet his needs.”

Thorin swallows hard and sits down. It is true that he doesn’t always manage to get them fully groomed in the mornings - not when he is trying to manage the family, watch their backs for the pursuit that was inevitably only a few steps behind them, and figure out how to keep them all fed with no income, no government assistance, and a real danger lurking around every corner. They all do their best to look after the little ones in the morning, but none of them have children. They are all wandering in the dark.

“Kíli is not delayed,” Thorin grinds out from between clenched teeth.

“His teacher reports he does not talk.”

“He communicates with his brother! He hasn’t needed to learn proper speech - Fíli translates for him.”

“Mr. Oakenshield, that is a deeply disturbing situation. This seems like a case of unhealthy codependence that should be addressed immediately, and Kíli is clearly in need of remedial speech education.”

“I’ll work on it,” Thorin growls. “But you cannot keep them away from us! They need their family.”

“Their family seems to be placing them in danger,” she answers coolly. “Tell me, Mr. Oakenshield, is there anyone in your family who isn’t wanted by the law?”

“You can’t hold that against the children!”

“We don’t.” Her voice is like ice. “But neither will we condemn them to a life of poverty and crime. We will pursue the best outcome for both of them.”

The conversation sounds like it is beginning to wrap up, and Thorin leans forward, pressing the receiver too hard against his ear. “Let me see them,” he begs, pride fading as his desperation rises. “Please. They can’t think they’ve been abandoned.”

“We will be happy to arrange visitation, under appropriate supervision,” she says pleasantly. “Why don’t you give me your address and the number where you can be reached, Mr. Oakenshield?”

He sucks in a breath, recognising the tactic, and slams down the telephone. If he goes to a visitation, it will be swarming with police officers, and they will all wind up in prison - and then there is nothing he can do for his wee lads.

He destroys the kitchen of their awful rented house, throwing dishes and smashing mugs and screaming with rage, and their little items sit on the table innocently, like a farewell. It is fortunate that Dwalin is the one who finds him, because none of the rest could have handled his anger. Dwalin wrestles him into stillness, calms him with a deceptively controlled rage that promises destruction as soon as they can make a move.

The rest come home one by one, and Thorin must share the story over and over, growing wearier each time. The last promise he had made to his little sister - to look after her children - and he has broken it so badly. They call Gloin and Bombur, telling the story once more, and begging for help from the only people who might be able to help them.

Thorin doesn’t sleep that night. He walks the streets of Inverness, not minding the rain, as if he might find some sign of the children - Kíli, babbling incessantly in his surprisingly clear little voice, or a flash of light off Fíli’s golden hair. They might have vanished from the earth, for all that he finds.

The Sons of Durin do not go to work the next day, to the underground and illegal activities that keep food on the table. They split up that day, wandering Inverness in ones and twos, and Thorin knows they are not being cautious enough. He cannot bring himself to care.

He winds up by the river, in a quiet patch of rocky grass where the weak sunlight dapples through the leaves of the trees. Fíli has been aching to go down to the water and splash about, and Thorin has not made the time. He loses himself for a while in the quiet rush of the water, and goes home before dark, more sad than angry now. Nori has news.

“I saw Fíli,” he says straight away, and Thorin comes alive, shoulders snapping back.

“Where? Can we get them out?”

Nori shakes his head. “Not them. Fíli. He was with a family in Tesco. I didn’t dare let him see me.”

Cold fire rages in Thorin’s chest at the idea of his boy with someone else’s family. “Did he look well?”

“He looked lost, Thorin,” Nori says gently. “Like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He wouldn’t talk to them he was with.”

“Where was Kíli?” Dori asks, dismay wrinkling his face. “They can’t have separated those two lads!”

“They might,” Thorin says coldly. There is nothing left for him to smash. “They seem to think them too close.”

But as unsurprised as he tries to seem, his heart aches at the thought of Fíli without his dark, cheerful shadow; of Kíli, without his voice. They were not made to be apart.

The days pass in a useless haze, and they accomplish nothing. Bofur seems to shrink into himself, losing his cheer, and Dwalin and Balin snap at one another like Thorin has not heard since he was young. They are all lost, sad and frightened, and there is nothing to be done but wait. Ori scans all the papers, looking for any news, and eventually turns up a blurb that notes there has been a hearing. The children are remanded to care for the next six months at the least. Ori weeps, and the rest pretend that they don’t.

It has been a full week since they disappeared when Bombur calls, all apologies for the time it has taken him. He has names, addresses, and they move at once. None of them are foolish enough to warn them they should be cautious.

They snatch Fíli first, and Thorin is half-relieved, half-furious to find that he has been practically under their noses the whole while. They knock on the door in the late afternoon, and the foster mother answers, drying her hands on a towel. Thorin doesn’t wait for her to speak - just barges in, ignoring her frightened squeak of protest, and shouts for Fíli. He flies down the stairs like a blond wildcat, flinging himself at Thorin with a wordless sob of relief, and Thorin gathers him up, crushing him to his chest and swaying back and forth. He buries his face in Fíli’s long hair - now carefully cleaned and detangled, gathered neatly back from his face, and Fíli cannot speak for his sobs.

The foster mother cowers against the door, and Bofur goes to her, smiling kindly.

“Thank you for looking after our wee one,” he says gently. “But we’ll be needing him back now, you see.”

She nods frantically, and points up the stairs. “His things are just up there.”

Dori and Ori take off, and Balin looks at her, curious. “You’ll let him go, just like that?”

“I’m only trying to do what’s best for them,” she says, a little less frightened in the face of his kindness. “I’m not meant to fight back in these situations.”

“You don’t need to fight us,” Dwalin assures her. “We only want our lad.”

Dori and Ori return, laden with a few small bags of children’s items, and the Sons of Durin sweep out the door in a dark flood. Thorin stops by the door as they leave, Fíli still clutching him desperately, and he makes eye contact with the woman.

“You say you want what’s best for him?” She nods uncertainly. “We need to fetch his little brother. That is what he needs. Please, give us the time to get away before you inform the authorities.” She hesitates a long moment, then gives him a little nod.

“Two hours,” she promises quietly, and Thorin lets his eyes express the depth of his gratitude.

It takes nearly that long to cross the town, trying to remain out of sight, and then to find the little flat where Kíli is being kept. Thorin dispatches half of the crew to find them vehicles for the getaway. They make their way to the door, Fíli nearly trembling with excitement and anticipation. They knock quickly - and are nearly bowled over by Kíli, who darts out the door and into Thorin’s arms, scrambling up to press himself into his brother’s and uncle’s embrace.

“Fíli! You came back!” he chirps, burying his face against Thorin’s shoulder. “You came back, Thorin!”

Thorin’s jaw drops, and he exchanges a startled glance with the other adults. Fíli doesn’t seem to have noticed that his brother is speaking recognizable words; he has pressed their heads together, murmuring in his ear like always.

A woman flings the door open, eyes wide. “Kíli! You mustn’t run off that way!” She stops when she sees them all, and Bofur moves forward.

“We’re young Kíli’s family,” he explains with a sweet grin. Thorin is grateful for his particular talent with women.

“And this, I take it, is Fíli?” she asks, nodding toward the little boy. They all nod. “If I haven’t heard every word about Fíli, I’ll eat my apron!” She slaps at Bofur’s shoulder. “Took you long enough to get here.”

“You - what?” Bofur is genuinely perplexed, and she laughs.

“I’ve been looking after children for a long while. Most as get sent to me need to be here. This one?” She smiles fondly at Kíli, who drops his head to Thorin’s chest and blinks shyly back at her. “I’ve never seen a child in care who needs his family so badly. You need to get him out of here.”

They follow orders, making their way out into the rapidly-falling dusk without hesitation. Thorin’s arms are full, beginning to ache already, but he will not give either of his nephews over to anyone else. They are back where they belong, and no-one will ever remove them again.

They climb into the stolen vehicles, roaring away into the night just as the first blue glow from approaching police cars is beginning to show over a far hill. Thorin lets Oin drive, sitting in the back with one arm around each of the children. They’re asleep in moments, safe and secure, their chubby fingers twisted together in his lap, one head pillowed on each of his legs. He runs his fingers through their hair, resting his hands on their heads in a benediction.

He is placing them in danger every day, and he knows it. It is his fault that they were taken - his fault for not caring for them properly, and even more for his stubbornness and pride. He could make a deal with Smaug, let him take the mountain and the Arkenstone and their homes, and walk away. They could live without the threat of his henchmen behind them.

But Thorin is an Oakenshield, and he will not bend. There will be no deals with the worm who had taken everything from them.

His fingers tense on the soft, warm heads beneath his hands, and he steels himself for what is to come. He cannot send them to a school again - cannot risk this happening a second time. Once was too often. He will not sacrifice them if he can help it.

But Fíli snuffles in his sleep, moves fretfully toward his brother, and Kíli wakes, crying frantically until he can be assured that he is not alone. They will not recover from this in one night. Oin drives on through the night, and Thorin does not sleep. He will not take his eyes off them for a moment, not even when he thinks it is safe. He is not their father - but he is all they have left.

Chapter Text

Thorin has one possession.

He has many things he regards as his possessions, but most of them are in the hands of Smaug, or are, in fact, his relatives. He carries more things on his back, but they are stolen. The car, however, is his.

He purchased it as a young man, still living on the mountain. Thorin worked jobs wherever he could - in Tyndrum, mostly, but venturing farther afield when he found opportunity. He tried his hand at mining, and while the work left him satisfied, there was never enough to last. His father scoffed at the idea of a car. The family had never had one - never needed one. The trains and coaches ran through Tyndrum, and Thrain was an old-fashioned man. He saw no reason to leave the mountain.

Thorin saved, one pound at a time. He read about the world beyond Beinn Chùirn, and he and Dwalin made plans to travel when they were older. They would see the world.

Thrain passed suddenly when Thorin was twenty, and his world changed. He was the owner of the land, now, the king of his little mountain - and he despised it. Tied to the land, Thorin dreamed of freedom, and piled one pound on another, slow and steady. He found the evidence of gold that summer, as the first shoots of grass were springing up on his father’s grave, away up on the mountain, and Thorin saw the world open up before him. He could sell the land, or the rights to it, and be free. He filed the paperwork and waited - and grew up.

When he was twenty-three, Thorin counted his savings, and found he had enough. He went to buy a piece of freedom, and came home with a mint-green Ford Escort. Dwalin laughed himself sick, and Thorin punched him in the face, and they were still friends. Thorin lavished a care on the little car that only his mother had ever seen in him before, and Dis and Frerin forced him to take them to nearby towns just for the novelty of the experience. He could work where he liked, unconstrained by the train lines, and Thorin grew his hair long and free and let it fly about his head when he put the windows down.

On the day of Burning, when he lost his home and his brother and his hope in a cloud of thick smoke, he would not have escaped without the car. Most of the others ran. It was the only sensible thing to do - but Thorin was not a sensible man, and he threw himself at Smaug and Elrond in fury, and had to be dragged away. Dwalin hauled him away bodily, still screaming abuse, and Elrond’s men came after them in a rush. Dis drove like a woman possessed, tears streaming silently down her face, while Thorin roared and raged uselessly in the back of the little car.

It is the one thing he has left from before the Burning, and Thorin clings to it furiously.

At first, it was their lifeline, keeping Thorin one step ahead of the police that Smaug had sent after them, keeping Dis from the streets when the nights grew cold. But Dis found Campbell fast, though Thorin thought him a waste of oxygen, and Dwalin took to a motorbike, and Thorin and his car moved alone, trying to find the crack in Smaug’s armor that would let them bring him down. It was a long and fruitless quest.

When Dis died, Thorin found himself the unprepared father-figure to two energetic little boys, and he fell apart for a while. It took a sharp shock of loss to wake him up again, and then he loaded them in the back of the mint-green car and set off to find them a future.

Fíli loved the car. Really, truly loved it. He made himself a little nest in the corner of his seat, creating spaces for all his precious little items until his nest bristled on all sides, and he was the only one who could approach it safely. Kíli hated it, and would sulk and pout when Thorin made them get in. For Fíli, it was a sanctuary; for Kíli, it was little better than a prison, and one which was usually taking him away from the rest of the family. But it was the one constant in their lives, and even Kíli never dared do more than scowl at the little vehicle. Fíli named it Minty. To Thorin’s everlasting horror, the name stuck.

As youngsters, the lads were prone to mischief - and Thorin, who had been a fairly serious child, had no idea what to do to curb their wild impulses. He occasionally grew so tired and worn down that he would send them away to another relative for a few days, although that usually ended in disaster. Mostly, though, he made them wash the car. When Fíli stole books on computer languages from the local library, Thorin set him to wash Minty. When Kíli talked Ori into taking them to London for the day, and then they vanished into the crowd, Thorin made him wash Minty. When they accidentally set fire to one another, scorching off half their hair and frightening Balin into a near heart-attack, Thorin ensured that they were uninjured, and then made them wash Minty. Five times in a row.

When they hacked into a secure database to find that their father had moved to Manchester and was now married to a woman ten years younger than their mother would have been, and then Kíli talked a youth gang into defacing the man’s property, Thorin just shook his head and hugged them wordlessly, and Dwalin took them for ice cream.

They wander from him when they get older, finding their freedom in the invisibility of youth, and Thorin keeps his car. She’s growing old now, rust appearing in spots, and he’s had to become something of an amateur mechanic to keep up with the maintenance. He doesn’t dare take Minty into a shop to be serviced, for fear that he will be recognised, or that the car will. The colour that had been almost-fashionable when he purchased Minty is unseen now, and they stand out more than he would like. He changes the plates whenever possible.

The car had been his last link to his life before the Burning - to the life where he was consciously law-abiding, filling in every form with great care and keeping his licenses up to date. It becomes his last link to the innocent days of Fíli and Kíli’s childhood, and, eventually, the last reminder of the years of exile. Minty takes him home again, back to the home he once longed to leave, and there she passes away. He tries not to be dramatic about the loss.

Dwalin tells him it was a stupid colour anyway, and Thorin punches him in the arm, and they are still friends. Fíli goes through the back seat, removing the little treasures he had forgotten for years, and pats the bonnet fondly in farewell. Kíli says it’s a relief to be rid of the thing, but his fingers linger on the window, and Thorin can see the little boy who was so angered by being forced to leave his family behind. Bilbo says nothing, but there is confusion in his face. Thorin can’t explain what the battered little car has meant to them, because Bilbo was not there.

Someone comes to tow Minty away. It has been twenty-five years since Thorin purchased the car, and it has been home and sanctuary and freedom. It is tiny and broken and mint-green. Thorin weeps when it goes.

Chapter Text

They’re in Arbroath when Fíli gets the text - and of course they are, because that’s always the way these things go. Thorin’s not spectacular at texting, so his message is curt, and begins with a Linlithgow street address.

"Tonight. Open the doors, all to follow."

He shows Kíli wordlessly, and Kíli brightens dramatically. He’s been in a bit of a sulk the last few days, and there’s nothing cheers him up like going home. They start moving at once, abandoning their pretense of being students sketching the abbey, even as Fíli is texting back, asking for more information. It’s already gone half three, and with the change in Haymarket, the trains to Linlithgow will take at least two hours. They don’t have time to waste.

“Open the doors?” Kíli says with interest. “Do you think it’s a burglary? We’d have heard if we were moving on Smaug, wouldn’t we?”

“Thorin’s been close recently,” Fíli replies absently, dashing off his message. “Could be anything. He might have told us things were getting hot.”

The past few months have been increasingly bad for them, and Fíli knows it isn’t fair to blame Thorin. He does it anyway. Their faces are everywhere - post offices, grocery stores, schools, train stations. The police interest in them has spiked to previously unknown levels, and there have been more close calls than even his most adrenaline-filled moments of madness would like. It’s why they’re tucked away in sleepy Arbroath, pretending to be backpackers or students or tourists, as the moment calls for it.

It’s not fair to blame Thorin - not when he knows that it’s Smaug, that it’s always Smaug - but he looks at Kíli and he has to be angry with someone. His little brother is too skinny, dwarfed by his own coat these days, and he looks behind them all the time. He was almost snatched twice in Edinburgh in the last month, and Fíli had dragged him away from his contacts there, unwilling to risk a third time.

They’ve found hostels to stay in most nights. If they go in late enough, the young employees working the desks aren’t paying careful attention; as long as they have cash, they’ve got a place to sleep. Sometimes they can snatch breakfast of a sort before they vanish. It’s gotten hard recently to even buy food. Kíli wants to try the islands next, and argues that they will be less likely to be recognised out there. Fíli sees the containment of the ferries, and knows he will be cut off from most of his contacts if there is no cell coverage. But they need to eat.

They duck into the train station, splitting up wordlessly and stashing themselves on the train. Fíli pretends to sleep, and judges his moment carefully to duck past the ticket-taker, knowing full well that Kíli is doing the same on the other end of the train. They’ve danced this dance since they were tiny children, and they’ve never been caught.

Thorin texts back.

"G found a burglar. Name of Bilbo Baggins. Doubtful success of venture. Don’t let K get attached."

Fíli sighs and rolls his eyes. He hadn’t been able to stop Kíli from getting attached to every stray kitten, lost puppy, and stolen goldfish of their childhood. What is he meant to do? He sends a simple acknowledgment and drifts off the train when it stops, easy as breathing.

They change at Haymarket, passing close enough to bump shoulders, exchanging no words. They don’t really need to.

He finds Kíli again at Linlithgow, with plenty of light still left in the evening. It’s a quiet little town, and the address Thorin gave is not hard to find - a green door just next to a grocery with the bucolic name of Bag End that looked like a gentle relic of the past century. Fíli nudges Kíli.

“Bilbo Baggins. He’s meant to be our burglar, courtesy of Gandalf.” He pressed the bell, hearing the muffled jingle from inside. “Go for knowledgeable but innocent, I’d say.”

“That means we are moving on Smaug!” Kíli’s voice is a hiss of excitement next to Fíli’s ear. “Just think. We’ll be all together again as soon as this is over!”

“One step at a time, little brother,” Fíli warns. He wants to share his brother’s enthusiasm, but he’s old enough to know better. “Just open the door.”

A thump of hesitant feet down the stair, and the door opens a crack. A man’s face peers around the edge - middle aged, soft and comfortable under a messy head of light brown curls. He’s a good head shorter than Fíli, and running a little toward stoutness. His eyes are anxious. Fíli hopes they aren’t frightening him.

“Can I help you?” he asks nervously. Fíli smiles, and he can almost feel the warmth radiating off Kíli. This is where his brother shines.

Unless, of course, the little man’s anxious manner indicates that they are not the first of the company to arrive. If Dwalin or some of the others are here already, it’s no wonder their Mr. Baggins looks ready to fall over.

“We’re not the last to get here?” Fíli asks worriedly. If they’ve gotten here too late, Thorin won’t let them hear the end of it for an age. Mr. Baggins just seems confused, though, and tries to tell them they’ve got the wrong address.

It takes Kíli about ten seconds to convince Baggins that they are in the right place, and mutual acquaintances of Gandalf, and then they’re shaking hands with Baggins and Fíli knows the door is half open. Another moment, and Bilbo Baggins is nervously asking them in. Fíli gives Kíli an approving glance, knowing it will be heard as clearly as words. Baggins sends them up the stairs, locking the door carefully behind him, and Fíli pushes Kíli to the front. It’s an old habit.

It’s a nice place. Cosy, Fíli supposes most would call it, though it seems like the height of luxury to his eyes. There are books everywhere, maps and gorgeous landscapes on the walls, and an aura of comfortable sameness to the place, like it hasn’t seen a moment of change in a decade. The would-be burglar flutters up behind them, uncertainty written in every line of his face.

“Can I offer you some tea?” It’s clear he has no idea what else to say.

The idea of it about knocks Fíli backward, as sad as that is to admit. It’s been at least a week since they had time or opportunity for a cup of tea. They’ve lived on cold cereal and stolen bags of crisps, and there’s hunger in Kíli’s eyes. Fíli is going to have words with Thorin. He can’t help but sigh over the idea of tea, and Baggins ducks away into his kitchen, muttering to himself. Fíli sinks down on the couch, and Kíli drops to crash against him, arms pressed together.

“I like him,” Kíli whispers. Sometimes he is still a child.

“Don’t,” Fíli warns, though he knows it’s useless. “Look at him! He has no business being mixed up with us! We’ve got him scared silly, and that’s just with two of us!”

“He’ll come,” Kíli says firmly. He looks around the room pointedly. “These books and maps? He wants an adventure. He needs a change.”

“You just like him because he’s making you tea,” Fíli teases. Kíli scowls at him, but doesn’t deny it.

“It’s nice,” he admits after a minute. “To be treated like a person for a while.”

Fíli has a lump in his throat, and drops a hand to Kíli’s head, ruffling his hat until it falls off. His hair is too long again, but they haven’t exactly been able to stop round at the barber’s. They sit in the comfortable quiet for a bit, warm through for once, and Fíli almost wishes that this little curly-haired man would come with them, if only to bring even a little bit of this homely feeling with him.

Baggins comes back into the room with the promised tea - and a platter of sandwiches. Kíli nearly falls off the couch. They can barely thank him properly before they’re into the food, with what Fíli realises is a staggering shortage of manners. He hadn’t realised how hungry he was until he started eating. He knows Mr. Baggins is watching them, and he knows how they look. He’s too hungry to care.

He’s watching them like they’re lost children, Fíli realises after a bit. It’s like Kíli had said. Baggins seems to see them as people, not as vagrants or dangerous monsters or helpless victims - and that makes him different than every outsider Fíli has ever met. Even when he tries to turn them away, it’s gentle and kind, and Fíli almost thinks he is sorry. Fíli manages to drop into the conversation the fact that the others will be along, and Mr. Baggins has to excuse himself back to the kitchen for a bit.

“You like him, too,” Kíli sings quietly, and Fíli elbows him in the ribs as he pulls out his mobile.

Door is open. Come in ones and twos, and tell them to be kind.

He shoves the mobile back in his pocket as Bilbo returns, carrying more food for them - fruits and cheeses and crusty bread that hadn’t just gone stale. Fíli can’t help but let out a shout of joy, and Kíli’s is possibly louder than his own.

When they were small, the family had been together a lot more often - and everyone had looked after them. He knows now that there were nights Thorin and the others had gone to bed without dinner, or watered their soup until it was a tasteless soggy mess - but Fíli and Kíli had never gone hungry. Uncle Bombur and Uncle Gloin had sent treats and money as often as they could to keep them happy and decently dressed, and Ori had taken up knitting with the sole purpose of making sure his little cousins had enough warm things to see them through the brutal winters of the Highlands. It had been a very long time, though, since someone had taken care of them. He felt his eyes sting a bit, and glanced up at Bilbo.

He was smiling at them - properly smiling, which changed his whole face into something a good deal younger and kinder, and Fíli feels a rush of warmth and gratitude. They have pushed their way into this man’s home and eaten his food, offering nothing in return - and he’s smiling at them like they’ve done him a kindness. He feels like he should warn Baggins now - drag Kíli away with him, and warn the man to lock his door and never answer it again. They will ruin him and his quiet, safe life.

At Fíli’s elbow, Kíli is nearly glowing with happiness. It does not take much to buy his brother’s affection. He should probably be concerned about that.

Bilbo relaxes as they eat, even unbending enough to sit down in a comfortable chair opposite them, and he smiles at them. There is still uncertainty in his face, but Fíli can tell that Kíli is certain they will be able to talk to him.

“So you two are - what?” Bilbo asks, and Kíli grins, alight with joy and mischief in a way that Fíli hasn’t seen in weeks. His gratitude grows deeper.

“Brothers, of course!” Kíli’s laugh is a source of great joy, as ever. It is life, condensed down to a few notes of the finest music Fíli knows, and he leans toward his brother, soaking it in. He’s teasing now, light and carefree, like the child he should be, and Fíli loves Bilbo a little for giving him this gift.

For all his kindness, and his wholly unsafe level of trust in strangers, it is clear that Bilbo has a curious nature, and when he presses as to the nature of their employment, Fíli has to look to Kíli. They cannot tell the truth, that is clear. Bilbo isn’t ready for that. And when the bell rings, all they can do is encourage him, and promise their protection, for whatever it may be worth. Bilbo races off down the stairs, and Kíli looks to Fíli.

“Thorin will make him come, won’t he?” The question is quiet and solemn, and Fíli nods.

“He won’t want to. What good will he be? But if Gandalf picked him, then Thorin will bring him. We need Gandalf.”

Kíli looks stubborn. “I don’t want him to be hurt.”

“You may be in the wrong profession.” Fíli stands and stretches, feeling the odd sensation of being warm and full and safe, all at once. “We’ll do what we can.” He listens at the head of the stairs, and is delighted to recognise the voices. “Kíli, it’s Balin! And Bofur!”

Kíli would have thrown himself down the stairs to meet them, if they hadn’t already been on their way up, and Fíli is no less overjoyed when Bofur sweeps him into a huge, crushing hug. They haven’t seen Bofur in six months, and Balin in twice that time. Balin is twinkling proudly at them, and Bofur looks like he might cry with joy. He goes to Kíli next, while Fíli makes his way to Balin, and Bilbo puffs his way up the stairs. Bofur is looking proudly at Kíli.

“You’ve grown, lad! I think you’ve passed up your brother now!”

That was not true. And if it were, it was only a temporary state of affairs. Fíli scowls. It wasn’t fair that Kíli should take after their mother’s side so, with height and stubbornness and fierce pride coming through as true in him as in Thorin. But now that he looks at his brother with Bofur, it is hard to deny the fact that he has grown, right under Fíli’s gaze. It isn’t fair.

The family comes together in Bilbo’s little flat, and Fíli thinks it has been at least three years since they were all in one place together. They quite overwhelm poor little Bilbo, who shrinks down in an oversized armchair. Fíli and Kíli fly up and down the stairs, bringing food and letting in all the guests, and the laughter begins to build as they all feast their eyes on one another, whole and solid. There is food and drink in quantities that Fíli has hardly dreamt of, and through it all, Kíli’s bright laughter ringing clear and true.

But then Gandalf comes, and tells Bilbo who they are. There is a terrible moment when he looks right at them, who he has trusted in his home and his shop, begging for it not to be true, and Fíli can do nothing but offer an apology with his eyes. They are the Sons of Durin. They never had a choice. He runs from them, and the spell is broken.

They are not the innocents Bilbo would have liked to believe them, and Fíli is sorry for that.

It takes all of Kíli’s persuasive skills to coax Bilbo out of hiding, and Fíli watches him work, amazed as ever. He knows how to make technology work for him - the doors that will open with the right touch, giving him access to the secrets of the world. But Kíli knows how to do the same with people - and that is remarkable.

They forget all else when Thorin comes. They do not see him as often as they would like, and although Fíli can be angry with the man from a distance, he cannot help but adore him up close. Thorin is the rock of their childhood - the surety that kept them stable through a thousand moves. They throw themselves at him as soon as he arrives, and he embraces them, smiles approvingly at them. They are content.

But Bilbo will not listen to their story, and he rejects them out of hand, and flies away out of sight when they begin to argue amongst themselves. Fíli finds himself playing peacekeeper between Kíli and Thorin.

“He will come with us,” Thorin growls, furious to have to make this argument. “It has been decided.”

“We’ve promised him our protection!” Kíli is scarcely less angry. “He was kind to us when he didn’t have to be. He doesn’t deserve this.”

“Don’t challenge me on this, Kíli.” Thorin’s voice is a warning, and Fili steps between them - though whether to protect Kíli or to stop him from doing something incredibly stupid, he can’t say. “We will not harm him. But if you cannot convince him to come willingly, then we will bring him by force. He needs to see the mountain, Gandalf says, and he has not been wrong yet.”

Kíli storms away, not bothering to finish the discussion, and Fíli goes after him. Thorin is his uncle, and the man he respects above any other, but Kíli is Kíli, and Fíli goes with him.

They find Bilbo hiding away in the kitchen, wracked by fear and anxiety. Fíli wishes they had not come to him. He is a good man, and a kind one. They are no good for him.

Kíli pleads with him for a final time, but Fíli already knows it will be useless. All he can do is offer his regrets to Bilbo, and keep a hand on Kíli’s shoulder as they walk away. Kíli and Thorin have butted heads many times before, but never with such high stakes. He will not meet his uncle’s eye.

He pulls Kíli away, keeping him out of range as Dwalin and Bifur rush to grab their new friend; there is betrayal and terror in Bilbo’s eyes as they bear him away.

Fíli knows he shouldn’t feel slighted, or betrayed. Bilbo owes them nothing, and has done far more for them already than they could have reasonably hoped. But a childish part of his heart feels the way it did when he realised his father was never coming back for them, and Fíli hates that about himself. The worst of it, though, is Kíli’s face - torn between loyalty to Thorin and the promise he has made to this strange, kind, frightened little man. He looks at Kíli, and he has to be angry with someone. Thorin had been right. He shouldn’t have let Kíli get attached, and he certainly shouldn’t have allowed it in himself. They didn’t need the kindness of strangers, and they certainly didn’t need their pity.

He puts his arm around Kíli and they move forward, leaving the comforts of this quiet little home, now little more than a shambles. This is what they do, the Sons of Durin. They come in uninvited, leaving destruction in their wake. But Kíli is solid beneath his arm, and he is strong and rested and well-fed, for once. This is all Fíli needs.

Chapter Text

It is an unwritten rule of the world that things never happen as fast as you would like them to. The corollary to that rule is, of course, that the things you wish to put off come upon you faster than you can handle them, and often in greater numbers.

It was six months after they moved to Beinn Chùirn before the Sons of Durin opened their mine. The first month was springtime rain and mud on the mountain and living in tents and cooking over open fires. Frodo adored it, of course. When the weather grew kinder, the mountain was filled with construction, building solid new homes and tearing down fences. Frodo spent the first half of the summer running wild through the trees, splashing in the burn and coming home covered in dirt and scratches he hadn’t even noticed. Bilbo was pleased to see him so active and happy, but he worried. So much time spent in solitude wasn’t good, particularly not for a little boy as thoughtful as Frodo.

He and Thorin talked about it at night, sitting out in the grass of a warm summer night and watching the stars - so much brighter here than Bilbo had ever known them before. Bilbo collapsed back into the sweet-smelling heather with a sigh.

“How did you do it?” he asked tiredly. “Raising both of them? Frodo’s just one, and a good lad at that.”

Thorin chuckled, deep and melodious, and smiled up at the sky.

“I don’t know how much credit I can take for them,” he said, deep amusement colouring his voice. “We all did what we could, and half the time they were raising one another.”

“That’s part of it,” Bilbo said slowly. “Frodo needs friends his own age, I think. He’s friendly enough with his schoolmates in Tyndrum, but away up here-” he shook his head.

Thorin was silent for a few minutes. “When I was growing up, I never knew what it was to be alone. Dwalin was always with me, and Dis and Frerin tagged along from the time they could walk. All of us who were old enough - this was an amazing place to grow up together. But alone?” He shrugged. “What can we do?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Bilbo said, propping himself up on his elbows. “My old neighbor in Linlithgow, old Mrs. Gamgee - her son was something of a groundskeeper, and always looking for work. His son was great friends with Frodo in school. Could we do with a bit of help?”

“Actually, we might,” Thorin said, frowning in thought. “Between setting up a functional living space here, and trying to get the mine ready to open, we could do with someone with a good eye and a sense of the land. Would he be willing to relocate his family?”

“I’ll find out,” Bilbo promised, and sat up quickly, hauling Thorin backward by a shoulder until he was lying in the heather. Bilbo turned and lay down as well, resting his head on Thorin’s chest as they both stared up into the night. “Now be still. I need neck support.” The laughter rumbling deep in Thorin’s chest made Bilbo grin stupidly up into the dark.

Hamfast Gamgee did indeed want the job, and within a week, he and his wife and young son had come to live at Beinn Chùirn. He began proving his value at once, helping them to redesign the whole layout of the little village that was taking shape near Cononish.

Thorin had decided they would not build again in the little glen where their houses had once stood. They were still there, burnt remnants of their past, and he would not have them disturbed. The new settlement was only a short distance from what would become the mouth of the mines, and a little burn wandered nearby - a perfect place for young lads to play.

Bilbo shouldn’t have been surprised that some of the Sons of Durin were not immediately keen on their new neighbors. They had only had each other for so very long.

“What do we need outsiders for?” Dori complained one evening, staring peevishly at the lights of the Gamgee’s little house.

“Do you think we can run a mine alone?” Thorin asked scathingly, throwing a log on the crackling fire. “We will need many more outsiders before long. You’d best get used to the idea.”

“But what about Frodo?” Ori asked, wrinkling his nose at the scarf he was knitting. Half of it had trailed away into the mud as he sat singing with the rest, and he sighed sadly. “It’s sure to lead to trouble! Who knows what this Sam will teach him?”

They were, as a group, possessive to a fault. Bilbo had discovered this very quickly on coming to live with them, and it was mostly amusing. But they grew possessive of little Frodo very quickly, sometimes unhappy even about sending him to school in the mornings, and he wondered whether having had Fíli and Kíli all to themselves for all those years had warped their ideas of normality. He wanted to tell them all that it was absurd to be jealous of an eight-year-old boy stealing their lad’s attention.

In the end, it was Sam himself who solved the problem. He was a solid, straightforward lad, loyal to Frodo above all else, but as prone to flights of fancy as his friend. They took to the woods every day, splashing in the burn and playing at being Robin Hood and Little John, or King Arthur and his brave knight - or, as Bilbo discovered to his own mortification, at being Bilbo and Thorin, fighting off armies. They stayed out until dragged back, grubby and browned by the sun, feet bare and covered in mud.

One day, as summer was slowly dying, they came back early. Frodo’s face was pale and he clung silently to Sam’s arm. Sam was flushed and wide-eyed, talking a million miles an hour, and it took nearly forever to get the story out of the lads.

They had happened on an adder, out in the woods, while Sam was up in a tree. Frodo had wandered into the sunny spot where it was lying, and had frozen up, staring at the snake as it hissed a deadly warning, preparing to strike. As Frodo stuttered out the story, it was Sam who had distracted the snake with a quickly-thrown stick, then hauled Frodo up into a tree before it could reach his bare, defenseless feet. Sam had brought him home while Frodo was still scared half-witless, and talked to him the whole time, keeping up his cheerful chatter until they reached the safety of the family.

Bilbo hugged Sam gently and thanked him, amused when the little boy flushed bright red.

“I wasn’t going to leave him,” Sam said stoutly, though his ears were burning crimson. “And anyway, all’s well as ends better, as my dad says!”

Bilbo told the story to the whole family that night. The next day, young Sam Gamgee found himself in possession of a half-muddied knitted scarf, several plates of cookies, and a beautifully hand-carved wooden toy. That night he sat next to Frodo around the blazing fire, the two of them whispering and giggling under the adult conversation, until he was startled into falling backwards as Dwalin dropped a leather jacket on his head - an exact replica of Frodo’s treasured coat.

It wasn’t long after that before the Brandybucks moved to the mountain when young Merry’s father decided to invest in the mine, and Pippin and his family joined them, bringing three young girls to join the growing collection of lads. When Tolman Cotton took a job as a mine supervisor, bringing his five children to live on the mountain, Bilbo elbowed Thorin gently.

“Now Frodo won’t know how to grow up alone, either,” he murmured.

Thorin looked at his mountain, eyes glowing with a wild, possessive pride. “Now it is beginning to feel like our home.”

Chapter Text

Gimli spends his childhood believing his father has another family.

He isn’t wrong.

They’re a remarkably normal family, to all outside appearances. His father makes enough to give them a comfortable life, even if his mother worries over him all the time, convinced something will happen on a random patrol and he won’t come home again. Gimli rolls his eyes. His dad mostly writes traffic citations and tells young people not to hang around at night.

Gimli is a strong young man, and he has had a lively childhood. His parents spoil him a bit, he knows, and he’s not about to complain. He has an iPod and a laptop, and mum is always there for all of his football matches, even when it rains. Which is usually.

They go on holiday every summer, but Gimli spends the whole time on edge, because his father is so nervy. Before cell phones, he hangs nervously around near telephones and makes sure they can get home at the drop of a hat, if they need to. Mum gives him hell about it when she thinks Gimli isn’t listening.

“Leave the job behind,” she pleads. They are in the south of France, and Gloin hasn’t gone twenty feet from the hotel in the two days they’ve been there. “There are plenty of police officers in Edinburgh to handle anything that might come up while you’re gone!”

Then there are the times that Gloin will vanish - an afternoon, a night, a few days at a time, and usually without warning. Gimli doesn’t think much of it. It’s been happening his whole life, and he knows there are parts of the job that dad can’t talk about. He doesn’t like how tense mum gets at those times, though.

He’s a good kid. He’s worked hard to be one, despite the pressure that kids in school put on him to act out to spite his dad. He plays football whenever he can, hoping half-heartedly for stardom that he knows he’ll never get, and he plans to follow his dad into law enforcement once he’s old enough.

And then Gloin vanishes one night. A phone call comes in that makes him go very pale and talk quietly into the receiver, face twisted into an indecision that seems set to tear him in half. He kisses Gimli’s mum sadly, telling her something’s come up, and he hugs Gimli tighter than is comfortable, like he might not see them again for a while. He leaves, and they don’t hear from him for two days.

When he calls, he can’t tell them where he is or what he’s doing, and mum shouts at him when her pleas for information go unanswered. She’s crying silently when she hangs up, and Gimli hugs her. There’s nothing else he can do.

And then everything flies all apart, because the police go flying out to some mountain in the middle of nowhere, and Dad gets arrested, and it turns out that he’s had another family all along, and he decided they came first. He’d never talked about his childhood in specifics while Gimli was growing up - just that it had been somewhere in the highlands, very quiet, and he’d come to the city looking for more adventure. He never talked about his brother, though pictures of the two of them growing up were scattered all around the house. He never said a word.

When he comes home, Gimli spends a week too mad to talk to him properly, and mostly just grunts and avoids any sort of real contact. Eventually he cracks, and lets his dad explain everything (which takes hours, because he’s never learned how to sum up anything) and then he gets it, sort of. It’s all very secretive and full of family loyalty and things that sound like they belong in the distant past - but dad seems more at peace than he ever has, now that he’s not keeping this big secret. Mum’s still angry, but Gimli is mostly curious. Who is this Thorin, that dad would risk everything for him? And apparently he’s got all these cousins he’s never met, this whole huge wild family that’s been scaring the shit out of the whole city for years.

Dad keeps him out of it until the trials and media coverage are over, and most of the family has been sent to jail, and then he takes Gimli to Linlithgow, to a green door next to a grocery, and this adorable little old guy answers the knock, and Gimli realises he’s going to get to meet them.

It’s only Fíli and Kíli there, of course - the rest still being locked up (or in the Parliament) and it takes Gimli about ten seconds to decide privately that they are the coolest people ever. They’re fun and exciting, and they’re still beat half to hell, and Gimli wants to be just like them. His dad will have a long talk with him later about why that is a Bad Idea. It won’t change his mind.

So his dad does have a second family, and now Gimli sort of does, too. They’re never going to be incredibly close, but he’s got uncles and cousins and all sorts of weird relations he can’t sort out, and dad brings him along every time they get together. They go out to the mountain that’s been the cause of all the trouble, and Gimli sort of falls in love with it, with their whole weird obsessed-miners vibe. It’s good.

But the best thing - the thing that makes him really glad it all fell apart - is that now he has his dad. Really has him - not just the half of him that’s not worried about his secret and his family and whether they’re all dead in a ditch somewhere without him. Eventually mum will forgive him, too, and they’ll all go out to Beinn Chùirn together. It will be better than before.

And the stories he has to tell in school!

Chapter Text

Thorin always supposes it was more than half his fault, anyway.

He had let Ori be in charge of finding new clothes for the lads that time, since they were growing like weeds. Fíli’s things were all too short in the wrists and ankles, and the things he’d passed down to Kíli were half rags, and all too big for the very little boy. So Ori had gone to Nori for advice on obtaining things for children when you had no money and weren’t allowed in stores anyway, and had come home with some large bags of assorted clothing. Thorin didn’t ask where he’d gotten them, but an old-fashioned part of his soul hoped that he at least had not stolen them from a church.

They were a mix of random items, and the boys dug into them with delight. Fíli, in all of his vast seven-year-old wisdom, insisted that he would work out what each of them got. Thorin nodded solemnly and left him to it.

So maybe it was mostly Thorin’s fault.

They moved out of Stirling that weekend, running on a tip that Nori had heard in his less savoury circles that the police were going to raid them soon. Thorin choose a direction and drove, Fíli and Kíli curled up together on Minty’s back seat. He wanted a small town this time, and he kept driving until he hit the coast, and that was how they ended up spending six months in Anstruther. Oin lined up a house for them on the outskirts of town, in a quiet neighborhood, and they crept in at night.

Fíli and Kíli set themselves up in the smallest room, arranging their small collection of toys with great care, and Thorin let them do what they wanted with their things. The first few days after a move were always difficult, for the adults as well as for the children, and Thorin had a lot on his mind. They ran out of food on the second day, and he shouted for the lads. They had to learn the lay of the land sooner or later, after all. He glanced them over to see that neither of them happened to be naked or covered in chocolate, and then opened the door on what was actually a fairly lovely day, for once. The smell of the sea was strong, and Thorin resolved to take the lads where they could see it. Kíli had been very young the last time they lived by the sea, and probably didn’t remember.

“Oh!” The voice startled him, and he whipped around, ready to fight. It was an elderly woman with a little black dog on the end of a leash, walking up the path that led to her own door, which brought her only a few feet away from them. “Oh, you must be new!”

“Yes,” Thorin agreed warily. “We’ve only just moved in.” She was looking at them expectantly, but Thorin knew better than to offer information. He coaxed Kíli out onto the walk, shutting the door firmly behind them and checking his pocket for the key. It wasn’t there. He had just locked them out of the house. Well, it was fortunate that Oin would be back in just a few hours - enough time for them to do the shopping.

“What a lovely family you have, dear!” she cooed. Thorin hoped she didn’t try to pinch Kíli’s cheeks. He was still biting strangers who he saw as a threat. She waved at Fíli instead, who smiled back warily. “Such a handsome young man!”

“Yes. We’re just off to have a look round town,” Thorin said flatly. The sweet old lady didn’t move. He considered grabbing the boys and running away, but thought that might look suspicious.

“And your daughter is so lovely!”

Thorin nearly choked.

The old darling leaned forward, smiling kindly at the boys. “What are your names, then? If we’re to be neighbors, we should know!”

“I’m Fíli,” he said stoutly. “This is Kíli.”

“Oh, how precious!” she cooed. Thorin was still trying to recover his poise. “Well, she’s a lucky little girl, with a big brother like you to look after her.” She patted his head - Fíli’s, fortunately for her fingers - and tottered away, waving cheerfully at them over her shoulder. Her dog glared at them.

Fíli grabbed Kíli’s hand, starting forward without a concern, and Thorin gaped at the retreating woman, then stared at his children.

Fíli was neatly dressed in solid dark colours, and if his hair was too long, it was at least neatly combed.

Kíli was wearing a bright pink jumper. With sparkly bits. The word “Princess” was emblazoned across the front. His hair was hanging wild and loose around his shoulders, and he blinked at Thorin with his wide, dark eyes, clearly wondering why his uncle was holding them back. Thorin buried his face in his hands and tried not to weep. They were locked out of the house, in a strange new town, and his tiny nephew looked like a very lovely little girl.

“Fíli,” he said, proud of how even his voice was. “Why is Kíli dressed in that?”

Fíli looked at his brother, eyebrows furrowing in confusion. “Because it doesn’t fit me, Uncle Thorin.”

“No, I can see that.” He spoke very carefully. “But it’s pink!”

“I like it!” Kíli said cheerfully, plucking at the front of the sparkly pink nightmare. “It’s light red. It’s my favourite.” Kíli’s favourites were a Big Deal. Thorin gave up on that point.

“Fíli, it says ‘Princess’!” he said desperately, putting a beseeching hand on Fíli’s shoulder. “I know you can read that one! You were reading it with Balin just last week!”

“But Kíli can’t read it,” Fíli protested. He was so very confused by the whole affair. “Ori got it for us, Uncle Thorin! It came in those bags, and you said I should keep the things that fit, and this fits Kíli! And it’s warm, and he likes it!”

“Fíli,” he groaned, shaking his head. “Look. You can’t dress your brother like this. That lady thought he was a little girl!” At that, Fíli giggled, putting a hand up to cover his mouth. Kíli frowned at him, taking offense, and punched him in the arm. Eventually Thorin had to separate them, taking one little hand in each of his own and starting to walk. They still needed food, and there was no going back in the house until one of the others arrived with a key.

The shops were several blocks away, and Thorin seemed to encounter every local of Anstruther on the way there. They smiled at him, and cooed at the children, all taken by Fíli’s adorable pout and Kíli’s pretty eyes. Thorin felt like shrinking into the ground each time someone complimented his pretty little girl, or told him what a lucky father he was, and that he would have to keep an eye on all the boys when she got older.

“Thank you, yes, we’re very proud,” he muttered mechanically, and pulled the boys along faster. Fíli was giggling almost constantly, burying his face in his free hand, shoulders shaking. Kíli was beaming with pride, delighted by all of the attention - as long as none of them tried to touch him, of course.

They made it to the shop and bought the things they needed - a fair amount, considering that Thorin expected most of the rest of the family to trickle in by that evening. By the time they made it home, Thorin’s arms were aching with the weight he had carried, and he was in no mood for any more nonsense. He kicked at the door, grateful beyond belief when Bofur opened it quickly, and took half the things from his arms.

“I see we’re making a fashion statement today,” he said cheerfully, nodding at Kíli. Kíli nodded agreeably, and attached himself firmly to Bofur’s leg, sliding along the floor cheerfully as he made his laborious way to the kitchen. Thorin followed grumpily, dropping his groceries on the table without much care for the contents.

“We’re burning that jumper as soon as he’s asleep,” he told Dwalin in an undertone. “And then he’s never wearing anything ever again that could possibly make him look like a lass.” His friend looked up from the paper he was perusing, and chuckled darkly.

“I wouldn’t be so hasty,” he said in a low grumble. “I was stopped by three different neighbors on the way in, asking how I was related to the darling little boy and girl. If you take him out in his proper things, you’re going to have some awkward questions to answer.”

Thorin groaned and collapsed into a seat. Ahead, Fíli was giggling again, and Bofur had picked Kíli up to get a better look at his rather astounding jumper. “And questions mean they’re more likely to remember us.”

“Best let him dress as he likes, and let them go on thinking what they will,” Dwalin counseled. “Besides, it’s not a bad plan. The authorities are on the lookout for two lads, not a lad and a lass.”

“Remind me to murder Ori later,” Thorin growled. In the kitchen, Kíli was declaring that pink was his favourite ever, and that he would so wear it every day. Fíli had collapsed into a giggling heap on the floor, and Thorin’s heart warmed a bit. They had had a rough time of it for the past few years, and he could not begrudge Fíli his laughter.

They stayed in Anstruther for six months, and not a day went by without some overly-friendly neighbor commenting on his children. Kíli wore shades of pink and purple that made Thorin’s eyes water, and Ori spent six months apologising for his mistake. Eventually, Fíli stopped thinking it was funny, and started getting angry on his brother’s behalf. When they got word that pursuit was getting too hot, and they had to pack and flee, Fíli carefully left all of Kíli’s girl clothes behind.

Thorin had had enough of small-town curiosity and friendliness, and took them to Glasgow for a few months. The first day there, Fíli stole a pair of scissors and hacked Kíli’s hair short, and Kíli returned the favour. When Thorin asked them why they had decided to look like particularly ill-groomed sheep, Fíli scowled at the floor and shrugged.

“He doesn’t want people to think we’re girls,” Kíli confided. He looked sadly at his plain blue shirt, which was far too long in the sleeves. “I liked my other things better, though.”

“We’ll have Nori find you new things,” Thorin promised, ruffling their raggedly-cut heads. “And we’ll get you proper haircuts, too.”

They grinned at one another, looking excited, and then Fíli turned to Thorin. “We want the same haircut as Mr. Dwalin!”

“And tattoos,” Kíli added.

Thorin buried his face in his hands and wept.

Chapter Text

Dori has a thousand regrets.

He waits until the mines are running steadily, working side by side with his brothers, and watching Beinn Chùirn come back to life under their hands. There is music on the mountain again, and light and warmth, and little ones running in the heather. It is like stepping back in time thirty years, and he regrets the lost time bitterly. Then he tells Thorin he has business to see to for a few days, and packs a bag and leaves.

Nori and Ori snicker behind their hands as he gets ready, asking whether he’s off to the cities to find a new life insurance policy, or to have himself fitted for personal armour in case of falling rocks in the mine. He laughs with them, though it sounds somewhat snippy, and leaves for Tyndrum on foot. He knows they think him stuffy and worried - fussy, Ori always complains - but his brothers mean no harm. He is sorry for what has become of them.

Tyndrum to Elgin is a long journey when he is on the edge of his seat the whole while. The trains bear him steadily north, and he wraps his fingers around the package in his coat pocket and tries to breathe. Balin had looked at him with nothing but a too-knowledgeable pity when he said he was leaving, and had told him quietly to come back soon. His family would be waiting.

The train from Inverness to Elgin is the slowest of the lot, and he watches the little city come into view. It’s still midafternoon, and he thinks she will not be home until evening, if nothing has changed. He has not been to Elgin in almost two years, though, so there is no knowing. He wanders along the River Lossie, feet bearing him steadily to the house where she has lived for almost twenty years. He puts a hand out to the knocker, as he has every time.

This time, Dori knocks.

The door opens after only a moment, and he resists the urge to neaten his hair or his beard, or to try to suck in his stomach. He is who he is, now, and there is no helping any of it.

Noreen stares at him, and he feels tears spring to his eyes as he looks at her. She has grown old, as he has, and the loveliness he remembers has faded quietly into a plump sweetness. Her hair, red as fire once, is more grey than anything else now. He thinks, dazedly, that they are still as well matched as ever they were.

“Dori?” Her voice is little more than a choked gasp, and he nods, throat thick. How can she still be so beautiful? She looks around fearfully, then moves inside the house, beckoning him. “Come in, quickly, before someone sees you! Are you being followed? Where are the rest?”

He steps inside, but puts his hands up to calm her. He doesn’t dare touch her. She deserves so much better than him.

“Noreen,” he whispers, and she stills, looking at him with worried lines in her forehead that he wants to kiss away. “It’s all right. They aren’t following us any longer. We’re free, now.”

She shuts the door, shaking her head. “How? Has Thorin finally given up his madness?”

“No!” Dori can’t help the smile that pulls across his face, nor the laughter that bubbles up. He hadn’t thought that she would not have heard. “We did it, my love! Smaug is in prison, and Beinn Chùirn is ours again! The mines have been open for two months now.”

Her mouth drops, and Noreen gapes at him for a long moment, then nods decisively. “Tea, and you can tell me everything.” She leads the way into her kitchen, warm and sweetly decorated. It’s the touches of lace and dried flowers that get to him. How many years since he has seen something so effortlessly, sweetly domestic? He regrets them all.

He sits at the scrubbed wooden table, staring at her as she makes the tea and sets out a plate of biscuits. The story comes out in bits and pieces - too much to tell all at once, but he can give her the picture. He spares the details of twenty years of loneliness and fearful exile, and tells her instead of life coming back to the mountain - of children playing where they had played, of lovely little cottages going up outside the shadows of the trees that still bore the marks of the Burning. She drinks her tea and watches him intently, though he doesn’t know what she’s looking for. Sometime in the last twenty years, Dori has lost the art of reading her face, and that is the unkindest cut of all.

She watches him when he has finished, and there is a distance there that he can understand, but it still hurts.

“I’m so very glad that he is gone,” she says finally, and her voice is steel. “And that you are home again - but Dori, you can’t just come here and expect me to run home with you! I have a life here now, and I have for decades.”

“No, no!” he says, interrupting her, but unable to bear the accusation in her voice. “Noreen, I am not here to demand anything! I just wanted you to know, and I wanted to give you a few things.” He doesn’t tell her that he didn’t think he could go another day without seeing her. He is not going to put that kind of pressure on her.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the paper-wrapped parcel, shoving it gently across the table, and she opens it with hesitant fingers. Her hands fly to her mouth as she sees the treasures inside.

“I went home, once we were free,” he says quietly. “I didn’t think anything would be left in the ashes - but there were a few things that didn’t burn.”

“My mother’s ring,” she whispers, touching it reverently. “And the luckenbooth I gave you when we were married. Oh, Dori!”

“Noreen, there has not been a day I haven’t thought of you,” he says quietly. He keeps his hands folded so he does not reach out and take her hand. “I needed you to know that. I know you’re fine here - and I hope you’re happy. I hope everything we ever dreamed together has worked out for you here. But I needed you to know.”

“Did they hate me for leaving?” she asked suddenly, blinking back her tears. “Dis and Thorin and everyone?”

He won’t lie to her. “Yes, some of them. I didn’t tell them why you did, and mostly they just pitied me. Nori despised you, though, for my sake.”

“I won’t apologise.” Her chin is up, and her back is straight. “I made the right choice.”

“Yes, you did!” The eagerness of his agreement is a surprise to Noreen, and she looks at him in shock. “Noreen. I missed you more than anything - and I was angry every day for what I was missing with you. But I watched Dis’ children grow up - and they are wonderful lads, and we all love them - but every time I saw them, I was so desperately grateful that our baby was not growing up like that. It was no life for a child.”

Noreen sniffles. “You can’t expect to walk back into her life like nothing’s happened, Dori. You choose to stay with Thorin when you could have come with us. You’ve never even seen her!”

“I wouldn’t ask it,” Dori says sharply. The old arguments spring back to life in his head, and he pushes them away. “I don’t want to fight with you again. I stayed with Thorin because I couldn’t leave Nori and Ori to that life alone - and I knew the costs. I won’t ever come around again if you don’t want me. Just tell me - is she happy?”

Noreen smiles. The warmth and kindness there have not faded with time. “Yes. She’s everything we dreamed our child might be. I wish you had been here! You would have been so proud.”

“I am anyway.” He chuckles a little, because it is easier than any other reaction. “I would have loved nothing more.”

“She knows nothing of you,” Noreen says abruptly. “I’ve never told her anything - not who you were, not why you were gone. I didn’t want her to be worrying after you.”

He nods slowly. He can understand this.

“Dori,” she says after a moment, a knowing look in her eyes. “Those envelopes that would appear inside the door - those were from you?”

He ducks his head, nodding shyly. “As often as I could. I let the rest think what they would of how I spent my money, but I had to do what I could for you, and for her.”

Noreen reaches out and pried his hands apart, holding one of them between both of hers. “I married a good man, Dori of Beinn Chùirn.”

“Some day,” he asks gently, “will you come back to the mountain? Just to see what we’ve made of it?” He kisses her fingers. “It is not the same without you.”

She sighs, but there is a smile in her eyes. “And how am I supposed to stay away forever? Beinn Chùirn was my home as much as yours, foolish man.”

There’s a sound at the door, and they snatch their hands apart like the bashful teenagers they had once been, in another life, sitting up straight. Dori glances at Noreen in alarm, but there is nothing but peaceful welcome in her eyes.

“Mama? I’m home!”

“In here, love,” Noreen calls, and Dori turns to watch as his daughter comes into the kitchen. She is so much like her mother at that age that Dori could weep. She is seventeen, with hair like fire and eyes that sparkle - but she has his sad lack of height, and the point of her chin is so much like his mother’s. She stops and stares at him.

“Dianna, this is an old friend of mine.” He hadn’t known her name. It is perfect.

Dianna narrows her eyes, examining him. “You’re my da, aren’t you?” Dori splutters in surprise, and she laughs in mischievous delight. Nori would love this niece of his. “Well, aren’t you?” He looks to Noreen.

“Aye, love,” she says quietly. There’s no shame in it. “He’s your da.”

“And who else could he be, with you looking at him like that?” She sweeps through the kitchen, dropping a fond kiss on her mother’s head, and places herself at the table between them as she snatches a biscuit off the plate. “Go on, then, let’s hear everything!”

“Everything could take a while,” he says slowly.

“Waiting for my da has taken a while,” she shoots back, but she’s grinning. “Mama doesn’t talk about you, and she talks to me about everything.”

They look at one another, Dori and Noreen, and he can’t help smiling. He doesn’t think he’s really truly been happy since she left, and now it’s bubbling over. Maybe they will come to the mountain one day. Maybe they will stay. Maybe this is the only day he will have with them. But this day, he will have no regrets.

Chapter Text

Dís was young, once, on the mountain. She ran wild in the forest, climbing every tree and splashing in the burn, mocking the lads who did not dare climb so high or run so fast on the rocks that stood above sheer cliffs, towering over the steep hills below. Her mother despaired of her, and her father adored her, and all the lads feared her. She laughed and ran faster than they ever could, dark hair streaming behind her in the sunny days of her youth.

Thorin was two years older, and tried to look after her. Frerin was two years younger, and she looked after him. The trees grew high and the leaves grew green, and Dís grew into a woman, there on the heights of Beinn Chùirn. Her mother died young, victim of a heart that suddenly would not beat, and her father followed not long after, and Dís grew up fast. She was eighteen when Thorin found gold.

He told her first, clutching the tiny glittering flakes that would seal their fate, a gleam in his eye that nearly matched their brilliance, and he grabbed her by the arm, spinning her around in a wild dance.

“You see? We’ll be rich, Dís! No-one will have to leave, even if the lead mines will not produce any more. I can make this work!”

But Thorin was all dreams, big ideas crowding out the little details that mark the difference between success and abject failure, and Dís knew he would not make it on his own. She stopped thinking of university, of the future in the cities that she had been half-afraid would starve the wild green life out of her, and she stayed with her brothers on the lonely mountain. She filed the paperwork with the government to allow them to open mines, and she forced Frerin - golden, brilliant Frerin - to stay in school when he would have left, and she dragged Thorin away from his account books when his fingers threatened to tear all the hair from his head.

Gregory Campbell from Tyndrum fell in love with her, and Dís led him a merry dance, knowing full well that she would let him catch her some day. His eyes were dark and serious, and she liked to laugh at him, to see him crack apart and break into joy with her. He was lovely and strong, but not as strong as she was, and that made her happy.

The years passed - slowly, and then quicker as she took on more of the work of the mountain. The older women, wives and mothers, were slowing down, and Dís stepped in to fill the void. She had her brothers, and Noreen and Elspet and Bridget, and Gregory from Tyndrum, and the people of the mountain looked to her for guidance. And Dís did her best, until it built up in her heart and was too much, and then she ran to the woods, splashing barefoot in the burn and singing her wild songs until her heart was light and green and alive again.

Five years passed, and Thorin ran out of patience and went to beard the dragon in his lair. Two days later, Dís pulled Thorin away as their homes burned, weeping for the loss of her Frerin - golden, brilliant Frerin - but unwilling to lose Thorin as well. She drove them away into the night, weeping silently.

Dís was twenty-three. She never set foot on her mountain again.

They were wanted men after that - but Smaug, in his smug satisfaction, didn’t seem to have realised that the women of Beinn Chùirn were no less fierce than the men. Dís went back to Tyndrum to look for support, after the initial rage and pain were past, and she came back married. Gregory Campbell had finally caught her, now that her running had stopped - but Dís did not take his name, though she wore his ring, and she did not cut her hair when he suggested it.

She loved him, of course - wildly at first, as she did everything, and then with a quiet that set in as her heart grew calmer and more set in it’s course. She looked after Thorin as constantly as she could, but he was wandering, always on the hunt for something he could not define, or running from Smaug’s men. Dís took Gregory away to Gretna Green, and there she loved him, and there she plotted revenge.

Her brother gathered the remnants of the men of Beinn Chùirn - those who would stay with him and fight. Most of their people had vanished. They chose to scatter, finding new lives for themselves outside of Smaug’s greedy grasp. Thorin and his friends stayed, tied together by loyalty and heart and a rather impressive lack of tactical awareness of their situation, and Dís did her best to support her brother.

Dís turned twenty-five. She had a baby - a golden, brilliant son who had his father’s nose and chin and her eyes, and who never cried in the night. He reminded her of her brother, and she cradled him close and sang all the old songs. She sang of birds and wildflowers and water that shone in the sun, and she mourned for her lost home.

“The broken heart, it kens nae second spring,” she hummed, when he would fuss in her arms, sun bright on his features. “Though the waeful may cease frae their greetin’.” Fíli smiled up at her, chubby hands reaching for her dark hair, and she smiled down at him, and life was still good.

Thorin was not a patient man, and she could not always reason him away from his schemes. He and his band soon became known, and then reknown, and she was the sister of an outlaw. The Sons of Durin took wild chances and ran away, laughing, and Dís grew resentful of the man who kept her away from them, though she loved him still. She began to involve herself more in their affairs - planning their ventures, and abetting their escapes.

Gregory Campbell left her when he discovered who her family were, and where her allegiance lay, and Dís could not find it in her heart to regret the loss of him. She sent his ring back to him, and kept her own name, and left her hair long and wild, and Dís wept for her son, who would grow up without a father. She went to Thorin.

Dís turned twenty-seven, and had another son. He was dark haired like his mother, and had his absent father’s eyes, and he demanded her love and attention at all times. Fíli was still a baby himself, but he dedicated himself to Kíli with a wild affection that she knew so well it nearly frightened her, and they were inseparable before Kíli could walk. Kíli cried wildly at night, and she sang him the old songs. She did not remember the wind in the trees, or the sound of rain on the mountain.

“Kíli, Kíli,” she would sing tiredly, rocking him back and forth in the moonlight. “The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.” The nights were long, and she grew so weary, and life was hard.

But something was growing in her that she could not see, sapping her strength - a dark pain in her bones that wore her to a shadow. She was one of them, now, the Sons of Durin, and there was no help for her that would not lead to a prison cell. Dís faded, even as her sons grew strong and wild and good.

Dís turned thirty-one, and she kissed her sons goodbye and sent them away with kind old Balin, who looked on her with tears in his eyes. Thorin stayed by her side, holding her hands in his own, and she breathed in the smell of him, still green and wild, like Beinn Chùirn in the spring.

“Look after them,” she whispered - but she knew he would. Thorin wept, and she smiled at him fondly, though her hands grew too cold to feel his fingers on hers.

“I will,” he promised. “I can make this work, Dís.”

She closed her eyes, and saw her mountain again, green and golden in the morning light, and she gathered up her skirts and ran, dark hair flowing behind her in the sun. Dís, daughter of Beinn Chùirn, was free.

Chapter Text

Fíli and Kíli are getting good at running.

They’ve run with the family their whole lives, of course. They know how to keep their heads down and blend in. But Thorin is busier all the time, working constantly to keep them safe and find them a way home, and he lets them go more often than ever.

When they were small, the family stayed together most of the time, traveling in a pack and staying together in rented houses, or camping in remote areas. Their encounters with the police grew closer and more frequent, though, and when Kíli was eight, Thorin called them all together and told them it was time to split up. Dori and Ori went south, and Nori generally stuck fairly close to them, though he preferred his freedom to any sort of stability. Oin moved to Edinburgh and set up a quiet existence there, hiding in plain sight; Gloin did his best to shelter his brother. Thorin and Dwalin kept traveling, always looking for Smaug’s weakness, and Balin and Bofur stayed with Bifur as best they could, nursing him through the worst of his injury as he struggled to learn to communicate again.

Fíli sometimes felt like a bit of luggage that had been left at a train station. Thorin tucked them into the backseat of his little car most of the time, putting up with their energy and questions for as long as he could, and then he would pass them off for a bit. They spent time in England with Dori and Ori, and Kíli hated every minute of it; he said he couldn’t breathe.

They sometimes hid with Oin, but he had little energy to keep up with their enthusiasm, and they always wound up in trouble. Edinburgh with Oin was where Fíli learned to hack. He stole books, and spent his days in dark computer cafes, learning from the best in exchange for the enthusiastic praise they craved. Kíli wandered the streets (but only where Fíli allowed him), and learned to blend in with the wild youth, dodging the police and making friends with all sorts of unsavoury folk. They loved him, the hidden people, and he glowed with pride when he showed Fíli the things he was learning.

They did best with Balin and Bifur and Bofur, to no-one’s surprise. There, usually tucked away in a quiet village somewhere in the Highlands or on Skye, they learned. Balin taught them history and the love of words, pressing books into hands that were unwilling at first, and then taking them away again late at night to force the lads to sleep. He made the stories of Scotland come alive in wild words, and their hearts beat faster to the sound of drums that had been silenced for hundreds of years. Bifur was surprisingly patient with them, teaching them to write and correcting their letters with precise fingers, and they loved him fiercely, their quiet uncle.

Bofur teaches them kindness, and how to smile at a stranger and make them love you. They never forget.

Fíli likes staying with them, tucked away in the quiet. They feel safe, there, and Kíli can wander free, and Fíli sleeps soundly. Kíli wants the family to travel together again, and prefers to go with Thorin and Dwalin, wherever they happen to be. They learn geography by seeing every inch of it, and Dwalin insists they must learn maths, and teaches them himself. It is an unmitigated disaster, but he never gives up.

They start traveling alone when Fíli is fourteen. They’re young enough to blend into school groups and travel unseen, but old enough to be responsible for one another. At first, Thorin only lets them travel between one group of family and another, and Fíli has to report in as soon as they’ve reached their destination. By the time he’s sixteen, as long as they check in with family every other day or so, no-one much minds. Nori teaches them to pick locks and pockets, and to steal enough to keep body and soul together, but never enough to get caught. They move fast, keeping to themselves, and no-one looks at them twice. He knows Thorin worries they are growing complacent; he just knows they’re good at what they do.

Kíli turns fifteen on a warm summer day. They’re lounging around Linlithgow, waiting for the family to congregate in Edinburgh, for the first time in ages. They try to get together once every few months, or when Thorin has news. They lounge in the sun by the loch, eating stolen apples that a curly-haired grocer was kind enough to pretend he didn’t see them stealing. It’s the best meal they’ve had in days.

Kíli finally breaks the silence, bouncing upright to kneel in the soft grass. “I’m going to do it,” he says confidently.

“Y’are not,” Fíli says lazily through a mouthful of apple.

“I will too!” Kíli protests, looking hurt. “I can do this! Make me the ID, and I’ll get the job done.”

Fíli grins at him, lying back in the grass to let the sun warm his face. “You’ll never pull it off. Heriot’s is way too posh. They’ll spot you in a moment.”

Kíli has a wild notion. His street friends in Edinburgh have taught him how to sneak into George Heriot’s School, which is about the poshest place Fíli knows of. Kíli has figured out that several of the students are the children of members of the government. He wants to pose as a student and befriend them.

“It’s worth the risk,” Kíli insists. He lies down too, head nearly touching Fíli’s. “It’s a door, Fee. Who knows what we could gain?”

“Not worth it if it’s you,” Fíli says quietly. Kíli sighs, and swats at the top of his head.

“You sound just like Thorin.” They lie quietly for a few minutes, enjoying sunshine and full bellies and peace. “Please,” Kíli says, finally. “I’m not going to get caught.”

Fíli sighs. He’s sleepy in the sunlight: too many restless nights. “I’ll hack their system tomorrow and see what I can do. If it can’t be done properly, you’re not going.”

Kíli flies to life, leaping atop him in childish delight, and they spend a few minutes wrestling and tumbling in the grass, until they’re both laughing and thoroughly disheveled. He swats at Kíli’s hair as they stand to leave, knocking bits of grass back to earth. They walk to the train station, words tumbling quietly between them.

“D’you think he’ll be proud?” Kíli asks suddenly, not looking at Fíli. They don’t need a name. “If I do it, I mean?”

“He’s always proud,” Fíli assures him. Their shoulders bump together as they walk.

“He’s proud of you,” Kíli says evenly. “He thinks I’m a child.”

That may be true, so Fíli says nothing - just walks beside his brother, and pats his shoulder as they drift apart to find their invisible way onto the trains.

It worries him, sometimes, how confident Kíli is in himself. Not that he isn’t skilled, of course - Fíli’s never seen him miss a target. But he’s delighted by his own abilities, and he wants so very much to make Thorin proud. It never occurs to him that he could fail.

They meet in Oin’s tiny, awful flat, crowding in until there’s hardly room to breathe or move, and they all ruffle Kíli’s hair and tell him he’s grown tall - which is not true, Fíli thinks a little resentfully. Kíli is smaller than he should be, short and scrawny, and he knows his brother should be eating better than he does. Ori slips him a beer, and Fíli grins at him gratefully. He’s not used to drinking. It goes to his head.

Dwalin and Thorin and Balin and Dori end up huddled together in a corner, heads together as they strategise about taking down Smaug, and Kíli pesters Fíli until he gives in and pulls out his laptop. Heriot’s may be posh, but their security is a joke, and he’s in the system in moments, fashioning Kíli a new identity. Kíli crows with triumph when he’s done, and Fíli sees Thorin’s head go up quickly. First mistake.

He makes his way over steadily, and Fíli elbows Kíli, hoping he’ll settle down - but Kíli is all excitement, mind running a thousand miles a minute as he plans his new venture.

“What’s this?” Thorin asks, gesturing vaguely at both of them, and Fíli shrugs a shoulder.

“Kíli has an idea about a new source of information. We’re getting things set up.” Casual. Easy. Thorin could just leave it alone, and they would be fine.

“It’s going to be brilliant!” Kíli enthuses, eyes bright. He’s smiling wider than Fíli has seen in ages, as the pieces of his plan come together. Second mistake, because now Thorin is curious, and Fíli knows bloody well that he’s not going to approve.

It takes him about twelve seconds to understand the plan, and another two to completely and utterly reject it. He shakes his head, anger building in his eyes.

“This is what you two get up to the second my back is turned? Must I set someone to mind you at every moment?”

Kíli’s face falls, and Fíli turns away, hurting for him.

“Uncle Thorin, I can do this!” Kíli tells him. His voice is quiet and certain, and more hopeful than it really has any right to be. “I’ll blend right in! I already have targets selected. It’ll be easy!”

Thorin shakes his head, patting Kíli’s shoulder dismissively, and looks at Fíli. He’s disappointed. “I expect better of you,” he says quietly. “You’re meant to be keeping him out of trouble, not shoving him into it.”

“I agree with him,” Fíli says, getting angry. “Thorin, Kíli can do it! It’s a good plan.” He knows it isn’t really.

Thorin does not like being argued with, and his eyes snap - an icy blue that makes Fíli draw back. “Kíli is a child,” he says harshly. “And you’re little better than one. You will mind your elders. We are trying to reclaim our home! I do not have time to deal with this reckless foolishness!”

Kíli’s face has gone white with hurt and shame, and Fíli’s fingers are tight on the edge of the table. The tips of his ears feel hot. Thorin shakes his head and turns away, heading back toward his serious discussion with the adults. Fíli sets his jaw tight, shoving his laptop back into his bag and standing up. He pulls Kíli to his feet, patting his shoulder in solidarity.

Bofur meets them by the door. His eyes are sad, but he smiles at them as kindly as ever.

“We’d best be off,” Fíli says. He won’t say that they’re running away, but Kíli’s shoulder is shaking just a little under his hand, and they need to be gone.

“We’re headed back to Skye,” Bofur tells them quietly. “Thought we’d try our luck at Waternish for a bit. You should come.”

They exchange a glance, only seconds long, and Fíli nods. “We’ll be along within the week.”

They duck out into the night, and Fíli’s sigh is echoed a second later by the boy at his side. They hurry along the street, dodging lights and unfriendly glances, and putting distance between themselves and their family. They’re getting awfully good at running.

Chapter Text

Thorin Oakenshield is possessive.

He knows this about himself. As a child, he was forever getting into arguments with his little sister and brother over things - trivial, worthless things that he should have been able to let them bear away, but he found he could not. Things that were his were only his, and he could not give them up.

He never tells any of the rest that Smaug had offered him a deal, the day before he came to take their mountain. Never mentions the brief, seemingly-friendly chat he had with the man over the telephone, when Smaug offered him enough money to set himself up comfortably in any city in Scotland, and live easily to the end of his days. He had never even considered the offer. The mountain was his. It was in his blood, and beat with his heart, and fluttered in every breath he took, in and out. It was home, and family, and possession, and Thorin would not give it up.

He wondered, the very next day, whether he would ever forget the sound of Frerin’s voice, or the smile that had played about Smaug’s cruel, thin lips as he watched the fires leap higher.

Now, nearly twenty years later, Thorin possesses almost nothing. He owns a mint green car that had not been stylish when he bought it, and that shows signs of age that he cannot ignore much longer. He has a few items of clothing, a few journals, a laptop that someone stole for him.

And then there are his nephews.

Thorin is protective of all of his people, of course. The whole family looks to him for protection and leadership, and he worries over them all, late at night, or when he hasn’t heard from them in too long. Oin and Balin are growing old and tired, and Bombur is more heavy and more distant every time Thorin sees him. He watches them begin to fade, grey hairs appearing in beards that grow long and ragged; Ori is wasting his youth. They are all his problem - but they are not all his, not in the same way.

Fíli and Kíli have been his since Dis entrusted them to his care on her deathbed, if not before. He has felt responsible for them since Campbell abandoned them, months before Kíli was even born. His are the arms that have born them all around the country, keeping them safe, raising them up. They are young men now, strong and brave and loyal, and he is so proud of them that he feels like his heart might overflow. He wishes Dis could have seen the men they are growing to be.

But when he looks at them, it is hard to see anything but the children they were. They are still there, dancing in the brilliance of Kíli’s smile, and the energy in Fíli’s fingers as they fly over his keys. When they laugh, dark and bright heads together, they are his beloved children, just as always. And he will not give them up.

He lets them run from him as they grow older, but only because he knows they will always return. They flit around the family, bestowing their cheer and energy on all parties, and Thorin thinks they do not even know how much strength they are giving their elders. They are sufficient unto themselves, but they always come back to him, looking for protection, for guidance. Looking for love. He gives it as best he can, and knows it is not enough. It is not what they deserve.

When Gandalf finds their burglar, he sends the children to him first. He knows they can open doors that no-one else can even crack, and he makes his way to Linlithgow with his heart lighter than it has been in an age, looking forward to seeing them as much as to meeting the newest member of their company. They meet him at the door, and Thorin draws them to him jealously, clutching them tight. Kíli has grown tall, but he is too skinny; Fíli is broader, but there’s a weight in his eyes, on his shoulders, that accuses Thorin.

“We do need to breathe,” Fíli reminds him after a long moment, grinning at him broadly, and Kíli elbows his brother hard.

“It’s going well, I think,” Kíli tells him in a rush, keeping a hand on Thorin’s arm even after he lets them go. “A minor panic attack, but we’ve coaxed him back out, and he’s agreed to listen to what we have to say.”

“What is he like?” Thorin asks as they climb the narrow staircase. The lads glance at one another, then back at him.

“Kind,” Fíli says, almost shyly. “He fed us.”

“He trusts too easily,” Kíli reports, looking worried. “Uncle, I’ve promised him he won’t be harmed.”

Thorin nods silent agreement, and they enter the room together. He looks around for the grocer who has so impressed his boys, and is entirely underwhelmed by the little, curly-haired man who stands in front of him. Baggins looks like he would be frightened by a sudden gust of wind. He cannot see what has drawn Fíli and Kíli to him so quickly, and he frowns disapprovingly as he looks the man over. Gandalf had made it sound like Baggins was their salvation. All Thorin can see is a burden.

They take their seats, and he is gratified when his nephews choose to sit by his feet - the memory of a thousand nights of stories before fires, of drawing them close to ward off night terrors and chilling winds. They do not sit by Baggins.

He is less pleased when they fight him, all stubborn impetuous youth and righteousness, over the question of taking Baggins with them. It’s not that Thorin particularly wants to kidnap anyone. He would be more than happy to leave Baggins to his comfortable, dull life, and take his nephews away with him. Gandalf glares from beneath bushy eyebrows, though, and Thorin does not have much of a choice.

He has time to reflect, as they travel circuitously home, that his nephews are generally fairly good judges of character - but it sets his teeth on edge, the way they look after the man, as if they would protect him from Thorin. They travel together, and fight together, and he finds himself taking Baggins up on the offer of a place to stay - but only because they are in need, and they are still children. They are his soldiers, but they are his sons first, and he will look after them.

It takes work, somehow, to continue resenting Baggins. He’s a pleasant traveling companion, and Thorin likes his sense of humor, and the kindness that seems to pour off him at every turn. He does not take Thorin’s less-pleasing attitudes personally, but neither does he put up with him. But Thorin watches Fíli and Kíli draw close to him, like moths to a flame, and it is a reproach to him. Bilbo gives them something that Thorin cannot, and he does not understand it. He does not like it. They are his.

In the end, he cannot place the moment where Bilbo overcomes his defenses, or his hesitation. There is the anger and resentment at how his nephews are bonding with this stranger, and then there is Bilbo, a member of the family, and a person who falls under Thorin’s protectiveness. He has slipped under his defenses, like the Burglar he is meant to be, and Thorin never even saw him coming.

It comes down to the Arkenstone, in the end, as Thorin has always known it would. He knows there was a time when he would have hesitated - when that glittering gem, his prized possession and the symbol of everything he has ever possessed - would have meant more to him than anything. He would have taken the world to war to possess it. But Bilbo’s eyes are on him, and on his children, and he had almost lost them over and over in recent weeks. He had barely begun breathing again, after thinking Kíli lost. He will not do it again. Letting go of the Arkenstone is more a victory than a loss.

His hands are empty, and more full than they have ever been. Thorin Oakenshield looks at his mountain, and at his family, and the smile he wears is genuine. Kíli grins at him, exhausted but still brilliant, and Fíli grips his arm with fingers that are still, but strong, and Bilbo creeps close, letting himself relax with them. Even if he goes to prison, he has more than he has dared to dream possible.

Chapter Text

They’d been at the mountain for almost a year when it happened, on a warm, sunny spring day. It being a Saturday, they had the pleasure of Fíli and Kíli’s company, and Bilbo had made his way down to the mines for the day, just to see how things were progressing. The road up the mountain had been repaired to allow for transport of people and supplies, and was now a broad, easy path to travel. The little village they were in the middle of creating was only a bit further up the mountain, but cars couldn’t go there. Bilbo was waiting for a shipment of goods to restock their supplies, and was most glad of the lovely weather.

Most of the family were there, even though they weren’t really working the mines on a Saturday. There were always more details to arrange, small things to set in order, and there was rarely a time that they were not working. Bilbo thought privately that they were making up for two decades without honest work, even as he wished they would take a bit more time to relax. Thorin was hard at work deep inside the mine, and Bilbo didn’t particularly want to spend his day underground, so he sat carefully in the warm heather and waited.

Fíli came out after a bit and sat down by him, knocking their shoulders together.

“How’s the job, lad?” Bilbo asked lazily.

“Yeah, it’s good,” Fíli said. “Gandalf is letting me do more investigative work on my own these days. I’m hoping they’ll let me out of the office to work independently someday!”

“I’m sure they will,” Bilbo said fondly. He squinted up at the sky, which was the brilliant kind of blue they only see once every few months. He didn’t really think he’d mind much if the delivery took a while longer to arrive, giving him some time to relax.

The sound of a large motor chugging up the mountain made Bilbo give a little groan, and he stood slowly, stretching. Fíli popped up next to him, looking down the path with interest.

“Who’s coming?”

“I’m sure it’s just our deliveries,” Bilbo said with a sigh. “We’ve got to haul them all up the path by hand. I should really get Thorin to put in a better track.”

“I’ll help,” Fíli offered. “And my lump of a brother volunteers, too.” He jogged over to the mouth of the mine and called for Kíli, while Bilbo wandered closer to the road, waiting for the delivery truck to come into view.

Only it wasn’t a delivery truck at all. It was a large white mini-coach with huge windows, and the large green letters on the sides spelled out ‘Rabbie’s’. Bilbo gaped at it, even as the coach pulled up into the wide, flat space that they used to unload equipment, and the doors cranked open. A handsome young man in a blue and green kilt bounded out, and waved an arm dramatically around.

“Here we are, Ladies and Gentlemen! Step right out this way, and witness the splendour and majesty of Beinn Chùirn for yourself. You may know it better as The Lonely Mountain, or simply as the long-lost home of the Sons of Durin!”

There was a chorus of oohs and aahs as a starry eyed group of tourists climbed down from the coach, all clutching cameras and bags, and dressed far too warmly for the weather. All but two of them were middle aged women, and one of the others was clearly the daughter of one woman who was clutching her arm and talking excitedly in a low voice. Bilbo backed away a step, completely bewildered.

“Yes!” The tour guide continued speaking in a loud, overly-cheerful voice, with what sounded to Bilbo like a rather fake Glaswegian accent. “This very location is the site of the battle for the mountain! If we’re very lucky, we may find the man himself at work in his mines today!”

Fíli had re-emerged from the mine and was blinking at the tourists in startled horror, and Kíli darted out of the darkness and crashed into his brother, who had frozen at the mouth of the mine. Fíli’s startled yelp was enough to grab their attention, and the whole group headed for the lads. Bilbo started over as well, barely able to blink in his surprise.

“Look!” one woman called, in a voice far too loud for the situation. “It’s the children! Aw, bless them!”

Fíli and Kíli stared at one another, and Kíli grabbed his brother’s sleeve desperately. They were quickly surrounded by the crowd, who were snapping pictures and asking rapid-fire questions.

“Wait, which of you is which?”

“Will you sign my arm?”

“Is it true you can’t be more than ten feet apart without getting sick?”

The lads looked at Bilbo with mounting panic, and he tried to shove his way through the crowd, but their elbows were very pointy, and he kept getting knocked back.

“You poor children,” one woman said, pinching Kíli’s cheek. His eyes were very wide. “To have suffered so much, and now to be locked away here in this lonely place!”

“Uncle Bill?” Fíli called in a strangled voice. Bilbo ducked under one woman’s arm as she went to take a picture, and put himself between the lads and their new found admirers.

“Look, I’m sorry, but you can’t just barge in like this!” Bilbo said firmly. The tourists blinked at him, startled. “We’re operating a mine here!”

“Who is that?” A woman at the back whispered her question to a friend, but no one seemed to have an answer. Then they spotted Dwalin a ways up the path toward the village, and the whole crowd were off in a rush, cameras at the ready. Fíli and Kíli clung to the back of Bilbo’s jacket, startled beyond speech.

Bilbo spotted the enthusiastic kilt-wearer, who was now perched tiredly on the steps of his coach, frantically eating a sandwich. He stormed over as best he could with the lads so close on his heels, and put his hands on his hips as he stared down at the man.

“Excuse me,” he began sharply. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m fairly sure I would have remembered hearing that you were bringing a tour group here!”

“Oh, sorry, mate,” the man said, and Bilbo gaped at him. His natural accent seemed to be Australian. “I was meant to take this lot up into the park, find Rob Roy’s grave and all that, but then I got a call that the road we’d need is blocked. Trees fallen or some such. I had to think of something else to keep them busy for an hour, and you were just here.”

“But they knew us!” Kíli said, horrified. “How did they know who we are?”

“Kid, I don’t think you know how much time the media spent on your case,” the driver said with a laugh. “You were plastered all over the telly, and all the papers, and the internet. Celebrities, aren’t you?” He took another bite of his sandwich. “I’m Chris, by the way.”

Fíli had pulled out his mobile and was loading a site. What he saw made him nearly drop the device in the mud, and he turned to Kíli, looking startled. They grimaced at one another, and Fíli looked determined. “I’m getting Uncle Thorin.”

“Brilliant! Cheers, mate!” Chris said happily. “The old biddies will love that. They’ve been going on about him non-stop since I said we’d come here. We’ll have to put this place on our regular tour schedule! Maybe I can design a tour round it. “Lost and Won: The Road to Beinn Chùirn” - whaddya think? We could hit all the big places you went, and then wind up here at the end for photos!”

Fíli didn’t walk away - he ran. He was inside the mine in a minute, just as Bilbo saw the tourists disappear round the bend toward the village. From the shouts he could make out, it seemed like they were following a few of the Sons of Durin, who were beating a hasty retreat. Bilbo turned back to Chris.

“But they sound like Americans, mostly,” he said, bewildered. “What do they even know about the Sons of Durin?”

“It’s a sob story, isn’t it? All that loss; years of exile; finally prevailing over the evil politician? It’s made for media!” He chuckled a bit, pointing at Bilbo. “There’s at least three different books making the rounds now, each saying they’ve got the whole story, and none of them can agree on anything!”

The tourists came back down the path, looking distinctly unsatisfied, just as Fíli was re-emerging from the mine - and Thorin was just behind him. He was in work-clothes, face smeared with sweat and dirt, and he looked more angry than Bilbo had seen him in a long while. The group spotted him at once, shouts of delight going up as they swarmed toward him.

Bilbo found himself hauled away by a very enthusiastic and determined lady, who pressed her camera into his hands and insisted he take her picture with Thorin. For his part, Thorin stood like a statue, eyes burning with a rage that promised very bad things for young Chris once the small army of women was out of his way.

“Oh, he’s so handsome!” a woman breathed as she waited her turn for a picture. She turned to Bilbo, who was trying to work out how to operate the camera that had been pressed into his hands. “Is he seeing anyone, do you know?”

“Yes!” another woman asked, whirling around to stare at him with protuberant eyes. “Is he taken? I’m sure the poor man really just needs some love and affection after everything he’s been through.”

“Taken,” Bilbo snapped, giving up and just pretending to take a photo. “He is most definitely taken.”

“Oh, what a shame!” the first woman sighed, looking thoroughly downcast. She snapped another picture of Thorin, who was glowering.

They milled around the site even after they were done mobbing Thorin, taking pictures of random stones and bits of grass, and murmuring to each other about how quaint and charming it all was, and Bilbo thought it was a very real possibility that Thorin’s head would explode. Kíli, who he had seen face down armies without a flinch, was hiding behind the coach, and Fíli had sat himself down in the grass with a pair of headphones in his ears, staring worriedly at his mobile screen and refusing to acknowledge anyone who tried to talk to him.

Some of the rest of the family had made the mistake of coming down to see what all of the fuss was about, and Bilbo winced for all of them as they were systematically mobbed and questioned. Dori had to answer a thousand questions about how he had done his braids, and Balin was being shown pictures of everyone’s children and grandchildren, as though he ought to respond in kind. Dwalin stood with his arms folded, glaring down at everyone, and they had to content themselves with taking pictures of mostly his forearms. Bofur had been cornered, and somehow wound up being forced to hug nearly every member of the party, half of whom looked about ready to cry.

“Ladies and Gentlemen!” Chris finally called, fake accent firmly back in place, drawing their attention. “We’re going to get back on the road now! Stirling Castle may have been there for centuries, but let’s not chance being too late to see it today! Five minutes, please!” They began to gather up and step back onto the bus, and Bilbo seized his chance and darted over, grabbing Chris by the arm and hauling him aside.

“Listen to me,” Bilbo said quietly, keeping his voice calm. “You are not going to come back here - not ever again.”

“But it’s perfect!” Chris said cheerfully. “We come up here an hour or so a day, maybe six to ten times a week, and take a few photos. You fellas pose a bit, maybe put on some more heroic looking outfits, and let them take pictures. I’m sure we can work out a deal to give you a piece of the profit, especially if Thorin and his nephews will appear on the promotional literature. This will be good for everyone!”

“No, it won’t,” Bilbo said firmly. He pointed at Thorin and Dwalin, who both looked ready to kill. “You want to remember that these are the Sons of Durin. For twenty years, they were the most feared group in this country. If you come up here again, for any reason, they’ll show you exactly why they had everyone so terrified.” He gestured to Fíli, though the lad was a bit of an unimpressive sight, huddled in the grass. “Fíli there can destroy your company faster than you can blink. I’ll set him on you in a heartbeat if I ever see another tour come up here - yours, or anyone else’s. You’d better make it clear to everyone.”

Chris was looking pale, and he swallowed hard, staring at Bilbo in shock. “Who are you?” he muttered. “I didn’t know they had a PR guy!”

“No,” Bilbo said with a wicked little grin. “I’m their burglar. I stole from Gollum, and from Smaug himself. I outsmarted the Goblins, outfought Spider, and freed the most wanted criminals in Scotland from prison, right under the noses of their guards. So what you’ll be wanting to ask yourself here is - why haven’t you heard of me? And what else could I do?” He let his grin morph into something more frightening. “Now get your tourists out of my home, and see that they don’t return.”

Chris was on the coach in an instant, banging the doors shut as he quickly counted heads, and took the coach back down the road in a rush of diesel fumes.

It took the family a while to gather themselves afterwards. Thorin finally ordered everyone back to their little village, which was still a work in progress - but Oin had the fire roaring soon, and they sat around it’s comforting warmth in stunned silence, staring at the flickering light as evening fell. Bilbo barely processed the fact that his delivery had never come. It was something to worry about another day.

At Bilbo’s side, Kíli gave a massive shudder. “They wouldn’t stop pinching my cheeks,” he said sadly, rubbing at his face. “I so need to grow a beard.”

“No, lad,” Balin said glumly, running a hand down his own massive white beard. “They’ve half pulled mine out.”

“I don’t care what Dori says,” Nori grumbled darkly. “If they come back, I’m robbing every one of them blind.”

“They didn’t even notice I was there!” Ori said, his voice a near wail of despair.

“Too much knitting,” Dori said wisely, patting his brother’s back. “Probably thought you were a sheep.”

Fíli was glaring at his mobile, and Thorin nudged him with a foot. “Put it away, lad. I won’t have you in jail again.”

“You don’t understand,” he said, his voice quiet and horrified. “The websites they’ve made about us!” He shoved his mobile in his pocket with a shiver, and punched Kíli in the arm. “You’re never allowed online again, d’you hear me? It’s not safe.”

Thorin seemed mostly frozen in shock, so Bilbo explained quietly that he hoped he’d taken care of the situation. He shrugged at the end. “Who knew we were so popular? Well, you lot, really.”

“That lad said there were books about us,” Bofur said slowly. Bifur was at his side, fingers moving sporadically, as if in quiet murmured thought. Thankfully, their uninvited guests had mostly left him to himself. “Wonder what they’ve said.”

“They won’t have gotten it right,” Dwalin grumbled. “No one ever does.”

“Someone should write it, though,” Bilbo said suddenly, staring into the fire. “Someone who knows. Because it’s become a story now, all on its own, and it’s not going to just go away. Someone should tell what really happened.”

There were rumbles of agreement from all around the fire, and Thorin leaned closer to Bilbo, until their arms touched. “We’ll leave that to you,” he said fondly. Bilbo gaped at him.

But it wasn’t a bad idea, really, and Bilbo had always fancied himself a writer. Maybe someday he would do it, and set the record straight for everyone. For right now, though, he was content to huddle a little closer to Thorin as the evening grew cooler, and watch his family as they settled down together, shaking off the strange trauma of the day. The tourists had it all wrong. It hadn’t been romantic or glamorous, the running and hiding, and it wasn’t quaint and charming, trying to carve a new life out of their land. It was good, though, in ways that they couldn’t understand.

A stick popped and cracked in the fire, sending sparks up into the sky, and Bilbo grinned, resting his head on Thorin’s shoulder. It was all good.

Chapter Text

By the time they tear him away from Fíli and Thorin, all of them screaming, fury and fire and fear, Kíli’s fairly certain he’s finished. He’s never heard Fíli scream like that, or seen such terror in Thorin’s eyes. His shoulder is a throbbing fireball of agony, and he’s slipping in and out of consciousness. His eyes won’t focus, and the pain is the only thing keeping him awake - his shoulder the worst, but the gash on his face stings wildly, and his entire torso is a mass of dull aching bruises.

The medics take him away, unconcerned with his frantic struggles to stay with his family, and Kíli buries his face in his uninjured arm and sobs, hardly caring who sees him. He’s seventeen and feverish and in pain, and he’s fairly certain he’s going to die here, all alone.

The next few hours are a dark nightmare of hands moving him from one place to the next, interspersed with bright periods of sharp pain - the IV going in, and the whole awful process of getting his shoulder wound cleaned up. Random voices assure him he’s going to be fine, but Kíli knows better than to trust what they have to say. They treat him like a wild animal, like he might rear up and bite them. He’s never felt less dangerous in his life.

His fever climbs and climbs, despite the medications they’re pumping into his veins, and Kíli loses his grip on reality. The faces of the people who hold him down morph into cruel, horrible shapes - the stuff of nightmares, and he screams in fear, fighting back as best he can. He thrashes against their grip, not caring about the sharp pain that tears through his shoulder, his arm, into his chest. He just needs to get away. He screams for Fíli, and Fíli never comes. That has only happened once before.

Then there is a bear - a giant black bear, with paws that are huge and powerful, but do not rip or claw at him. The bear presses him down against the pillows and growls at him, almost like words, but Kíli does not understand. The paws are gentle, though, and the bear’s growling is so like Dwalin’s familiar rumble that Kíli feels himself relax a little, trusting to the strength of this wild thing.

They let him sleep, finally, though not for long enough, and he is woken by a cold, distant man who asks him questions and doesn’t want his answers. Thranduil stares at him from across a great distance, and Kíli feels cold all through.

“I’m afraid you’ll be staying with us for a very long time,” Thranduil tells him dispassionately, looking at his own fingernails. “You’ve made a great impression on the more criminally-minded youths of Edinburgh, Mr. Oakenshield.”

“You can’t prove anything,” Kíli says. It’s weak, and he knows it, but he can’t make the room stop spinning and dipping sickeningly, and he doesn’t like this man.

“You may be surprised,” the police officer says. His eyes are sharp and unforgiving; Kíli almost thinks he is not human. “And there is your family to think about, after all. What you have to say may well have a bearing on how long they spend in my cells.”

He only takes his leave when the great bear forces him to leave, and Kíli lies motionless, feeling his heart pounding. There is agony in his shoulder with every rush of blood through his veins. The door opens again, and Kíli cannot bear to look. He will not look at that man again. He always knew he wasn’t strong enough on his own.

“You will not speak to him again until you are well.” The low rumble of a voice startles Kíli and he looks around. The door is open, but blocked by the huge form of a man in hospital garb, wild black hair making him look half-animal. It is his bear.

“I don’t want to,” Kíli whispers. He feels more like a child than he has in a decade. He is small here, and helpless, and there is nothing standing between him and his worst nightmares but a man who might also be a wild animal.

“You are my patient,” the man says calmly. The rumble of his voice hits something deep in Kíli’s chest, and he breathes a little easier. “I am Beorn. I will not let him disturb you until your health is returned.”

“I’m not,” Kíli asks, confused. “I’m not going to die?”

“We all die,” Beorn says soothingly. He adjusts the dials that control the medication that drips through Kíli’s veins. “But you will not die today, young Oakenshield.”

That’s sort of a relief, though it opens up whole new vistas of fears for Kíli to consider later. For now, though, he nods, and goes to sleep because he cannot stay awake. He isn’t safe or warm or comfortable, but he isn’t dying, either.

He wakes up again at the sound of the door being locked. That’s a sound that triggers a visceral reaction - always has, any time he and Fíli hear noises that sound like captivity, like the end of freedom. They can’t bear it. He startles awake, struggling to sit up and process his situation, but the roar of blood in his ears drowns out rational thought, and his shoulder is screaming at him.

Bilbo is there.

Bilbo Baggins, small and kind and unimposing - and there is no reason on earth for him to be in Kíli’s hospital room. He looks dreadfully tired, and frightened, and the way he’s looking at Kíli is so full of sorrow and pity that he knows at once that Bilbo is there with bad news. It’s the only possible reason. Outsiders don’t stay with the family, not for long; they come into their lives and float out again, easy as tides, and Kíli has learned not to trust them any farther than he’s willing to risk his heart. That Bilbo has come here to tell him whatever news is creasing his forehead in those lines of worry and sadness speaks well to his character, but Kíli knows this will be goodbye. He wonders frantically whether Fíli has died of his head injury, or if they’ve all been hauled away to London, or put someplace he’ll never see them again. His breathing quickens.

Bilbo comes to the side of his bed, hands coming out to pat his arm comfortingly. Kíli tries to get his eyes to focus, and his heart to keep beating properly.

“Shhh, lad,” Bilbo murmurs kindly. “It’s alright, it’s just Uncle Bill.” He pats him again, like Kíli is a fretful child. “It’ll be fine.”

“Uncle Bill?” Kíli murmurs. Why is Bilbo calling himself that?

A memory floats to the surface of his mind - himself and Fíli, working late at night to put together an emergency packet for Bilbo. They knew the risks of their life, but Bilbo didn’t, and he was likely to get himself killed if things went wrong. William Took, they had named his alter ego, and Kíli blinks in relief as the memory comes roaring back. Bilbo must have found the packet. He smiles a little, though his heart isn’t in it. “Glad you could make it. Has the great bear told you everything?”

Bilbo nods, and sighs at him in some form of annoyance or worry, but cuts himself off. “You’ve had a lot of people worried after you, my boy.” Kíli breathes, and counts to ten, and forces himself not to blurt out all of his questions at once - most of which boil down to figuring out where his family are.

Kíli has always adored his family, since before he can remember. They are the air in his lungs and the ground beneath his feet, and he has no idea what he is without them. He and Fíli travel together, and he needs his brother above all others - but the family has to survive, has to continue, or Kíli Oakenshield doesn’t know how to exist. He knows, even through the haziness that has invaded his mind, that they were all arrested, and Bilbo doesn’t seem in any rush to tell him that they’ve all been tragically killed in some misguided prison escape or the like - but they are not there with him, and that is the worst feeling Kíli has known.

“I’m afraid the rest are already in prison,” Bilbo says, confirming about half of his fears. “I saw Fíli not an hour ago, though, and he’s well - if worried about you.”

That was rather a useless thing to say, since Fíli is always worried about him, and Kíli looks away toward the barred window, swallowing hard. Fíli is not there - will not be coming to take him away and bring him back to the family - and he doesn’t know what to do.

Bilbo scoots his chair a bit closer, looking rather desperately sorry for him, and Kíli braces himself. He will say goodbye now, and go away, back to his astoundingly quiet, normal life in Linlithgow, and that is an utter shame. Because he likes Bilbo - rather a lot actually - and Bilbo had done more to make him feel safe and human than any other outsider had ever even dreamed. But in the end, Bilbo isn’t family, and so he will go away, and Kíli will be alone here, chained to a hospital bed, with no family and no way out. He tries not to hyperventilate.

There’s a strange moment, then, that feels disconnected, even in Kíli’s woozy mind. He tries to explain a bit of his thinking, the firm belief that’s taking hold - that if he just cooperates with Thranduil, confesses to whatever he wants to hear, agrees to be a poster boy for the repercussions of juvenile criminal activity - Thranduil will help his family, and they will be free. He won’t, of course, but what does that matter, in the end? He can’t be free without them. But Bilbo’s talking about something else entirely, even as Kíli starts to panic. Time is moving strangely, and his breathing doesn’t want to work right, and he’s handcuffed to the bed, and Fíli and Thorin are locked away and he will never see them again.

“Kíli!” Bilbo shouts, and he freezes. He’d almost sounded like Thorin there, for just a moment, and Kíli’s heart stops for an instant. Bilbo reaches out a gentle hand to his face, and Kíli realises he’s crying. Why hadn’t he known that? Bilbo looks so sad. “We are going to get them out,” he promises. “And you, too. We go together, or not at all.”

But Kíli is handcuffed to the bed, and his brother is in prison, and his family might as well be on another continent. There are locks on his door, and Kíli is so very, very tired.

“We’re trapped,” he whispers. Maybe Bilbo can’t feel it - the weight of the steel and concrete around them, the way they block out the sun and the air - but Kíli can, and he finds it very hard to breathe. It sucks the air from his lungs, and he can barely move. “We’ve been running forever, and now we’re trapped, Uncle Bill.” His breath catches in a sob, and Bilbo squeezes his hand hard. “I don’t know how to get us out.”

Because Kíli’s the only one left outside, and he’s very incredibly useless. He always suspected as much. If they’ve got to rely on him, they’re all going to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Kíli doesn’t know how to exist without them.

But Bilbo is smiling, just a little, and his hands are warm and steady, tethering Kíli to reality even as his tired mind would float him away.

“We are going to think and scheme and plan,” Bilbo promises quietly, “and then I’m going to go to your uncle and see how much I can get through to him.” He nods a little. “One step at a time.”

Kíli can’t even take a step. He feels crushed by it all, and the pain is creeping up on him again - but Bilbo is still there, and he takes a breath, and then another. His brain doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Bilbo isn’t family - and yet he is here, promising to help, promising that Kíli doesn’t have to do this alone. He is lifting the weight off of Kíli’s tired shoulders and putting it on himself - and if that doesn’t make him some sort of family, then Kíli has never understood it to begin with. It terrifies him - but he trusts Uncle Bill, and as he slumps back against the pillows, eyes beginning to feel unbearably heavy, he is able to smile and joke a bit.

He falls asleep in the end, half-drugged on pain and fear and exhaustion and relief. Uncle Bill promises that he will see Thorin and Fíli, and they will be able to communicate through him, and Kíli tries to tell himself it’s good enough. It isn’t, really. He wants nothing but his brother, nothing but his family, and to be out of this room where the lights sway sickly in the ceiling and a giant bear prowls around outside his door. He wants to see the sun again.

But Uncle Bill’s fingers are sweetly gentle as he brushes Kíli’s hair out of his face, just as he is falling asleep - like he loves Kíli, or thinks him worth a moment of kindness. Kíli’s not really sure what he’s worth, on his own, without his family - but he falls asleep there, with a kind hand on his head, and he is not alone.

Chapter Text

Bofur was not born of the Mountain.

His father was from Ireland, and met his mother at a dance in Dublin when she was visiting a friend, and followed her back to Scotland like a wee lost puppy, she always said fondly. They traveled a lot, looking for work that would suit a simple man and his little family, and Bofur became an older brother on the road. He loved it - the traveling, meeting new people, splashing his feet in a different burn every few days. But it was no life for children, his mother insisted. When her sister’s husband found steady work at a lead mine in the hills above Loch Lomond, they packed their few possessions and moved to Beinn Chuirn, and never looked back.

It was a nice way to grow up, there, free and easy on the mountain. He had a cousin near enough his own age to play with, and little Bombur to look after - though Mama never did understand why they couldn’t call him by his given name. The older children had no quarrel with them, and they roamed free and grew tall and strong in the sun. Bofur started working in the mine as soon as he was able, since his father’s back was giving out, and he liked it. It was simple, honest work, and Bofur was a simple honest man. He liked his beer, and his easy conversations with Bifur, and the steady pay and reliable nature of his job.

His parents moved away, back to Ireland, when his father grew too old and sore to work, and Bofur took his place. It was his money that paid Bombur’s fees and kept him in decent clothing as he went to Uni, and then supported him as he took unpaid positions in government offices, working his way up the ladder. Bofur was proud of his brother, and he never missed the money. There was nothing more he wanted.

So when Smaug came, and their homes burned, Bofur lost less than most. There were no valuables in the little wooden home that burned, no family members dead or torn away in the smoke - nothing but his name was tarnished, and he’d never had much pride to begin with. He comforted his friends, mourning with them, and had settled into their odd, disjointed life of moving about with hardly a stutter. It was a dance he’d learned long ago, and some wild part of his heart had missed it.

But days stretched into weeks and months and years, and the steps of the dance grew tiring. He watched Bombur rise with such great pride - but knew that every step he took up the ladder was one more step away from the family they once had been. He clung to Bifur in his brother’s absence, and kept what memories he could, pressing them into a cheap notebook, as if to prove to himself that they had existed as more than wraiths once.

~~~
It was joy to all of them when Dis had a child - golden, brilliant Fili, and Bofur fell in love with the little one at once. He was not his son, or his nephew, but that hardly mattered then. They were becoming something more than friends, those of them who had stayed together. He took odd jobs wherever he could, bringing in money to make ends meet, to be sure that little Fili had the best they could give him. Dis laughed quietly when Bofur sang to the baby, though he never asked whether that was because of the quality of his voice or the content of his songs. He sang what he remembered of his father’s songs, lyrics mangled by the years, and Fili had no complaints.

They had to move more often, though, and his already-tenuous connections to his brother dropped one by one. He loved his brother fiercely, and worried about him. Every article he clipped from a paper showed his brother a bit older and heavier, and he pressed them into his book with a heavy heart. He loved his brother, but he could not help.

Fili became an older brother on the road, and they all delighted in their newcomer - because their numbers were dwindling all the time, their group growing smaller and leaner with every year. The youngsters whose names had not been ruined found jobs or went away to school, and they did not return. When Noreen left, it was sudden and unexpected, but she was far from the only one to abandon a spouse, looking for a safer life. Bofur wished her the very best, but his sympathies remained with Dori, who was crushed by the loss.

~~~

In that first decade, sentiment outweighed prudence much of the time. They knew that they should not go back to Beinn Chuirn, but it called them back again and again. They learned to jump fences and evade police barriers, desperate to see their home once more, even though they could not touch, could not return, could not claim their lives again. Thorin burned with silent rage, and they smoldered with him, and he led them through the dragon’s teeth over and over again, though they had nothing to show for it.

So when they were finally caught, it should have been no surprise - but it was, because Bofur never expected such viciousness from the men who wore the uniforms of civil authority. None of them escaped without injury that day - but none were as injured as Bifur. His head bled and bled, until they thought it would never stop, and Bofur’s fingers were stained crimson as he struggled to stop the bleeding. He was not a doctor - but he’d seen a man bleed to death in the mines before, caught in the neck by a careless axe and gone before anyone could save him.

“Stay with me,” Bofur crooned, a meaningless song when his words died out. “Fight with me, come home again with me.”

Bifur made it through that night, head stitched closed with thread and needle and awkward, fumbling fingers. Bofur prayed to a God his mother once knew, and his words were just as awkward and fumbling and desperate as his pathetic attempts at medical care. He lost the next few weeks in a haze of near-panic at every moment, as Bifur drifted in and out of consciousness, his body racked by seizures and fevers, and when his eyes opened, Bofur’s cousin was not there. It was weeks before he could look after himself at all, and Bofur moved them into a quiet little hole in a wall and fought for Bifur’s life. Eventually the wound closed, in a hideous knotted scar that would mark their foolish mistake forever, and Bofur did not have to put anything in his book to remember that day.

~~~
Things grew harder after that, one loss piling on another until it was hard to stand. Their friendships with those who had found lives outside the little group, outside their quest, stretched thin and faded away, and Bofur hardly knew his brother when he saw him on the television. But he would not drag his little brother into this life - not when Bombur was shining so brightly, standing free and strong like they had on the mountain in their youth.

Dis died, and her children were orphans, and Thorin was left rudderless and full of fury. Bofur packed up the few things they had, and took Bifur with him, and they moved to Thorin’s side and stayed from then on. He helped with the children wherever possible, but Bifur needed such care that it was difficult. He stood and walked on his own, now, and fed himself and bathed himself - but his words were lost somewhere on Beinn Chuirn, and he grew so angry when he couldn’t make himself understood that Bofur often sported a black eye or a split lip. But he smiled nonetheless, and made a joke of it for the children, who watched him with such old eyes.

When the lads were stolen away from them, Bofur thought it was the end. There was no way past that loss - not for Thorin, not for the rest of them. Getting them back again was a miracle he had not dared ask for, and he needed to offer thanks, somehow.

He hung back from the rest when Thorin snatched Kili up and made off into the night, and he smiled gratefully at the woman who had been caring for him.

“Thank you,” he murmured sincerely, taking off his hat and clutching it to his chest. “You have no idea what he means to us.”

She shook her head, smiling ruefully. The kindness in her eyes made her lovely. “I can tell - the way you look at him says enough.”

He fumbled in his pocket for the small amount of money he had, and thrust it out toward her, conscious of what a little offering it was, and she laughed, pushing his hand away.

“Please,” Bofur said quietly. “I need to thank you somehow.”

She reached inside her door, grabbing a pen and a bit of paper, and scribbled down her address. “This is me. Let me know how Kili is doing - and his Fili, of course! Send me pictures once in a while. That would be the loveliest thanks you could offer.”

Bofur clutched the paper tight in one hand, glancing down at the words. “Gracie. Thank you.” He clapped his hat onto his head, bending down to kiss her hand with a flourish, and then ran to follow his friends, even as police lights began to flash blue, the consequences of their actions hot on their trail again.

He kept her address, and began writing to her regularly. Nothing to identify them, of course; he dropped letters in towns far from where they were staying, laying false trails if anyone had cared enough to watch the post. In them, he told the woman he had met for such a short time about the lads and how they were getting on - how Kili was talking in sudden full sentences, and that they wouldn’t let go of one another for anything, and that Kili had taken to biting strangers who tried to touch him, and that Fili had learned to read in two weeks flat. Bofur sent pictures when he could, enclosing them carefully in the letters into the void even as he slipped identical copies into his book. It was growing thick with memories.

They weren’t all good. He took clippings of police reports and news articles, too, for every car they stole, or window they broke, or fraud they had to perpetrate to keep food on the table. It was shame and pride and achievement, all at once, and he didn’t think they deserved to forget any of it.

But Bifur grew healthier, slowly and painfully, and Bofur began to see glimpses of his cousin in the eyes of the man he had become. Fili and Kili, in their youthful enthusiasm and lack of regard for the proper way of doing things, invented a sign language that shaped his lost words into basic ideas, and Bifur could speak again, in a way. He wrote to Gracie of their cleverness, knowing full well he had no right to brag about them. He wasn’t even family.

The years passed, quickly and slowly by turns. Thorin’s hair began to show hints of grey, and Balin swore it was the lads’ madcap adventures that finally turned every hair on his head and in his beard a pure white. Bofur watched his cousin grow old before his time, aged and slowed down by his injury - but his hands were still as sure and clever as they had ever been. Fili and Kili ran like holy terrors, keeping the rest of them spinning: keeping the rest of them smiling, and moving, and alive.

It was Bofur who went with Thorin to London the day Dori called in a panic, saying the lads had slipped away from Ori in Trafalgar Square while he was distracted by a historical marker. It took them six hours to make the trip, with Thorin in something like a dead panic himself, and Bofur swore silently he would never take a road trip with the man if he had a choice in the matter.

Eight and ten, the lads were, and Thorin roared at them half the way back to Edinburgh that they were old enough to know better; then he fell silent in such a way that Bofur was fairly certain meant he was fighting off tears. When they stopped to fuel the car, not far from York, Bofur took a look at the desolate expressions on their little faces and climbed into the back with them, letting one boy lean against each of his sides while his arms went around them. Fili had slipped his parka onto Kili’s skinny shoulders at some point, and he was shaking a little with cold. Bombur pulled his hat off and dropped it on Fili’s golden head, pulling the earflaps down securely over the sides of his head, until he could hardly make out that a little boy was under the fur at all.

Thorin huffed a little as he got back into the little mint-green car, shaking his head at the three of them. “Will you give the man no peace? There are those who might not want to be your personal headrests, you know.” But there was humour in his tone now, and Bofur felt both of the boys relax against him. Kili gave his uncle a cheeky grin, his eyes bright with irrepressible enthusiasm.

“Bofur does!” he said cheerfully, and Thorin chuckled reluctantly. It was hard not to react that way to Kili.

“And how do you know that?”

“’Cause he’s family,” Kili said logically. “And family means we lean on each other. Bifur told me so.”

Bofur felt his breath catch in his throat, and there was a sudden sensation in his stomach like being kicked by a mule. On his other side, Fili was nodding in sleepy agreement. He caught Thorin’s eyes in the rearview mirror, and the understanding and compassion there nearly brought him to tears.

He had never thought of himself as family. Friend, yes, and compatriot, and fellow exile - but family meant Thorin and the children, and Balin and Dwalin in their way, and everyone else was sort of attached in different places, clinging together for survival. He’d never been family. But Kili said he was, and that was that. He blinked hard against the mistiness rising in his eyes, and looked away from Thorin’s sharp gaze.

“Aye, lad,” Thorin said after a moment. “You’re right there.”

And that was how Bofur, once a wanderer, once an older brother and a cousin, found himself a part of the family that became known as the Sons of Durin. From that point on, there was no denying that they were family, despite their lack of blood ties.

~~~
It’s twenty years, or a little more, before they have their mountain again. The family wind themselves into every part of one another’s lives, until there is hardly any memory of the times when they were alone or apart, and Bofur does think that at one point in his life, he’d have found it suffocating. Now, it’s what keeps him standing on the bad days, and he keeps his family upright in return. He writes to Gracie once a month, every month, for thirteen years, and he keeps his book up to date, until it serves as evidence for and against them in their trials. It doesn’t get returned to him when they go to prison, but it doesn’t matter so much any more.

When he is in prison, something strange begins to happen. Letters come for him - loads of them, in batches of two and three and ten. The envelopes are small and neat, addressed to “Kili’s Bofur,” and with a date neatly printed across the seal of each. He doesn’t open any for a long while, almost afraid, but he puts them in order and counts them. One hundred and fifty six. Bifur shares his cell, and looks at the letters crookedly, rolling his eyes at Bofur’s hesitation, but he doesn’t push the issue.

He reads them one day, just after Fili and Kili and Bilbo have been round for their weekly visit. He starts with the first letter, dated back to the month when the lads had been taken away.

Gracie had answered all of his letters. All of them, every month, just as though they were talking back and forth. She commented on his stories about the family, and cooed over the pictures of the lads, and asked questions of her own, all the time laughing at herself.

“Of course, you’re not likely to ever read these, but I’d rather pretend we were talking than that I am writing to myself.”

She had told him stories over those thirteen years - stories of the children who had come and gone from her life, of her own family and their joys and sorrows, and of her hopes for Bofur and his family in their struggles. By the time he reaches the end of the stack, Bofur’s eyes are wet, and he clutches the stack of paper with clumsy fingers. All along, there had been someone else watching them, and hoping he would be alright. He keeps every letter, treasuring them up and rereading them, and thinking they are more than a fair substitute for his lost book, and Bifur signs that he is a soppy idiot who will come to a soppy end, and Bofur threatens to knock Fili and Kili’s heads together for even inventing the sign language in the first place.

It’s strange, but prison is one of the more social times of Bofur’s life. Bombur comes round every week, making time in his busy schedule to sit down with his brother, and they talk properly for the first time in years - in decades, perhaps. It isn’t perfect. There are too many years of absence and silence on both sides, but there is hope, and healing to come. He watches Fili and Kili blossom under Bilbo’s careful eye, becoming more adept at everyday things and starting to integrate themselves into the world, and his heart aches with joy.

It takes him more than a month to get his courage up - and it is the first month he has missed in thirteen years, and Bofur actually feels very badly about it. He doesn’t know what to say, for the first time in all that long while. His letter, when he writes it, is a disastrous mess, but he sends it anyway. At least it is honest.

The next week, he is writing again when a guard comes by to tell him there is a visitor for him, and Bofur is confused, because Bombur has already been by that week, and Bilbo and the lads aren’t due until Thursday. He goes along anyway, sitting comfortably in the chair that’s become so familiar to him in the visitor’s centre. The door opens, and he almost falls out of his seat.

He had met her once before, for five minutes in the middle of a chaotic night, and thirteen long years have passed since then, and he knows her face nonetheless. It’s lined with care now, and her hair is more grey than brown, and he thinks she is as lovely as her words and as her heart, and he’s more than half certain he’s been in love with her for his whole life, only he hasn’t known it. There are words that people use - about soulmates and destiny and whatnot, and Bofur doesn’t care for any of them. She’s the one, and that is that.

And she is in a prison in Edinburgh, looking torn between nervousness and joy to see him.

He’s a mess, and he knows it - dressed in prison garb, his beard and hair cut strangely short to meet regulations - but he smiles his widest, and she grins back at him easily, like ink flowing from a pen, and sits down across from him.

“So, how’s Kili’s job?” Gracie asks eagerly, laying her hands on the table in front of her. “Tell me this Beorn is going to be able to keep him in line!”

“You - I-” Bofur stumbles over the words, his heart beating erratically. “You want to start there? We haven’t even said hello!”

She laughs, bright and sweet, and he feels something break free in his heart that he had not known was bound up before. “Bofur, we’ve said hello more than a hundred and fifty times, and they tell me I can only visit for an hour today. I’m not wasting time.”

~~~
Gracie will come back - not every week, of course, but often enough to make Bofur slightly dizzy - and they will talk like old friends, and more, and he will ask her to come to the mountain when they are free.

And one day, when the sun is bright on Beinn Chuirn, shining on their heads and sweeping away the last memories of the dark times, Gracie will come to his mountain and meet his family again, and Bofur will meet her there in the sun, and follow her like a lost puppy as she wanders the mountain. The last wild part of his heart will settle in with a sigh of contentment, and Bofur will truly be home.

Chapter Text

It is the most frightening task they have faced in over a decade. They have seen violence and pain and loss and death. They are the terrors of Scotland, the nightmares that mothers whisper about and hope their children will not hear. They are the Sons of Durin.

And they are all bloody cowards.

~~~

It’s Gloin who brought it to their attention, of course. He was a father, and he often brought these sorts of things to them. He told them in a hushed voice one night, while visiting most of the family in a crowded, smokey Edinburgh pub, that it must be done.

“Gimli’s just been learning about it at school,” he told them, face drawn and solemn. “Fíli and Kíli won’t learn it there, of course. If you don’t explain things to them, they’ll have to find out on their own.”

They all shuddered at that, and someone muttered a little prayer.

“But surely they know?” Ori said, blushing beet red and fumbling with his oversized mittens. “I mean they must, mustn’t they?”

“And if they don’t?” Dwalin growled, hands tightening around his glass. “Would you have them learn elsewhere?”

“Kíli runs with street urchins!” Bofur said, caught in the grip of despair. “Who knows what they might have taught him? And Fíli – if he hasn’t learned more online than any of us has ever known, I’ll eat my hat.”

Thorin thumped his empty glass down on the table loudly, gathering their attention. His back was straight and his shoulders strong, and there could be no questioning the serious look in his eyes. This was Thorin Oakenshield, speaking as their leader.

“It is our duty to see that they know all they must,” he said soberly. Heads nodded around the table, and a wave of relief passed through the men. Thorin was a good uncle, and would see to matters. He stood, leaning both hands on the table to gaze down at them all. “You have been the bravest and most loyal hearts I have known, and it is my honour to leave this duty in your capable hands.” They gaped at him, and Thorin straightened quickly, grabbing his coat, and speaking rapidly. “I’m leaving for Orkney; I’ll be back in a fortnight. See to it that the job is done.” And in the swirl of a black leather coat, Thorin Oakenshield had fled the pub – but with a certain majesty.

“More beer!” Oin called glumly, and they stared into their glasses quietly.

“Gloin, you should do it,” Dori said after a while. “You’ve got a lad of your own, you’ll know how to talk to them.”

“No.” The answer was flat, and came fast. “I’ve done my duty by my own lad, and someone else must handle those two.”

“You were a married man, Dori. I’ll bet you could tell the lads a thing or two,” Nori said, nudging his brother with a meaningful wink. Dori shook his head sadly, and his eyes went blank and empty; three others kicked Nori under the table.

They considered asking Bifur to do the job, but quickly agreed that they didn’t have enough signs in their language to allow him to communicate effectively. Bombur said that, as an MP, he had to make enough distasteful explanations on a daily basis the excuse him this duty, and they couldn’t argue that one. Oin pretended to be too deaf to hear the question when it was put to him.

Nori sighed in exasperation, and slapped the table. “Well, hell. I’ll tell them myself, and there’ll be no more need for all this beard-pulling and chin-wagging.”

“No!” they shouted, a universal disagreement that had him blinking in shock, and Dori patted his shoulder consolingly.

“Nori, my lad, you’re an excellent fellow with many decent qualities – so please believe me when I say I will be very sorry if we’re forced to turn you over to the police for the corruption of minors.”

Nori shrugged, unperturbed. “It was a one-time thing! You needn’t act like I’m a complete scoundrel.”

“But you are!” Ori said, wrapping his arms around himself protectively. “Remember, you tried to give me the talk when I was sixteen, and Dori stopped you halfway through, and I still have nightmares?” He cringed at the thought.

“You can do it, then,” Gloin said, clapping Ori on the shoulder cheerfully. “You’re closer to their age than any of us! Just talk to them like one of the lads!”

Ori stuttered uselessly, and wound up sliding bonelessly under the table, where no further word of sense could be wrung from him for the next half hour.

So that left just Bofur, Balin, and Dwalin – and they all felt it would be rather unfair to nominate Balin to the job in his absence, since he was at home with the lads that evening. Finally, Dwalin downed his beer in one last gulp, and stood up, stalking out of the bar without a word.

“A braver man than I,” Bofur said, with a tip of his fur hat, and that was that.

~~~

Except it wasn’t.

Dwalin found most of them the next day, looking stressed. He shook his head, his mighty arms folded across his chest.

“You didn’t tell them?” Nori hissed, eyeing the house behind Dwalin with trepidation.

“They were babes in my arms once!” Dwalin growled, looking half-mad, eyes wide. “I cannot.”

“Fíli’s going to be sixteen,” Bofur said desperately. “We’ve got to.”

Bifur signed furiously - Dwalin was a coward, and the rest of them fools.

Bofur nodded his head despondently, and took his hat off with great ceremony, marching into the house like a man going to meet his doom. The rest of them hung around awkwardly, trying to look like they were innocent urban bird-spotters.

It was half an hour before Bofur came back, looking rather shell-shocked. They swarmed him as soon as he came out.

“Did you do it?” Ori asked – nearly begged, really, and Bofur gave a weary shrug.

“I did my best,” he protested, snatching his hat back from his cousin and tugging it onto his head. “They just misunderstood everything.” He sank down to sit on the bonnet of the car, shaking his head.

“Oh, did you tell them it was about love? Or use a metaphor? They’re so not good with metaphors,” Ori said sadly.

“Balin will have to have the talk with them,” Dori declared, nodding his grey head. Dwalin sighed, and made his way silently into the house.

It was an hour before he re-emerged, looking even grimmer than before. They all shouted in disbelief, and he put up an angry hand.

“Balin has given his best effort!” he shouted, quieting them in a moment. “They are unteachable!”

“That’s what you said about addition and subtraction, too,” Oin said – and then remembered that he was supposed to be too deaf to take part in the conversation, and turned away to look innocently at a fallen leaf.

“Thorin will have to do it himself,” Bofur said sadly. “And we have let him down.”

There was a snort of disgust, and Bifur stalked toward the door. They all glanced around at one another anxiously, not sure whether they should stop him.

He came back ten minutes later, calm and composed, and nodded to all of them. A small smile played around the corners of his mouth, and they all stared at him.

“Did they-” Bofur asked. “I mean, are you sure?”

Bifur signed easily – the job is done, and you are all cowards.

He put his hands in his pockets and walked away, whistling an ancient tune.

Chapter Text

Dwalin Fundinson is a strong man, and a good man, and a loyal man. He is reckless and headstrong, and he takes people to his heart and does not let them go. He is the first defense of his family, and the last to retreat from a fight. He is a motorbike enthusiast and a wanted man. But first and foremost, Dwalin is a brother, and the friend of brothers.

Balin is more than fifteen years his elder, and they are not close, growing up. Balin goes away to university and then comes home, and he misses much of Dwalin’s childhood. But Dwalin has Thorin and Frerin and Dis to run with on the mountain, and he looks forward to the days his brother comes home, looking up to him with such pride and respect that even a kind smile from his brother will make him glower with happiness. When their parents pass away, happy and well-loved in their old age, Dwalin is already an adult. He and Balin mourn together, the loss bringing them closer.

Thorin is his brother in fact, if not in name, and they look after Frerin together, containing his wildness when they can and getting him out of his scrapes when they cannot prevent them. It is Dwalin who sneaks alcohol up to the mountain, where they drink it under the moonlight until they are roaring with laughter, and then Dis throws ice cold water on them in the morning and laughs at their splutters of misery. It is Thorin who sits with him when his heart is torn in two as the girl he has secretly adored marries another, and Frerin who gets caught trying to shave Dori’s beard in retribution for the wound.

When Beinn Chùirn burns, and Dwalin has to abandon Frerin to save Thorin, he does not scream or weep. That is Thorin’s prerogative, and Dwalin must be strong and immovable, holding the survivors together with the strength of his arms and his heart. But he rages and mourns, and later, when they have found a silent place to make their peace and plan their revenge, he inks a black memory into his skin. He will not forget Frerin, who has been his brother, and he ignores Balin’s quiet huff of disapproval at the inerasable mark.

A year after the Burning, Dwalin sends the others away and brings home alcohol, and he and Thorin drink to excess. Dis looks on, eyes lost in sadness, but the round softness to her belly makes it clear why she will not join their ritual. They try for cheer at first, drinking in memory of the sunlight days on the mountain and the little boy who would follow them everywhere, until Dwalin had to swing him up onto his back and bring him home, worn out by his efforts to be like them. But as they drink, a maudlin mood comes over them, and they end the night in silence, staring darkly into their cups.

Two years after, Thorin is an uncle, and so Dwalin is as well, by extension. He is nervous to hold Fíli, who is so very small and delicate, until the day the baby punches him in the nose with a strong, flailing fist. Dwalin roars with laughter and holds Fíli up to look him in the face.

“You have Thorin’s arm,” he tells the little golden boy, and Fíli gurgles happily. Dis leaves the baby with his father that night and joins Dwalin and Thorin, and they drink - slowly and silently at first, in remembrance, and then with growing enthusiasm. They wind up shouting and pounding the tables - but with rage, not with laughter, and there is a festering wound under the surface of their healing.

It becomes a tradition, every year on the anniversary. People leave them to find their own lives, and Campbell leaves Dis. Dwalin tracks him down and punches him in the face, and warns him never to bother them nor say a word to anyone about the Sons of Durin. He leaves on his motorbike, and wishes there were more he could do for her, his wild sometime-sister. He loves her sons, and dedicates his strength to their protection while they are still infants.

Fíli grows, strong and quick and sturdy, but Kíli is needy and cries at night, and Dis grows weary. Sometimes, Dwalin can convince her to hand the little one over so she can sleep, and he walks back and forth in the moonlight, telling Kíli stories of their home, and of the things he has seen since they left. Kíli doesn’t have a father, but Dwalin doesn’t have a son, and it all seems to work out.

When Dis sickens and fades, it is Dwalin who has to keep Thorin from falling apart. Thorin is mad with loss for a time, and Dwalin bears a black eye and bruised ribs for longer, though Thorin apologises after the violence of his first grief has passed. He says nothing, but his shoulder is strong when Thorin needs to lean against him for strength. They drink more that year on the anniversary, and when Thorin has drunken himself into a stupor, Dwalin lets himself weep, shoulders shaking. Balin comes and finds him and looks after him, and Dwalin is torn between gratitude that he still has a sibling, where Thorin does not, and selfish fury that he is not allowed to mourn Frerin and Dis with the same wild, uncontrolled grief. He inks a reminder into his skin, and wonders if there will be any skin left unmarked when they put him in his grave.

But Fíli and Kíli are growing like weeds, and it takes all of them to look after the little brothers. They cling to one another, finding their life and joy in each other, and the Sons of Durin keep them from the world as best they can. It falls to Dwalin to teach them their maths. It is nearly a disaster.

Kíli understands the concepts, but gets distracted easily, and changes the topic. Fíli is bewildered by the underlying principles, but his execution is neat and efficient.

“But why would I want to divide by sixteen?” Fíli asks, narrowing his eyes at a poorly-phrased word problem that Dwalin has set for him. He glances over at Kíli’s paper and shakes his head. “Kíli, that’s not right! Six and four aren’t forty-six!”

“Oh well, near enough,” Kíli says easily. He has flung himself half out a window and is staring at the people going by below. “Mr. Dwalin, why are those children dressed all alike? Doesn’t that make them too easy to spot?”

Dwalin hauls him back in and sits him down again, pointing at his page. “You’ve done half of these right, and turned the other half into pictures of zoo animals.” Kíli blinks up at him, all wide-eyed innocence, and Fíli groans in frustration.

“Why do I need to do any of this?” He throws down his pencil and pouts. “Not like I’m ever going to get to go to uni or have a proper job.”

Dwalin pats him on the head, and gives up for the day. He takes them to the zoo instead, and watches them fondly as they stare in delight, talking to one another about everything they see and think. Fíli grows tired before they have seen all the animals, and Dwalin swings the boy up onto his back, remembering another golden boy on a mountain, long ago. Kíli scampers along by his side, dark eyes watching everything, his hair flying as he darts from place to place, and Dwalin remembers a girl with dark hair flying and energy that never faded, not until the end.

They curl together at night when they’re put to bed, seeking each other even in sleep, and Dwalin sits quietly and watches them, thinking.

That year, it is ten years since the Burning, and Dwalin brings enough to drink that he would worry for the health of their livers if he thought them likely to live long enough to see the consequences. But he starts slow, and Thorin sees his quiet introspection. He nudges Dwalin with a shoulder.

“What?”

Dwalin sighs, and drinks. “It’s just the lads. They remind me of Frerin and Dis so fiercely, sometimes.”

Thorin freezes for a moment, and then nods slowly. “Aye.” He takes another drink.

“They’re not normal,” Dwalin says quietly. “Expect they never will be. They’re wrapped up in each other.”

Thorin grunts in agreement. “It may be a good thing. They’ll need each other, with this life that we live.”

Dwalin picks at the label on his beer bottle, tearing it off in thin shreds. “What if.” He swallows hard. “What if one of them dies? Hell, Thorin, a day doesn’t go by without thinking about Frerin and Dis! I know it’s the same for you. We’ve been able to pick up and keep going. If something happened to one of the lads, how would the other go on?”

Thorin doesn’t answer. He stares sightlessly into his glass, where amber liquid still sits an inch deep. Dwalin sighs and grabs another beer. “You should tell them,” he says after a while. “About Frerin. They need to know it’s a possibility.”

“Tell them?” Thorin laughs mirthlessly. “Tell Fíli he could be an older brother without a little shadow to look after? Tell Kíli that he might have to watch his brother burn and be helpless to do anything about it?” He shakes his head.

“We can’t hide them forever,” Dwalin growls. The anger is always closer to the surface on this day, bubbling just under his skin.

“We can for now,” Thorin says flatly, and that discussion is over.

They drink in earnest for a while, and the warmth of the alcohol surges through their veins and loosens their tongues and memories. They remember the good times, and share stories from the mountain, and for a while it is like old times. But as ever, it turns to melancholy in the end, and here, with their walls lowered, Dwalin can finally speak his mind.

“I’ve sometimes wondered,” he says, tongue thick and voice slurred, “what happens after. You know.” He gestures vaguely. “Don’t hold with religion much, but it seems unfair if this is it, and this was all they got.”

Thorin shrugs, movements made slow and easy. “Wonder if they’re watching us, you mean?”

“Aye,” Dwalin mutters. “If they’re happy and whatnot. If Dis can see her bairns growing up.”

Thorin takes a quick swig of his drink, mouth twisting bitterly. “I hope to hell she can’t. I don’t want her knowing how poor a life I’m giving them.”

It’s a long time after that before they speak again, and Dwalin winds up half-dragging Thorin to his bed, dropping him heavily and turning away, heading unsteadily for his own lodgings. Thorin stops him with a hand on his sleeve, though he’s more than half unconscious.

“Didn’t mean it,” he mutters. “I hope they’re watching all the time. I want something of them to be left.”

Dwalin thinks of Frerin’s fire, of Dis’ determination and heart, and he smiles tiredly, slapping Thorin’s hand in awkward consolation.

“There is, old friend,” he says tiredly. Thorin grunts in acknowledgment and turns away, snuffling against his pillow, and Dwalin takes his leave. He knows they won’t talk about it in the morning, and that is fine. There are some conversations that are not meant for daylight and prying little ears. He stumbles into a wall as the world tilts a bit, and there is Balin, shaking his head at him.

“Be off with you,” he says gently, nodding toward Dwalin’s room. “You’ll be in pain in the morning, brother.”

Dwalin laughs, and it is half a sob. “Once a year is little enough to pay homage to their memory.”

He finds arms around him, supporting him, and he sags a bit. Once a year is little enough to let himself be weak, to let himself take comfort - but Balin is always there when he needs it, and his arms are strong enough for both of them.

“They were mine, too,” he whispers, and lets himself grieve.

Chapter Text

Ori was an unusual child.

His brothers always put it down to him being the youngest, and so much distance between them. He was twelve when Dori was married on the mountain, and he danced awkwardly with Noreen, who kissed his cheek kindly and whispered that he would make someone special very happy someday. His ears burned crimson at that, and Ori had scuttled away to a quiet corner to write it down, to try to catch the moment in ink and paper. It made it real.

The writing of things, and the idea of memory, were a consuming passion for Ori. While his brothers and cousins on the mountain worked in the mines and in honest manual labour, Ori threw himself into books and study, amazing the teachers at his tiny school in Tyndrum. He would have begged to be sent somewhere better, but there was no money, and he knew it - not after their parents were gone, and Dori and Nori were both working themselves ragged to see to his needs. He kept his mouth shut and wrote it down, though, as he did all of his hopes and dreams. He knew what he wanted. He had a plan.

He would do his best through school, of course, and do well on all of his exams, and then the future would open up to him. He pressed colourful brochures about potential courses of study into his carefully-kept book, though he had chosen by thirteen. He would go to St. Andrews and read history, and then the entire world of pressed pages of memories would be open to him. He wrote about it in loving detail, and had envisioned it all a thousand times by his fourteenth birthday.

He was fourteen when Smaug came, and their homes burned, and Nori kept him far from the smoke and chaos and screaming, and didn’t listen when Ori thumped frantically on his arm and shouted that he needed to get something - that something important was burning. His book, all of his careful memories and hopes and dreams, burned away to ashes that night, and his future with it.

Ori was a determined lad, though, and he kept his chin up as they ran for those first few days. He scrounged pen and paper and made notes - so many notes - reworking his plans. He could make up for the lost days of school, explain his absence, and not fall behind. His teachers would understand. But as days stretched into weeks, and then months, his notes grew more frantic and less in tune with reality. His brothers would not let him go back to the mountain, and Noreen did her best to cheer him up, but Ori watched the dates on the calendar flip faster and faster away from his hopes, and he had to put his face in his hands and breathe slowly so as not to panic.

By the time he was sixteen, Ori had rewritten his plans, given the circumstances. He kept up with his studies as best he could, on the road, and didn’t ask where Nori got the books he begged for. He would have to do his best on his own, keeping his head down, and as soon as they had sorted things out, he could get back on track. He might even be a figure of importance by then! He daydreamed of being the one to bring Smaug down, of using his wits and intellect to outsmart the evil worm - of how they would look at him with pride, then, even Thorin. He would still be able to follow his dreams, with his head held high.

Fíli was born on a brilliant January day, exactly six months after Ori had turned sixteen. He went to see Dis and her baby after they had settled in, but shook his head as she held the baby out to him.

“Go on, then!” she said with a laugh, dark eyes flashing. She had always frightened him. “You won’t drop him, love - and if you do, he’ll likely bounce. We Oakenshields are made of stern stuff!”

Ori sat down, cowed, and let the little pink and golden bundle be placed in his arms. He felt immensely awkward holding the baby - all hands that were too big and sweaty, and arms that shook like noodles, and hair that he knew was too long falling in his face as he gazed at the minuscule perfection of Dis’ baby.

“He’s very small,” Ori muttered awkwardly, and Dis chuckled.

“And so were you, once.” She patted his shoulder firmly, and Ori tightened his grip on the baby, afraid of letting him slip. “Look at you now! He’ll look up to you, you know.” She nodded solemnly at Ori’s huff of disbelief, and leaned down to put her eyes on a level with his. “I mean it. He has no shortage of people to teach him to fight and run, but who will teach him to be wise, if not you?”

“Balin?” Ori tried weakly, and Dis shook her head, not breaking that intimidating stare.

“You,” she said firmly. “Teach my son your love of words, Ori, and I will hope he will grow to be as wise and kind a young man as you are now.”

There was no arguing with Dis Oakenshield, so Ori just nodded dumbly and looked down at the baby, whose eyes hadn’t quite learned to focus yet. He knew babies were meant to be a sign of hope, of new life, and he steadied his courage and took it as hope to them all.

He did his best, honestly, though when Fíli was little he could do no more than share the silly nursery rhymes and games that he barely remembered from his own youth, and read the few ragged picturebooks that Nori was able to obtain now and then. Fíli enjoyed them, though he fell asleep more often than not as Ori read.

By the time Fíli was an older brother to a dark and wild infant, Ori was eighteen, and the hope that had bloomed once was quickly fading. If Fíli had been a sign of hope, then Kíli seemed a knell of doom.

He should have been at university now, reading until his eyes went blurry, making questionable choices when he’d had too much to drink, and making friends with people his own age. Instead, he followed his brothers wherever they dragged him, never allowed to do more than quiet, inconspicuous jobs. He had never sat an exam, or so much as placed his name on an application form. They were wanted men, and so he could never have what he wanted. He didn’t promise Dis anything this time.

They kept moving, and Ori got angrier and quieter, drawn in on himself to the point that he sometimes forgot to speak to anyone else for days at a time. He barely wrote any longer, though he sat with his battered old notebooks for hours, pen in hand, doodling meaningless sketches in the margins of pages that were meant to contain his notes and plans for how he might make his life right again. His life was wasting away before his eyes, and there was nothing that Ori could do about it.

It was Nori who dragged him out of it, in the end, quite literally - grabbed him by one arm and pulled him out into the streets at night. Ori could never quite remember what happened after that, though he suspected quite a lot of alcohol was involved, and he woke up the next morning with paint on his hands and mud on his boots, and he knew that he had broken laws. It was a beginning.

His mind, long stifled, turned with a wicked glee to mischief, and Ori found he had a positive genius for causing trouble. He became Nori’s lookout, providing him with distractions and quick excuses, getting his brother out of one scrape after another even as they plunged headlong into the next. They drank a bit too much, and Dori shook his head and tutted and worried, but Ori ignored it. He found amusement in making trouble, though there was little harm in it, and for the first time since the mountain had burned, Ori felt like the world had stopped folding in around him, cutting off his breath. He ran free, and let his notebooks collect dust.

Whenever Nori got arrested, always under some false identity, Ori had to go to ground with Dori and wait it out. He got good at finding small, quiet jobs to bring in a bit of money, and Dori made him spend time with the remnants of the family who had stayed together. Thorin and Dwalin had little use for him, burdened as they were with all of their fates, and later with Thorin’s wild, orphaned nephews. Ori tried to keep his distance from them - for guilt, mostly, that he hadn’t done as Dis had asked, and that he didn’t intend to. What use was it? What use was any of it, when Thorin insisted on dragging them all deeper into the mud with each crime, each year of running and stealing and hiding? It was Ori’s potential that had been wasted, and Ori’s future that had been sacrificed. He was bitter, and he did his best to hide it - submitted to Dori’s terrible haircuts that make him look like a refuge from a mediaeval monastery, swallowed his sarcastic quips when one of the elders assured him that they would see an end to it soon, this time, that everything would work out. Ori was young, but he wasn’t stupid.

But he liked his little cousins, from a distance, and as they all grew older, Ori began to regret his hasty distancing of them. Nori spent longer and longer in prison, and the fever of anger that had pushed Ori into such wildness cooled into a calm, collected despair tinged with bitter regret. He stepped closer to the family when he could, and helped the little lads learn their letters, and shared books with them when he could bear to be parted from them. He taught them mischief, as well, whenever the older members of the family had their backs turned, and delighted in the looks of awe they would turn on him.

When he was twenty-six, Ori had a sudden desperate spell of the desire for a normal life, and he convinced Dori to come to London with him. He found work (under the table, of course) in a dusty second-hand bookshop run by a little old man whose command of English left a great deal to be desired. He spent his days inhaling the dust of the past, fingers flying over cracking leather bindings and brittle pages as he priced and organised the sadly-neglected stock of the shop. It was good work, if not as prestigious as he had once dreamed, and Ori found he could hold a pen again. He opened his notebooks, ready to begin again - but what came from his pen was not words at all, but pictures. His little doodles grew in size and complexity, and he found himself borrowing books from the shop, learning techniques and a whole new vocabulary of a kind of communication he had never attempted before. He put memories to paper again, now in flowing lines and angles and curves, pressing the moment to the page with a wild abandon his younger self could never have managed, and a discipline that would have startled Nori. He showed his art to no-one, but Dori smiled approvingly at him in the evenings.

“Good to see you’ve finally gotten your head back on straight,” he told his little brother. It was more than a little fussy, of course, but that was Dori through and through. “I thought we’d lost you for a while.”

Ori bit back the sarcastic remark he would have made if Nori had been there, and let his fingers curl soothingly around the pen in his hand. “Just trying to find my feet again,” he said with a shrug. But a part of his heart was thrilled to have made his brother so proud. If only there were a way to please both Dori and Nori at once, he might have a chance at peace someday!

It came as a surprise, but a very pleasant one, when Thorin rang to tell him brusquely that Fíli and Kíli had begged to be allowed to come and visit him.

“They say you’re never around anymore, and that the least you can do is show them around London.” Thorin’s voice was as intimidating as ever, and Ori tried not to shrink from it, aware that Thorin couldn’t even see him from away up in Scotland. “Mind, I expect that you’ll only show them the bits that are safe. And appropriate.”

“Yes,” Ori stuttered, voice quick and weak “Of course! Nothing Nori would like, I promise!”

“Good,” Thorin said begrudgingly. “I’m sending them down on the direct line from Edinburgh tomorrow. They’ll get in at Kings Cross at noon, so be there on time.” He hung up quickly, leaving Ori staring at the receiver in startled dismay. He glanced up at Dori, who had been listening to the whole conversation, and his brother threw up his hands quickly.

“Not my business!” he said quickly. “They’ve turned my head grey already - them and you. You can watch them for a day.” He smiled comfortingly as Ori crumpled into a chair. “You can take them to the Zoo, maybe show them a few of the tourist attractions. Good way to blend in, if you can keep them from setting fire to themselves or spilling all of our business to passing strangers.”

Ori tried not to wail in despair, but under it, there was a sudden swell of pleased pride. They must look up to him after all, if they wanted to come all this way to see him! Of course, it might just be Thorin trying to get a day or two of peace, but it seemed like his little cousins had missed him in his absence. He was rather absurdly pleased by that, and spent the best part of his evening sketching a rough memory from what seemed like a distant past - Dis, cradling Kíli in her arms as Fíli leaned over to stare at the baby. It was the last time Ori had seen her. He let his mind wander as his pen moved, wondering if the lads might like this little gift.

He was an hour early to pick them up, and spent the time looking between an outdated tourist guide to London that he’d snatched from the bookshop and the platform where their train was due to arrive.

Ori nearly panicked when the train came in. He raced up and down the platform, looking for the familiar forms of the two little boys, but as the train emptied and the crowd shuffled away, they were nowhere to be seen. He sank down on a bench, breathing deeply, and wondering how to go about telling Thorin he had lost them before ever finding them.

“Hallo, Ori!” Kíli chirped, sliding onto the bench with enough force to knock Ori over a few inches. “Did you know we were coming? Did Uncle Thorin tell you? I told him he should say we were coming or you might not be here!”

“ ‘Course he told Ori, you noodle!” Fíli scoffed fondly, crashing down on the other side. “Hullo, Ori. Did we surprise you?”

Ori gaped at them, relief and surprise battling for prominence, and grabbed each of their sleeves to keep them from melting away again. “How did you do that?” he gasped, looking back and forth from them to the train.

“Trains are easy,” Fíli said loftily, though his feet barely touched the floor. “You just have to know how to move right and keep out of sight.”

“Trains are boring,” Kíli corrected, hopping up and tugging at both of them. “Come on, let’s go see things! Uncle Thorin said you’d show us everything, Ori!”

“Because you know everything,” Fíli added, jumping up to join Kíli. Together they pulled Ori to his feet and began to propel him toward the exit. “We want to see all the good bits.”

“And the palace,” Kíli said solemnly. He looked up at Ori, dark eyes wide. “Do you know where the palace is, Ori? It’s very important.”

Fíli reached over and cuffed Kíli lightly on the back of his head without looking. “We need to see everything.” He stared up at Ori, blue eyes unblinking, and Ori thought he looked rather uncannily like his mother for a moment. “Everything.”

“There’s a lot of everything in London,” Ori protested. “I thought we might see the Zoo today, though.” He led them over to a map of the city, pointing it out, and was a bit startled when they seemed to melt together in front of him without ever pushing him aside, heads pressed together as they muttered quietly. Their little fingers raced back and forth across the map, but Ori could make no sense of what they were saying. They had their own language, Fíli and Kíli, and it would take a man more gifted with words than himself to understand it.

“No,” Kíli finally declared with a firm shake of his head. “We want to see the-”

“Trafalgar Square,” Fíli cut in, somehow stepping on Kíli’s toes and elbowing him in the face simultaneously. Kíli just blinked and solemnly pulled hard on a chunk of his brother’s hair, and order was restored. “We want to see Trafalgar Square first.”

Ori was thrilled by that, if he were honest. He’d never had much use for the zoo - too much manure and danger of being viciously torn apart. Trafalgar Square had excellent statuary and historical markers and was quite close to several decent bookshops. He nodded, and leaned in to point it out to them.

“That means we’ll take the Underground for a bit,” he said, and a spark of mischief rose in his heart. He hadn’t allowed himself much time to play recently. “Wait until you see what you can get up to on the Underground!”

He would later regret teaching them so many of his tricks, little realising they were watching him with such care and attention, but it was nice to have an appreciative audience, and Ori let himself get carried away. By the time they were getting off at Charing Cross station, he felt positively giddy, and the lads were chattering away with easy delight at the things he had shown them. Some patrons of the Underground might never quite recover, Ori thought with a wicked little grin.

They stayed with him all the way into Trafalgar Square, and made appreciative noises as Ori pointed out some of the great sites, and led them over to his favourite spot in the Square. He looked on in pleased approval as they snatched their hands away to look at the historical marker, fingers running over and under the text as they took it in. It took him only a moment to get lost in the words, trying to picture the square as it had once been.

Fíli and Kíli were gone when he looked up. There was no flash of golden hair in the crowd in front of him, no ragged brown jacket in the mass of people behind him. They had vanished again.

Ori tried to breathe. They were having him on, the little devils. They had clearly enjoying winding him up at the train station, and now they were having a bit more fun. He resolved not to give them the reaction they wanted, and turned nonchalantly back to his reading, though he kept his eyes open for them. Five minutes passed, then seven, then ten, and Ori was beginning to get worried.

He couldn’t call for them. He couldn’t afford police interest in missing children, or someone remembering their unusual names later. Ori studied the square carefully, as he would if he were going to draw it, then set out looking. It took ten minutes to truly convince himself they were nowhere there. They were gone.

Had they been kidnapped? Ori sucked in a quick, panicky breath. Had Smaug sent someone to snatch the children from his unwatchful care? But surely they would have cried out if they had been taken. They were clever lads, he knew; they hadn’t merely wandered away and gotten lost, either. They had either been kidnapped with such speed and care that they hadn’t been able to call out, or they had wandered away on purpose. Either way, Ori had no clue where they were.

He stumbled to a payphone, fumbling in his pocket for loose change, and dialed quickly.

“Dori!” he shouted, as soon as his brother answered. “Dori, call Thorin! I’m in Trafalgar Square, I’ve lost Fíli and Kíli!”

“You what?” Dori said, his voice rising to a cracking high note. “How could you lose them?”

“I got a bit distracted reading!” he protested, trying not to cry, or to sound like he was crying. “Please, call Thorin and let him know. I’m going to try to find them, but I can’t exactly tell the authorities!”

“I’ll call him,” Dori agreed. “Then I’ll come down, see what I can do. We’ll find them.” He didn’t sound certain, and he hung up with an abrupt click that sounded very final. Ori clung to the receiver for a moment, pressing his head against the glass of the booth, before squaring his shoulders and marching out.

He had no idea where to look for two little Scottish boys who had never been to London before. The only thing he could guess was that they hadn’t gone to the Zoo. His reference book to London was less than useful, since there were literally thousands of suggestions of places they might have found interesting. Would their gory young imaginations have drawn them to the Tower of London? Or had they sought to wreck more havoc on the Underground?

Ori felt like he was moving in slow motion, and all of that in circles. He darted this way and that, beginning to follow one idea before discarding it for another, and always coming back to Trafalgar Square. If they had been kidnapped, surely the kidnapper would make contact there? And if they had merely wandered away, wouldn’t they at least know to come back to their starting point when their goals were accomplished?

By five o’clock, he was growing desperate. He flung himself to a stone step, burying his face in his hands, and tried to breathe, tried to think. Where might they have gone?

His mind threw up an image - little fingers tracing something on a map, a route from Trafalgar Square to somewhere else. Where? What was it Kíli had tried to say, before his brother squashed it out of him?

“The palace,” Ori muttered, looking up sharply. “Durin’s beard, he was fixated on the palace!” He leapt to his feet, making for the road that would lead him to St. James Park, hardly minding that his arms and legs were flailing awkwardly at all angles as he ran.

It was nearing dusk as he reached the park, and Ori’s heart was in his throat as he darted past tourists who were making their way out of the green space. He had no idea why they wanted to go to the palace, but he was sure of it. They had led him to walking distance, then distracted him and snuck away when his back was turned. The small part of Ori that didn’t want to strange them was inclined to congratulate them for their nerve and daring. A sudden commotion ahead made Ori speed up, and he nearly collided with a police officer as he rounded the bend.

Uniformed officers had Fíli and Kíli by the collars, and the one with a grip on Kíli was holding him at arm’s length as he struggled.

“You have to let us in!” he protested, sounding remarkably composed for a little lad who was currently trying to kick a police officer. “We’ve got to see her! It’s important!”

Fíli had his arms crossed dangerously, and Ori could see the fanatic light building in his eyes. If someone didn’t let go of Kíli in the next thirty seconds, they would find themselves under a surprisingly severe assault by a ten-year-old who had been trained in an unholy number of martial arts for his ago.

“Hey!” Ori gasped breathlessly, waving an arm at the whole assemblage. “You - you found them!”

“Sir, are these your charges?” one of the officers asked coldly, staring down his nose at the grubby little hellions. “I’m afraid we found them trying to break into the palace. We take this sort of thing very seriously.”

Ori gulped, feeling the blood drain from his face. “I was meant to be looking after them for the afternoon,” he said feebly. “They’re my cousins. I had no idea they would make this much trouble!”

“It’s not either trouble!” Kíli protested, face like a thundercloud. “I’ve got to see her! I need to explain!”

“See her? See the Queen?” The officer holding Kíli chuckled, her grip easing a bit. “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on! You can’t just walk up and see the Queen!”

Kíli stilled at that, looking devastated. He seemed to droop, looking up at the officer with wide eyes that were beginning to brim with tears as his lower lip wobbled. “But,” he said, voice choked. “But she’s the only one who can fix it!”

Fíli, who had been still as stone the whole time, suddenly tore away from the slackened grip of his captor, wrapping his arms around Kíli as if he could shield his little brother from the disappointment. “Shhh, now,” he said quietly. “Speak later, right?”

Kíli wiped at his face with a dirty little fist, smearing mud across his cheeks. “I wanted us to go home,” he said in a whisper that Ori could barely hear. The police officers were looking down at the two with considerably more sympathy now, and Ori stepped forward a bit, always willing to play on an angle.

“They’re orphans,” he offered quietly, and watched that sink in. “We do our best, but you can never really put some things right, can you?”

“Well,” the officer who had been holding Kíli said, a trifle gruffly. “I suppose they didn’t mean any harm. Just you keep an eye on them from now on, young man.” She gave a suspicious-sounding cough and shook her head, staring down at them in possibly misplaced sympathy. Ori thanked her quietly, reaching out to grab both boys, and pushed them along as fast as he could. He didn’t stop or slow their pace until they were well outside St. James Park, and they had found a quiet bench where they could sit for a moment and get their breath. He didn’t let go of either of them, now, but they didn’t let go of one another, either.

“Care to explain yourselves?” Ori asked icily, drawing on every ounce of Dori’s righteous rage that had been directed at him so many times.

“Was gonna see the Queen,” Kíli said stubbornly, snuffling rather pathetically and wiping his nose with his sleeve. “She could have fixed it.”

“We were going to ask her to put Smaug in prison and let Uncle Thorin and everyone go back to the mountain,” Fíli explained. “She’s the Queen, so she could do that.”

“You were going to march in there and just tell her everything?” Ori asked, horrified.

Kíli nodded. “I’m good at telling people things,” he said, though he sounded woebegone, not proud. “I know she would have understood.”

Ori shook his head, bewildered by the strange little people that his cousins were becoming. “What would your mother have thought of you, breaking into the palace?” he asked. It was one of Dori’s best tricks for making him feel guilty.

Fíli straightened, looking defiant. “Mama would have been proud,” he said certainly. “Mama said we don’t give up, not ever, and we stick together.”

Kíli glanced up at his brother, not looking at all as certain. “But I got it wrong!” he objected. “Would Mama have liked me anyway?”

“Of course she would,” Fíli insisted. Ori somehow felt like his presence was unnecessary. “She would have been proud of both of us.”

And it was likely true, Ori thought ruefully. Dis would have thought it the greatest story, and would have made them all hear it again and again - her sons, ready to stand before the Queen and plead their case.

He kept them close after that, not even taking his eyes off them for an instant. They had time for food, and then Ori took them back to the shabby little flat he shared with Dori, who was apparently still out looking for them. Thorin turned up before he could try to work out how to find his brother, though, and then all Ori could think about was melting into the rug and vanishing.

Thorin was incandescent rage, divided fairly evenly between Ori and the lads. He roared for a few moments, then grabbed both of their hands and marched them away. They glanced back at Ori with forlorn little waves, and he couldn’t help but feel it would be a while before he saw them again. Bofur had come down with Thorin, and he hung back for a moment, and patted his shoulder sympathetically.

“Don’t mind too much, lad,” he said gently. “He’s all bark, you know. It’ll be forgotten in a fortnight, now that they’re safe and sound.” And then he was gone, trailing along in Thorin’s wake, and Ori was alone.

He stung at the reprimand, and even Bofur’s commiseration was tinged with pity for a boy, little more than a child himself, who had made a grievous mistake. He didn’t envy Fíli and Kíli the journey back with their uncle in such a temper, even as he knew they deserved every word of the scolding they would get. He sank into a chair, fingers reaching automatically for his pen.

He couldn’t draw a thing. His fingers shook - shame and resentfulness and the lingering feeling of being so very useless - and he stared at the blank page. There was no memory he wanted to put down now. Not that it mattered anymore.

Fíli and Kíli were young, and so very bright, despite everything. He gripped his pen tighter, until his fingers hurt. They were young and bright and full of plans and hopes that he had long since watched burn away in the fires of the mountain, and crumble with useless years of fruitless waiting for a future he would never had. They had their lives ahead of them, and both of them together, facing the future without the fear of being alone. All he had - all he would ever have, now, was dreams that were growing dusty and a notebook full of drawings that no-one else would ever see.

The bitterness was a lump in his throat and a twisting sickness in his stomach, and Ori closed the book with fingers that shook, and went to pack his things. He would find Dori and leave the next day.

He never went to London again.

Chapter Text

Bifur cannot speak. He used to be angry about it, after the attack, and in the weeks and months that followed. The loss of his voice took his independence, too, and even his family treated him like an invalid, or a deaf man. They forgot, sometimes, that he could still hear and comprehend as well as ever.

But Thorin’s way - holding on to the anger and resentment, distilling it down into a weapon that can be used against their enemies - is not his way, and Bifur makes his peace with it all, eventually. The lads are the greatest help in that. They no more remember the man he was before the injury than he does, now, and they love him for who he is, not the shadow of the man he used to be. They help him create words for himself, and he speaks again through them at first, and then on his own, and the anger bleeds away between his fingers as they smile, wide and bright and innocent.

They grow so fast - like sea grasses on the dunes looking over the water, where Bifur prefers to be. The waves crash and thunder in rhythm, like the noise that ebbs and flows in his head now, and he lets the ocean bear away his fears. When they are small, Fili and Kili come to the sea with him, paddling in cold water until their lips turn blue and their teeth chatter, and Bifur smiles. He sits in the sand and builds a castle - or is it a mountain? - and lets the water carry it away, sand slipping between his fingers.

But the lads slip away, too. Thorin lets them run free and wild, and what can Bifur say? Thorin would not listen to him even if he had words, and they are not his children. He does his best to help when he is able, and welcomes them when they come back to him, and does not think that they are the closest thing he will ever have to children of his own, because that is not a thought that will do anyone any good. He doesn’t have the signs to express it, anyway.

They wander the wilds of Scotland, Bifur and Bofur, and Balin joins them often enough. Bofur finds them quiet places to stay, villages where he can take odd jobs and piece together a living with as little thieving as possible. Bifur learns to control his hands again, though it takes years for it all to come back, and busies himself with repairing shoes and old toys and whatever people will bring him - those who are not scared away by the scar on his head that makes him look so wild, or by his silence. They are waiting, more than living - waiting for Thorin to lead them home, or for everything to come crashing down on them once and for all, to stop the running. Bifur steers them toward the coasts whenever he can - the wild Atlantic shores, or the islands - anywhere that the roar of the waves can lift him up and bear him away, and where the children will always come back to them, bright and wild in the free salt air.

Eventually, he finds a croft on a barren hillside in Waternish, and plants himself, digging roots deeper than advisable. He is immovable, stubborn in his silences, and Balin and Bofur are mostly pleased to allow it. There are other small crofters nearby, though Bofur has to travel to the larger towns of Skye to find good work. Bifur grows what he can, and catches fish, and is happy. It is a safe place for the lads, and they come when they can, bringing stories of the cities that have become their natural habitat - but Bifur sees what others miss, sees the hunger in their eyes for a home that is always the same and for the wild freedom of the wind and tides, and he brings them down to the water and watches them become children again.

It is only for Thorin that Bifur will leave his quiet place, but he never hesitates when Thorin calls them back. They are called to Edinburgh early one summer, just as the heather is exploding in glorious colour on the hills, and so they go. He is glad to see the others, though they are awkward and hesitant at first with him, their fingers stiff and uncertain in the forming of his words. He would tell them to stop - to speak aloud, in the words that he can hear and understand as well as ever - but it is a kindness they try to do him, and Bifur has become a patient man.

They fall into small circles very quickly, and Balin is pulled away to offer his thoughts on Thorin’s latest plans of attack. Oin fusses about his flat, offering them all what refreshments he can, and Bofur is spun aside into a wild knot of arms and too-long hair and beards, as friends who do not speak often enough attempt to catch up on months of silence. Bifur would feel awkward, left outside the conversation with his words silenced by a beer and a plate of sandwiches, but he has become used to it. He watches, and listens to all of their conversations, and lets the roar of words rush over him like a wave.

If the rest are a wave, rising and falling, then Fili and Kili are the rock that they dash themselves against. Bifur wonders whether they even know it. All talk stops when the lads burst in, bright and wild and bursting with secrets of their own, and they move around the children, wrapping them in the deep embrace that is the family. But they are children yet, for all their height and independence, and Bifur knows they are like the fish that swim in the sea but are unaware of the water around them. Their limbs are too long and their spirits too wild for their bodies, and they do not see what surrounds them.

Bifur watches them as they find a corner to huddle together in, hunched over Fili’s little computer, throwing words and ideas back and forth in their airy flutter of talk that no one else can follow. Kili is a dark, wriggling bundle of energy, barely keeping himself contained as they work on their secret project; Fili nearly glows with pride and assurance. His hands are quick and sure on the keys, and the lads share a triumphant laugh as they finish their work.

When Thorin comes to them, Bifur puts down the things in his hands, freeing them to speak as best he can, if his words will do any good. The tide shifts, noise bleeding away as the lads explain their plan, and Thorin’s anger towers above them in a wave that crushes them without striking a blow. It is brutal, this scuttling of their hopes, and Bifur slips away to find his cousin, fingers moving urgently.

Bring them home, he signs. His hands are directly in front of Bofur’s face, commanding his attention. Important. Home.

“Back to Waternish?” Bofur murmurs, unsure. Bifur knows the others don’t think of it as home, but he has let the mountain slip away from between his fingers, and he nods. He cannot convey tone with his signs, so he must hope his scarred face will carry it for him. The lads need to come home. Bofur smiles his strange sad smile and nods agreement, and goes to find the children before they leave. He comes back in a moment. “They will come. Give them a few days.” He claps a hand on Bifur’s shoulder, and Bifur listens to the waves of sound pick up again, slower now.

But it is more than a few days before they come to Waternish. Bifur waits for them, building mountains in the sand and letting the tide bear them out, and thinks of how to shape his few, awkward words into something that will help the lads. The days grow longer and longer, until the sun barely sets before it is rising again, and then they come, in the heat of the summer.

It’s strange, when they come. Bifur has known them both since they were infants, and has watched the way they grew together, like two trees reaching toward the same sun - leaves and branches and roots intertwined until there is no separation to be made.

Now, Fili marches through the door, nearly letting it slam behind him, and Kili catches it with a muffled grunt of pain or annoyance, and Fili does not turn. His shoulders are tight and hunched, and his fingers are clenched into fists that look painful.

“We expected you weeks ago!” Bofur calls cheerfully from the other room, glancing in briefly as he finishes up a tricky piece of work at the table. “Get lost on your way, did you?”

“Ask Kili,” Fili spits, the words a harsh condemnation.

Kili just shoots him a look, all anger and bitterness over a deep and terrible fear, and that is how Bifur knows that Fili is not looking at his brother. Fili doesn’t allow Kili to be that frightened, not ever, and certainly not of him. Something is deeply wrong.

“Oh, you’ve arrived!” Balin says happily, walking in behind them with his arms laden with purchases from the nearest shop. “Good lads! I’d have bought biscuits if I’d known.” He beams at them, eyes wrinkling up with delight. Kili’s head is down, straggly dark hair hiding his face, and Fili doesn’t unwrap himself from the tight knot of his tensed muscles. Balin’s smile fades, and he clears his throat awkwardly, moving past them. “Best go put these things away,” he mumbles.

Bifur rolls his eyes, just a little. The unwillingness to speak seems such a luxury now. He nudges Kili for his attention, then signs.

Problem. What?

Kili laughs, brittle and far too old, and shakes his head. “No problems here, Uncle Bifur! I’m not the one having a problem.” But his fingers wrap protectively around his right forearm, and Bifur can make out the bulky shape of bandages wrapped around the too-scrawny limb.

Fili scoffs, nearly making himself choke. “No problem, unless you count doing something monumentally stupid and life-threatening in a desperate attempt to get Thorin’s attention as a problem.”

Kili turns red at that, and Bifur sees an aborted kick at Fili’s ankle which he drives into the floor at the last second. “Wasn’t like that,” he mutters, and clutches his arm a little closer.

Tell me, Bifur demands. They don’t respond. Fili’s arms are crossed now, so tight they are shaking a little, and Kili is radiating sullen misery from every pore.

“I’m off to deliver this,” Bofur announces, putting his head through from the other room, seemingly oblivious to the tension in the air. “Won’t be more than a few hours.”

“I’ll come with you,” Fili declares loudly, and leaves. Kili gives a sharp little gasp of surprise, quickly stifled, and looks after his brother’s retreating back. Bifur is willing to wage money that Fili has never walked away from him like that before. It is a strange, cold undertow. Bifur tries to shape his fingers to ask the questions that plague him, but Kili slumps into a battered armchair, bringing his knees up and letting his forehead fall to rest against them, and Bifur cannot make himself heard.

It doesn’t get better from there. The little cottage is full of awkward silences, anger and resentment thick in the air. Fili leaves as often as he can, and wraps himself around his little devices when he cannot.

“I still have my work, even out here,” he explains reasonably to Balin. “The connections aren’t good, but there’s always something I can be working on.” And it sounds perfectly true and right and sensible, but Bifur is watching his eyes, and the way they stubbornly don’t flicker over to glance at Kili, and the way Fili’s jaw is just a little too tightly set, like he’s wound to a breaking point. He’s seventeen and angry, and every inch his uncle, now.

He won’t talk about it, no matter what questions Bifur asks. He denies there is a problem, laughs it off with a shrug, and doesn’t talk about his little brother or the bloody bandage on Kili’s arm or the way they haven’t spoken in days.

And Kili is no better. They have laughed for years that they never should have taught Kili to talk, because ever since he learned, he has never been quiet - but now he is silent, mouth a thin, miserable line. Bifur doesn’t know if the weight on his scrawny shoulders is grief or guilt or anger, but he can see the misery plainly in the way Kili sinks a little lower every time Fili leaves him behind or ignores him for a glowing screen. If it is a punishment, then Bifur is afraid to know what immense crime the lad has committed to deserve it.

Bifur grows tired of the silences and the closeness of the house after nearly two weeks, and grabs Kili’s arm, hauling him away and down to the shore, where he breathes in deep of the wild sea air, and feels his heart lighten just a little. He sits down on the sand, feet only inches away from the greedy grasp of the waves, and begins to build something. His hands say nothing, leaving a silence he trusts Kili to fill.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen,” Kili says eventually. He sounds like he’s half forgotten the sound of his own voice. “I just wanted a chance to make them see I’m not a child anymore.”

Who, Bifur asks, and piles the sand higher.

“Everyone.” It isn’t right for Kili to sound so glum - not Kili, who woke them all with songs of his own devising for years when he was little, and who was known to laugh in his sleep on a regular basis. “Thorin doesn’t trust us, and even Fili acts like I need to be looked after all the time.” Bifur glances over in time to see his dark eyes go wide and frightened. “Do you think that’s why he’s doing this? Is he tired of watching out for me? Maybe he wants to be traveling alone now! Maybe he’s planning to join Thorin and leave me here. Maybe -”

Bifur reaches over and puts a finger to his lips, stopping the torrent of words, and Kili scrubs at his lips with the back of a hand, grimacing as he wipes away sand.

Stop, he signs. Mind too busy. He shoves a foot into the sand just in front of Kili’s hands, creating a deep furrow. Build.

Kili gives a weary little laugh, and digs his fingers into the wet sand, letting it pile up randomly in front of him. “I’m fifteen. I’m not supposed to be building sandcastles.”

Bifur shrugs, unconcerned, and lifts his face up into the warm breeze. They sit in silence for a few minutes, and Kili begins to build something in earnest. The waves lap a little closer.

“I wasn’t trying to show off, no matter what he says,” Kili says after a while, but he is calmer now. “It’s just - I want to help. I want us all to be together again, and the only way to do that is to get the mountain back, and I was trying to help!”

Dangerous? Bifur asks, and hopes it won’t read as judgmental. The boy shrugs a little, dark hair whipping up wildly in the breeze.

“I didn’t think so! I wasn’t expecting a knife, though.” His structure has taken shape - a strange configuration of raised dots and sunken lines that should form some sort of pattern, but are nothing but nonsense to Bifur’s eyes. He gestures at it curiously, and Kili huffs a laugh. “Made a constellation, that’s all I could think of. It’s Gemini. The twins.” Long fingers, nails bitten stubby, point out the shapes that might just be two stick figures, and Bifur nods.

An unusually large wave crashes in, and Bifur’s mountain overbalances as one side is swept away. It crumbles down into a shapeless heap, and he shakes his head in quiet amusement. Kili gives a shout, leaping forward to try to protect his constellation with his hands, but it’s too late. The figures have been overrun, and Kili watches disconsolately as the sand slips through his fingers with the retreating wave, leaving a muddled mess behind.

“It’s not going to happen, is it?” Kili asks quietly after a minute. He sits back. “The whole family together, the way I always imagined it? That’s not the way any of this ends.”

Bifur drops a hand on his head, warm from the sun, and ruffles his hair. He leaves sand behind. He moves his hands away to sign.

You’re growing up.

Kili nods, but there’s no triumph in it. He lets the next wave take his work away, and trails his fingers through the water as it goes.

It is the water that brings it to an end.

A hot day comes, and Kili follows Bifur to the beach. It’s not long before he throws off his shirt and shoes and wades out into the cool water, laughing as waves strike his chest, his face, leave his hair hanging heavy and wet on his shoulders. Bifur feels a knot in his chest loosen a bit at the sight, as the little boy he has loved breaks free of the man he is becoming, and Kili plunges beneath the water to swim.

“Uncle?” Fili’s voice, easy and unconcerned, floats up the path. He waits for the boy. Bifur has become patient. “They sent me to tell you-”

He breaks off as he comes over the crest of the hill, finding Bifur sitting in the sun. Bifur squint up at him against the sun, and beckons for him to come and sit. Fili obeys, crashing to the sand with easy grace, and lets his shoulder knock against Bifur’s.

Water’s good, Bifur signs, and gestures out to sea. Fili shakes his head, made lazy by the sun.

“No - they sent me to tell you there’s a riptide today. We’re not supposed to swim.”

Kili’s head pops up above the water, and he gives an exuberant shout as he holds something aloft. He always has loved picking up unusual things. Fili goes still in an instant.

“He’s swimming? He’s going to drown!”

Kili doesn’t look a bit like he’s drowning, but Bifur can hear the breath catching raggedly in Fili’s throat for a long, frozen moment - and then he is gone, long legs bearing him across the sand and into the water without a pause. He’s out to Kili in just a moment, pulling him back toward shore, and they’re shouting at one another even their feet reach the sandy bottom, moving back to safety as they fight.

“I was fine!” Kili howls, sending a wave of salty water at his brother. “I didn’t need you to come rushing in to save me!”

“Of course you did!” Fili snaps, returning the childish gesture. “You always do, and I always come!”

“I can do things on my own. I’m not a child!” Kili shoves at his brother spitefully, but without much force. “You don’t need to bother yourself with looking after me. You can go and do whatever it is you’d rather be doing.”

“No!” Fili shakes his head wildly, sending sparking drops of water flying. “No! I don’t WANT to have to do things without you, idiot! I don’t know how, and I don’t intend to learn!” He grabs his brother’s arm tightly - the uninjured arm, Bifur notes - and hauls them both toward shore. “So you’re not allowed to do stupid, dangerous things without me! You can’t! I’ll have them keep you locked up here if I have to, even if we’d both hate it.”

Kili digs his heels in and yanks his arm away, staring at his brother in confusion. “I thought you were angry with me.”

“I am,” Fili growls. “Do you even know what it was like for me? I can’t even look at you without feeling like I’m going to break something apart. You almost died!”

“I wouldn’t have died,” Kili objects flippantly.

“Everyone dies. Mum did.” It’s flatly stated, and it stops both of them in their tracks. They stand staring at one another for a long, silent minute that is somehow the least awkward interaction Bifur has seen from them in a fortnight.

“I won’t,” Kili murmurs, a solemn declaration. He puts out his hand to his brother. “I won’t die, and you won’t leave me again. Alright?”

If the answer is anything but a wordless shout that turns into a tackle, and then an epic battle of flying water and shouts of laughter in the shallows of the beach, Bifur doesn’t hear it. He stands, scuffing out the mountain he had shaped with one foot, and walks away quietly. Some things, Bifur knows, don’t require words.

Chapter Text

Kíli runs.

He’s been running his whole life. It’s nothing new. The pounding of his heart in his ears and the ragged tightness in his chest is no less familiar to him than the easy rhythms of sleep and waking, though the latter would be far more welcome now. His hand clutches tightly around the little mobile tucked in his pocket - but he needs to get away from his pursuers for long enough to make the call. He darts into a narrow close between two buildings, then sprints through a courtyard into another dim alley, trying to silence his footfalls. He’s done this dance a thousand times, staying just out of reach of anyone who sought to touch him.

He’s not getting away this time.

Kíli works his way down and out, weaving a torturous route, and he can hear the angry shouts growing a bit fainter behind him. Smaug has the city entirely within his grasp now, though, and there are no ways out. All he can hope for is long enough to pass on a warning.

He hadn’t been afraid when he’d left the family behind, back at Aberfeldy, even though he could see the fear in all of their faces. Kíli was far from stupid; he knew the dangers - but he also knew Edinburgh. The wide streets and narrow closes had been his playground from the time he was tiny, and the street gangs had answered his calls, willingly offering him information in exchange for the right words. Edinburgh was his, and her underground people were his people. Fíli might have hugged him so hard it hurt, and Thorin had looked like there was something desperately trying to escape from his iron control of his own thoughts, but Kíli had not been afraid.

Very few things scare him. Losing the family, that’s terrifying. Losing Fíli is not to be thought of. And his recent forced stay in hospital might have been the most terrifying experience of his adult life - but that’s more related to the first two fears than anything inherently frightening. It was being alone that had robbed him of his strength.

There are armed men after him now who fully intend to kill him. Kíli isn’t frightened.

He ducks into a main street, crossing just ahead of traffic, and darts through a little shop that’s nothing more than a tourist trap, waving an absentminded farewell to the sweet little old lady who minds the till. She’s been sneaking him free sweets since he was small, and he knows she’ll cover for him for a few minutes - perhaps long enough. Kíli hugs the wall beyond as he moves, already pulling up Fíli’s number and preparing to call. He makes sure his breathing is under control. No sense panicking his brother just yet.

He’s more tired than he ought to be, and that is a frustration. He should be faster and smarter now - but they hadn’t slept the night before, Fíli and Kíli, pouring over the data that clever little Uncle Bill had managed to secure for them, and the lack of sleep is dulling his responses. Fíli had tried to make him sleep, to shove him off when Thorin had passed out, but Kíli had refused. He feels guilty, sometimes, when he thinks of how much the older members of the family have sacrificed, even if they never complain, and he pushes himself farther than he should, trying to make up for it. They know, he and his brother, that the rest protect them. They’ve always known it. But now, they’re returning the favour.

He finds a tiny, quiet corner - almost a cave, if you could have those in the ancient substrata of the city - and backs into it, pressing the button. Fíli will answer.

Fíli has to answer, and he has to do it NOW. They’re out of time. Kíli breathes out - once, twice, three times - and wipes at his forehead, where hair has tumbled into his eyes.

They’re out of time, and Kíli had known it before he’d snatched the keys from Uncle Bill and thrown himself onto that delightfully dangerous little motorbike and flown to Edinburgh as fast as it would bear him. Everything is bearing down on them at once, building momentum and danger like snow gathering into an avalanche, and if they don’t move they’ll be crushed. Fíli complains that they’re always running, never given a chance to stand still and live like people, but Kíli likes the running. It keeps them ahead of the disaster, and as long as they’re running together, he is pleased.

All he ever wanted was his family.

“Pick up, pick up,” he mutters. Fíli always answers when he calls. If he can’t get through to them - if something has already happened while he has been too slow, made useless once again by distance and lack of skill - he won’t forgive himself. His fingers are shaking a bit, holding the mobile to his ear with too much force, but he’s running on caffeine and adrenaline and desperation, and it’s enough, it has to be enough. “Pick up!”

“I did!” Fíli snaps back, worry and exhaustion making the familiar voice terse, but no less welcome. “Where are you? Are you safe?”

“Sleeping on the job, big brother?” Kíli teases, trying to keep his tone light. This is going to get very bad, very quickly, and a childish part of him wants to close his eyes and just talk to his brother, pretend none of it is about to come down on him.

If you close your eyes, they can’t see you. His heart hammers in his chest.

It’s late afternoon, and the rays of sunlight that make their way into his little hideaway are dim and strained. A shiver runs up his spine.

“Power nap. Recharges the brain - not that you’d know anything about that,” Fíli says sharply - part of an old argument, and it feels so normal that Kíli grins, closing his eyes for just one instant, and draws in a solid breath. “Are you on your way?”

“Not exactly,” Kíli says wryly, slouching against the stones of the damp walls. “I need to talk to Thorin.”

“Forget it,” Fíli says, using the Older Brother voice that he always thinks will work on Kíli. It never does. “I’m not putting this mobile down. Tell me, I’ll pass it on.”

There’s a shout from too close - far too close, and Kíli winces. “Tell me you’ve moved,” he begs. It’s his one hope, and the time for pretending is now past. He’ll put it behind him, like everything else. “You’re not in Tyndrum, are you?”

Fíli hums, unhappy confirmation of his fears, and Kíli pushes himself upright, squaring his shoulders and preparing to move again.

“I need to talk to Thorin, Fee,” he says soberly.

“Speaker,” Fíli concedes, and Kíli can hear him moving. He moves too, ducking away from his momentary respite, trying to keep moving with purpose. He’s got to buy himself enough time to get the family the information. That’s all he can want, now.

Fíli goes quiet, and Kíli’s heartbeat spikes. They’re on his trail again, now, a roar in the distance making it clear that he’s been spotted. “Fíli? Are you still there?” The sudden fear that he’s been abandoned - that he’ll have to do this completely alone - is like a punch to the gut, and he breathes hard around it.

“We’re here, Kíli.” Fíli sounds far away, now, but it’s a relief nonetheless. Kíli nods, blinks, and picks up his pace. He could head for the main roads, hoping that public scrutiny will dampen Smaug’s men’s thirst for violence - but there’s no time, and he knows they’re everywhere now. He wouldn’t make it to Prince’s Street even if he had wings. “You’re on speaker, so you’ll have to speak up.”

They’re there, scarcely further away than the mobile in his hand, and Kíli stifles a sob of relief that comes out of nowhere. “I need to tell you what I’ve found,” he says desperately, words tumbling over one another until he’s not sure anyone but Fíli will understand. “It’s - not good news. Is Thorin there?”

“I’m here.”

If Fíli’s voice had been a relief, and the sound of home, then Thorin’s is the ground beneath his feet. Kíli feels his shoulders straighten automatically, and he moves faster. “You need to get out of there,” he says rapidly. “Word on the street is that we are dead men.” He tries hard not to think of how true that’s about to become, because he doesn’t have TIME for that now, not with the family hanging on his words as the avalanche descends on them. “Smaug’s gathered up every gang, every mob, every petty lowlife and criminal and drug addict - everyone with a grudge against us, or who is desperate enough to take his money, or who owes him a favour.” He wishes he could make them understand what it means - but they’ve always left it to him to understand the workings of the underworld in the cities, ever since he was old enough, and there’s no way they can comprehend what’s coming after them. There’s a stitch in his side, but Kíli doesn’t have time. “They’re all coming after us, and they’re coming now!” He’d be screaming it, if that wouldn’t bring them down on him even faster.

He hears Fíli react, from miles away, or just next to his ear. “It’s an army!” His brother always has been quick on the uptake.

“They know where you are,” Kíli says desperately, having to scuttle quickly sideways to dodge a car that’s headed straight for him. Running through traffic is not his best bet, now. “Smaug had Bilbo followed, and they’re coming to Tyndrum now - you’ve got to GO!”

He makes the mistake of looking behind him, just as Thorin calmly refuses to do the sensible thing for once in his life and get them the hell out of there. At least half a dozen of Smaug’s choice thugs are behind him, and they look delighted to have him in their sights. There are things Thorin doesn’t understand, because he’s not here, but Kíli has to make him see.

“They’re not going to arrest us this time,” he spits, breath coming harder now. “Or beat us up for information. They’re going to KILL us, Uncle Thorin!”

His voice cracks at the end, and Kíli slaps a hand over his mouth to stifle the traitorous little sob that tries to break out. He’s not afraid - he doesn’t have time to be afraid - and he isn’t alone. That’s the important thing to remember, no matter how desperately alone he might feel in the next few minutes.

But he’s never been able to lie to Fíli - not ever, not since he first started talking, and he can practically hear his brother’s face freezing into that terrified expression he only wears when it’s Kíli who’s in trouble. He hopes they’ll look after him, once it’s all over. Fíli’s no better at being alone than Kíli is.

It’s routine, to answer his question, but it’s making it far too real a thing for Kíli’s liking. He’s trapped - motorbike gone, roads closed, trains stopped. He’s got no way out, and now Fíli knows what’s happening, and everything is going about as badly as it possibly could.

It was never supposed to end this way.

“Fíli,” he begs, drawing on everything he’s got left, “get out of there! Just get out, please!”

He won’t cry.

He ducks into the only street he can see, mind whirling too fast now to see his mental map of the city - he’s lost even that, now, in the end. It doesn’t matter. But his heart sinks, because this is a dead end - blind bricks and high walls, and there won’t even be any witnesses.

“Hide yourself somewhere,” Thorin is saying from a million miles away. “We’ll come and find you as soon as we can.” And of course he would, and Kíli has never doubted it - it’s why he’s never been afraid. The family always comes. Just not this time.

“Too late for that,” he says, trying to find the energy to make it a joke. The walls are tight around him, and he puts his back against a wall, and watches them coming at him. “Please go,” he begs one last time. “I’ll delay them as long as I can.” He’s got knives, somewhere, if he could get his hand to let go of the mobile to just find them. Thorin roars from the end of the line, and he can hear them all - muttering and protesting, Fíli’s half-choked breath near the speaker - and that, he can hold onto. “Get Fíli out, please!” He’s begging now, asking his uncle for one last favour. “You’ve got to!”

Because Fíli is the most important thing in the world, and always has been. Kíli is fairly certain that the world didn’t ever exist without Fíli, no matter what the history books say - because how could it? Fíli is like the sun, golden and warm and the most certain thing there is - and if the world is going to go on without him, it’s going to need Fíli.

“Kíli,” Fíli whispers, and Kíli smiles, just a little, even though his breath is still coming in ragged gasps and his eyes seem to want to tear up - but he’s not afraid. It’s as good a goodbye as anyone ever got, he supposes.

The lead thug reaches him, barely stopping in time to avoid crashing into the wall, and slaps the mobile from his hand. It hits the ground with a sick crunch - and Kíli knows it doesn’t matter, because he told them everything he could, they know what’s coming, and he has to know that Thorin will get Fíli out and keep him safe. But his fingers are still clutched too tight on empty air, and there are no comforting voices any longer, and Kíli is alone.

All he ever wanted was his family.

He tries to keep his head up, to look the leader in the eyes, but they’re quick and brutal - fists smashing into his face and ribs, and then boots, once he’s on the ground, and it’s all he can do not to scream. He’s seventeen, and cornered in a dark alley in the streets of a city that had once loved him, and he is alone. He was never supposed to die alone.

Kíli is struggling to breathe around a sharp pain in his chest, in his stomach, when he slowly becomes aware that they’ve stopped hurting him, and one of them has handed his poor, battered mobile to the giant, savage man who led the chase after him. It looks terribly small in his huge fist, and Kíli bites back a groan of pain - because the thug is talking into it, now, which means the family are still talking, and can likely still hear him, and he doesn’t want Fíli to hear this, he doesn’t.

“We’re coming for you,” he says, mouth twisted in an cruel grin. “And everything that didn’t burn then will burn today!” And with one giant hand, he smashes Kíli’s mobile against the wall, and opens his hand to let the ruined piece fall to the ground.

Kíli wants to scream - to let himself cry for the loss of everything he has loved, to say goodbye in actions as deep as the agony that’s ripping at his heart - but right now, he is the representative of the Sons of Durin, and he has to be strong. He pushes himself upright to sit, and then to stand on wobbly legs, feeling blood trickle from half a dozen lacerations, and squares his shoulders. He’s got a smart mouth, and a brain that’s gotten him in trouble more times than it’s gotten him out, and his family are gone, and he’s going to die alone. He has nothing left to lose.

Kíli shakes his head, carefully twisting his face into what he hopes is a condescending smile. It’s a bit hard to tell, as most of it is either numb or in horrible sharp agonies. “You’d have to do much better than that to bother my uncle. He’s laughing at you right now, I hope you know.”

Someone roars and kicks him in the side of the leg, making his knee buckle. He gasps, and shoves at the wall to keep himself upright, but manages to find a pathetic little laugh somewhere. “What will they say, in the end, even if you win? That it took every piece of garbage in Scotland to take down thirteen men? They write ballads about that sort of thing, you know, and the mindless hordes of lackeys don’t come off well.” He doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore, except that if he stops talking, then it presses in around him - the being alone, and having to wonder if he’s done enough, if he’s made a difference. He puts his chin up, and doesn’t wipe at the blood that’s flowing into his eye. The man who destroyed his mobile growls and pulls and knife, and Kíli breathes one last deep breath, and wishes he weren’t so very cold.

“Wait!” It’s a leisurely call, devoid of much urgency, but it stops the man in his tracks, and Kíli watches in confusion as a gap opens up between the ranks of angry men. A man glides through the gap, cold sharp eyes taking in every detail as he advances, and Kíli would have known him on sight without ever having seen a picture. Smaug has come.

“We caught him, sir,” the leader of the gang offers obsequiously. Some part of Kíli knows that it’s inappropriate to snort in derision, but that part has been knocked about too much to get a say any longer. Smaug blinks slowly at him, looking almost pleased, and ignores his thugs entirely.

“So, this is Oakenshield’s youngest brat?” he asks, moving sinuously - dangerously - forward to inspect Kíli. Kíli wants to bite him, but if he moves too fast, he’s going to fall over. He’ll bide his time. “Not much of a catch, I’d say. I’d throw you back, myself. It’s not particularly sporting to bring children into this business.”

Kíli glares at him. “You’re the one who burned our homes. There were children there that day.”

Smaug shrugs, like it doesn’t matter. He grimaces at the smell of the little alley, casting a disdainful look around. “No matter. It won’t be remembered - no more than you will, child. Even your uncle doesn’t seem to mind losing you, or he’d never have sent you here to me. Will they even miss you, little Kíli?”

Kíli does laugh at that, properly, even though it’s murder on his ribs. He shakes his head, further amused by how angry Smaug looks at his laughter. If there is anything he has ever known, it is that he is loved. Thorin has proven it in blood and sweat and tears, and all of the others have as well. He remembers their arms, tight around him as he left, and their hands warm on his head, their farewells a benediction that he carries with him even now. Kíli Oakenshield is loved.

Smaug glowers at him, and narrows his eyes. “Very well. You said something, before, that made me think - about ballads, I believe. Is that how you think you and the others will be remembered? As plucky heroes who fought off the armies of evil?” His voice drips disdain, and Kíli is really far too tired to be having this debate. He shrugs the shoulder that will move.

“Probably. People like the underdog, and the corrupt government official is only a hero to other corrupt government types.” He gives a crooked grin, leaning forward as much as he dares, and drops his voice. “And we’ve got the truth on our side, which generally helps. You’ll be lucky to be remembered as anything better than a common criminal.”

Smaug slaps him then, with a sort of offhanded, casual cruelty that adds to the sting of the blow, and Kíli tries to ready himself for what’s coming. But the cold eyes turn calculating again, and rake over him uncomfortably.

“Will they miss you, then?” he asks, voice low and slow. “Will they miss you, the boy who will not stop talking? Will Thorin weep for you?”

Kíli looks away. He’s buying them time, even if it’s measured in seconds. Smaug grabs his chin, fingers cold and bruising, and forces his face up.

“Tell me, little Oakenshield,” he purrs with a dangerous smile. “What were you doing here in my city? Were you running away from the battle? Did your uncle send you here to hide you away? Did you abandon them to die?”

Kíli wrenches his face away, fury mounting at the suggestion. “No! They’re my family!” He glares as best he can, but Smaug looks amused.

“And what do you do for this family of yours, my boy? Why do you come to the dragon’s lair alone?”

It’s a spark to his tired heart, and Kíli feels himself flare up, anger and pride taking the place of the adrenaline that’s long since faded, lending him strength to stand. “I came and saw what you had done! I warned them! They know that you’re coming, and they’ll be ready!” He grins, fierce and wild, and feels like Thorin’s nephew for the first time in an age. “They’re so much more than you can imagine, Smaug. My family is going to destroy you!”

Smaug hums, noncommittal, and steps forward a little more. He’s far too close now - enough that Kíli can smell him, a bitter tinge of metal and greed and blood on the air. He tips his head to the side, and watches Kíli with interest, and finally blinks, looking satisfied. “I understand, now,” he says. “You’ve put yourself between me and them, haven’t you? This family of yours - this precious thing. It’s your Arkenstone, isn’t it?”

Kíli blinks, and wonders just how much head-trauma he’s suffered so far, because Smaug isn’t making much sense. He looks very pleased with himself, though, and reaches out to pat Kíli’s cheek, as one might a friendly puppy.

“But it cost you, didn’t it? To save the thing you love, you had to give it up. Where is your family now, Kíli Oakenshield, when you are at your end?”

Kíli closes his eyes, and thinks of them, images flashing across his mind in a heartbeat. Wild and dangerous, but so kind, and more than a little strange - the arms that had held him and taught him to stand, and sent him out into the world. He opens his eyes, a wild grin crossing his face - and smashes his forehead into Smaug’s, in the best headbutt that Dwalin had ever taught him. Smaug staggers back with a howl of pain, and Kíli laughs like a wild thing. They’re all here with him, at his end, and that is all that matters. He hasn’t lost anything.

He’s still laughing when they leap on him again, and when the fist comes down that will send him down into the depths of unconsciousness. Smaug is hissing in pain and anger, and somewhere, Kíli is sure, his mother is watching him with approval, and he can all but hear the roars of delight from his brother and his uncles. He’s warned them of their danger, and bought them all the time he can, and wounded their enemy, even just a little. He is his uncle’s son, and youngest of the Sons of Durin, and not alone.

All he’s ever wanted is his family.

Chapter Text

Kili is a picky eater from the time he comes off baby foods. Dis gets him that far, and she is the only one who is able to get him to eat. She knows the foods he will eat and what he won’t even look at, and that his foods can’t touch on his plate, and that he has textural issues with anything too soft. She plays games and sings songs, takes the pressure off, and keeps enough nutrition going into him to keep Kili properly filled out. Fili watches and tries to understand, and learns to trade foods with his brother, until they both have their favourites and full plates and full bellies.

Dis dies, and it seems as though all her wisdom dies with her.

When Thorin takes the lads on, he hasn’t got a clue beyond a vague memory of his sister complaining that her youngest was such a fussy eater. Thorin is used to deprivation after so many years on the run, and he cannot quite fit the shape of that idea into his mind. Food is fuel to keep the mind and body going, to propel them towards the higher aims in life. Food is dear, and sometimes difficult to come by. Food is a luxury item, at times.

Kili is four, and bereaved, and Kili won’t even talk properly. Fili translates for him as best he can, but even he cannot understand all of Kili’s concerns about his food. Meals become a battleground.

Thorin cooks soup, and Kili weeps at it, fat tears rolling down freckled cheeks to drip off a quivering chin. He jabbers something too fast and frantic to be words at Fili, who shrugs helplessly. Fili is tired, worn down by loss and care.

“He says it’s wet,” Fili explains.

“Of course it’s wet. It’s soup! Tell him he has to eat it.”

Thorin can tell that only the deepest roots of familial obligation and respect keep Fili from rolling his eyes out of their sockets.

“He can understand you, Uncle,” his little nephew says wearily.

“Eat, Kili,” Thorin says, with more hope than conviction. “It’s good for you! See the vegetables?”

Kili buries his little face in pudgy little hands and complains tearfully into them.

“Vegetables aren’t s’posed to be wet,” Fili explains. Kili slides off the stack of random items they have piled on his chair to make him tall enough to reach the table, sending them collapsing onto the floor with a sad slithering noise. It doesn’t add much to the chaos left from their latest frantic dash across the county. He stops to pat Thorin’s hand in an oddly consoling way, and wanders off, singing nonsense of his own devising. Thorin looks to Fili, bewildered.

“He’s not going to eat at all?”

Fili shrugs, spooning up a mouthful of his own soup. “What day is it?”

“Tuesday,” Thorin says, entirely lost.

“Sometimes Kili doesn’t eat on Tuesdays,” Fili says. He eats his soup, and then his brother’s. Thorin watches him, chin propped on one hand, and tries not to panic at just how far in over his head he really is.

Thorin cooks bangers and mash - about the limit of his culinary skill, to be honest, and he’ll be the first to admit the bangers are half burnt. He was distracted at the key moment by a news report on the supposed whereabouts of the Sons of Durin. He offers it to his tiny audience, who look skeptical.

Kili pokes at the mash with a fork, looking entirely disinterested, and carefully lifts a single molecule to his mouth. Equally carefully, he sticks his tongue directly back out and wipes it off with his fingers, which he then dries on his shirt. He chatters away, and Thorin thinks the word “taters” might be in play.

“Taters are bad,” Fili reports. He takes a bite of his own, considers, then nods. “Kili’s right. They are bad.”

The boys eat bangers. Well, Fili eats bangers. Kili carefully removes all traces of the exterior, hacks the interior into tiny pieces, and chooses three of them to eat. It takes him an hour. Thorin eats a pile of truly repulsive mash, and wonders where he has gone wrong in life to find himself in this position.

It doesn’t really seem to matter what Thorin offers. Kili doesn’t eat hardly at all, aside from what Fili guilts down his throat. They lose the lads into care for a week, and when he gets them back, it is glaringly obvious, because Kili is skinny. He’s underweight, though full of energy, and Dwalin growls every time he picks the little boy up.

“All bones,” he rumbles, looking at one skinny wrist. “I’ll break him in half if I move wrong.”

Thorin tries - REALLY he does - to cook for them and to find foods that Kili will tolerate, but mostly he burns things, or misreads the instructions because his mind is elsewhere, and Kili is too picky to just go along with it. Some days he eats a solid meal or two, and others he seems unconcerned with any sort of sustenance. Thorin despairs, and Fili does his best to get Kili to eat for their uncle, but there is only so much that even he can do.

By the time Kili is five, he is noticeably small, even if he is talking properly now. Thorin wants to hide him from all outside eyes, convinced he’ll be snatched away again by meddling strangers who will see neglect instead of a complete loss for ideas. He cannot force the boy to eat, and they cannot afford any of the fancy supplements meant for fussy eaters. Pursuit for the Sons of Durin grows stronger all the time, with Smaug baying at their heels, and there are days that Thorin does not know how he will feed the family at all.

Kili turns up his nose at shepherd’s pie one evening, dismayed by the texture and the fact that all the ingredients are mixed together. It has been a terrible day, and Thorin knows they’ll have to move again within a week. It all boils over, anger and frustration and lack of sleep, and he slams a fist down on the table and gives a wordless roar of frustration. It happens sometimes, and old Balin sighs in weary disappointment, nodding to the lads that they can leave. They scamper off quickly, Fili throwing him a slightly apprehensive glance, and Thorin rubs at his burning eyes with both hands.

“And is it really worth all that fuss, lad?” Balin asks gently, shaking his old, white head. Thorin feels like a fool.

“I don’t know what more can be done!” He tries to keep it from coming out a shout, and he somewhat succeeds. “They’re after us all the time, Balin. I cannot keep us more than a jump ahead of them, I cannot find a way out, I cannot find his weakness. And this -” he sighs heavily, closing his eyes in frustration. “We are surviving on nothing more than what Nori can steal, and it is not enough. How many days is there no food for us, and barely enough for the lads?”

“Aye, I know,” Balin agrees, somber. “You’re doing your best, lad, and there’s none that can fault you.”

“I can,” Thorin says. It is bitter. “To see Kili like this - what would my sister say? I am no fit guardian for children. He looks like a stiff breeze would blow him away, and there is nothing I can do to stop it!”

He breathes out, heavily, and shakes his head. For a moment, he thinks he sees a dark head peering in through the door - but when he blinks, it is gone, and his eyes are merely bleary from lack of sleep.

“We will find a way,” Balin says, voice low and soothing. “You don’t have to take it all on yourself.”

Thorin swallows and nods, and pushes himself to his feet, beginning to plan their next move. They will keep moving, or they will die.

He sets up a rental in Ayr, organising the move with the customary speed, and is so deep in the middle of packing and planning that he forgets all about Kili’s problem until supper is on the table, and he realises that Bofur has made soup. He groans, tired to his bones, unwilling to face another battle with the stubbornest little boy he has ever known. He shakes his head, makes himself look up, forces a pleasant expression on his face as he turns to reason with Kili.

Kili is eating soup.

Kili has never eaten soup.

He looks a bit like he’s being tortured, fishing through the broth to find a single bite at a time, and eating with a grim determination that reminds Thorin so strongly of Dis that he feels like the breath has been knocked from his lungs. Fili stares at his brother, equally confused, and then blinks at Thorin. Fili continues to eat.

Thorin doesn’t say a word.

Fili comes to him a few days later, when Thorin is at the end of his wits over the whole puzzle. Kili eats at every meal, now - slowly and painfully, sometimes, but he cleans his plate. He has lost some of the frightening hollowness in his cheeks, and Dwalin swears he feels more like a boy and less like a plucked chicken already.

“What did you say to him to make him eat?” Thorin asks, ready to have Fili elected PM. A lad who could change Kili’s mind was a force to be reckoned with.

“I was going to ask you,” Fili said, looking at him sideways. “I asked Kili why he liked foods now, and he said he didn’t. But he says he isn’t a baby anymore, and he’s going to help you.”

Thorin furrows his brow, confused. “How can he help me? He can’t even tie his own shoes yet!”

“Yes he can,” Fili says blithely. “But I asked him that, too. Kili says it’s family, and that he can eat horrible food to help you. Did you tell him he had to?”

Thorin is the worst parental figure in the world. He does not deserve to have children at all, least of all these ones. He sits down heavily, and draws Fili close, one arm around too-small shoulders.

“I did not mean to,” he says quietly. “But your brother - both of you - are too clever for your own good. If I do my best to be sure I am not making horrible food, you must do your best to let him learn to eat it. We don’t have any other choices just now, Fili.”

Fili thinks for a while, and then nods. He leans in close for a minute, and then steps back to fix Thorin with clear blue eyes.

“Kili is too happy to do hard things for you, Uncle Thorin. I don’t think this one is bad, though. But, Uncle?”

Thorin raises a questioning eyebrow, trying not to smile when Fili is so dreadfully serious.

“Do you think you could buy yourself a cookbook?”

Chapter Text

They ought to have known it would happen at some point.

When the Sons of Durin were arrested a second time, after the battle which brought down Smaug, Bilbo knew that any chance any of them had ever had of anonymity was long gone. Their faces and biographies were plastered over every paper, their stories chronicled in loving detail online, and their individual and group psychologies analysed to death on news programmes. The media coverage of the trials was enough to drive a person mad if they hadn’t already known the members of the group personally. For Bilbo, who loved them all, it was nearly torturous. Somehow, Gandalf and Thranduil managed to keep his name and pictures out of most of the coverage, and for that, he was unutterably grateful.

By the time his family had served their sentences and been released, making their homes upon the mountain once more, the media coverage had mostly died down. It was a relief to be able to look at a paper without seeing their faces on the front. Bilbo had the most benefit from it by then, as he had somehow become the family’s go-to fetch and carry person. And so it was that it was Bilbo who saw it coming before any of the rest of them.

He was on a supply run in Edinburgh, speaking to his vendors to correct some of the shipping issues that still had not been worked out for deliveries to the mountain, when the paper caught his eye.

“The Sons of Durin Stole My Children!” The title was all in bold capitals, and Bilbo’s heartbeat seemed to double in speed. He held up a hand to beg his contact to stop for a moment, and darted over to pick up the paper, ignoring all the other stories. The picture beneath the caption was of a sorrowful looking man with Fili’s hair and nose and Kili’s most perfectly-practiced woebegone look. He read a little way into the story, ignoring the impatient sighs from the vendor.

“The Sons of Durin may have become something of a celebrity group in Scotland since their role in bringing to light corruption deep in the heart of the Scottish government, but not everyone sees them as heroes. For Gregory Campbell, age 46, the Sons of Durin represent every parent’s deepest nightmare. Campbell spoke to us today, and claims that he was married to the sister of notorious criminal Thorin Oakenshield, making him the father of the two youngest members of the organisation.

“ ‘I didn’t get to see them grow up,’ Campbell told us, trying to contain his emotions. ‘They’re my sons, but I don’t even know them! Oakenshield stole them away while my wife was on her deathbed, and I’ve never been able to track them down.’

“Campbell tells us that his intention is to seek reunification with his sons.”

The article went on from there at what looked like great length, and further down the page, Bilbo spotted both current pictures of Fili and Kili and what must be some rare shots from their childhood, at maybe four and six years old. There was a burning sensation in his throat, and he clutched the paper tightly. After everything they had been through, to have the lads’ father reappear on the scene just as things were getting to some sort of equilibrium just seemed too unkind.

He broke off the aborted conversation with his vendor entirely. “Look, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to talk another time. Just please, do your best to see that our next delivery is on time, right?” Bilbo left the room quickly, already grabbing his mobile and debating who to call.

Fili and Kili had avoided as much of the public eye as possible since the trials, but that wasn’t saying much. He was willing to lay odds that anyone sufficiently determined would be able to find the lads with very little trouble - and while he didn’t doubt their ability to handle one middle-aged man, he was not about to let them face the father they had never known in front of a hungry media presence. He dashed off a quick text to Thorin, letting him know that he’d be a bit late, and took off for the lads’ little flat as fast as his feet would carry him.

They lived together, of course, with no regard for personal space or privacy. Their flat was evidence of an unsettled childhood, and it always disturbed Bilbo more than a little to see the place so empty, as if they were constantly prepared to jump up and flee at a moment’s notice. It was how they had been raised, and even a year of settled domesticity with him had not been enough to sway them from the habits of a lifetime. Bilbo let himself in with a spare key, not bothering to knock.

“Hiya, Uncle Bill,” Fili said lazily, not looking up from the laptop he was crouched in front of, fingers moving faster than Bilbo’s eyes could keep up with them. “Just a second, yeah?”

“I’m afraid it’s a bit urgent, my lad,” Bilbo said, standing on tiptoes to peer around a corner into the tiny kitchenette of their small flat. “Is Kili here?”

“He’ll be back in four minutes,” Fili replied automatically, not bothering to check any timepiece. “We didn’t know you were coming by today!”

“Yes, well, something’s come up,” Bilbo said, scurrying over to peer out the window for signs of either Kili or a horde of news trucks. “Can you lads come back to Beinn Chuirn with me right away?”

Then Fili did look up, brow furrowed in concern. “What’s wrong? Has someone been hurt?”

“Not yet,” Bilbo muttered darkly. “And I’m trying to keep that from happening.”

Fili nodded, and jumped up to begin throwing things into a satchel he kept close to hand, which already contained a number of both his and Kili’s personal items. Bilbo shook his head silently, heart aching a bit. They were such good soldiers, sometimes, ready to move on nothing more than a hint. He supposed it had kept them alive for a long while, but it was not right.

Kili burst in, all sunshine smiles and wild dark hair that had been blown in his face by the evening breeze. “Uncle Bill! I didn’t expect you!” He flung himself at Bilbo, but Fili stopped him with an upraised hand and a quick, sharp whistle that must have had years of meaning behind it. Kili sobered immediately, and began to help his brother pack. They both looked years older all of a sudden, and Bilbo felt intensely guilty at it. “Who’s down?” Kili asked, eyes wide and frightened.

“No-one,” Bilbo assured him. “I’m sorry to burst in here like this, but something has come up that I know Thorin will want to deal with, and the two of you ought to be at the mountain when we discuss it. There’s no danger, as such, but we’d best not linger.”

They were out the door in two minutes, and it felt like the beginning of their adventures all over again. The lads had thrown on their black leather jackets, and the easy grace of their movement let them slip into the shadows until they walked nearly unseen, while Bilbo was left blundering on, trying not to look behind them at every step.

He hid the paper inside his own jacket, and hurried them through the train station, hoping they wouldn’t spot the headline in any of the little shops along the way.

By the time they reached the little village that was taking shape on Beinn Chuirn, Bilbo felt a nervous wreck, and the sight of Thorin standing watchfully in the door of one of the small cottages they had completed was an intense relief. He paused just long enough to check that Frodo was happily engrossed in video games with Sam Gamgee and the other children, before heading for Thorin. He pushed the lads ahead, closing the door with an audible click, and then leaned back against it, breathing a little too heavily.

It was the work of a moment to hand Thorin the paper, creased as it was from the uncareful journey, and Bilbo watched intently as Thorin’s face darkened. Fili and Kili crept wordlessly behind him to read along, eyes barely visible to Bilbo over the slope of Thorin’s shoulders.

“Get the others,” Thorin snapped as he neared the end, and Bilbo could only nod, not interested in correcting manners at the moment. They were together within minutes, though some of the older men had been half-asleep when he called them in and were blinking blearily into the light, long hair and beards an almost amusing disaster. Thorin was pacing angrily by the time they all gathered, seeming to call all the light and attention in the room to himself as he moved back and forth, a figure of righteous anger that Bilbo would hesitate to confront for any reason.

“Campbell’s coming,” he said without preamble, holding up the paper so the rest of the Sons of Durin could see the picture. “Claims we kidnapped the lads and kept them from him all along. He’ll bring media with him.”

“We never did!” Dwalin rumbled, as close to shocked as Bilbo had ever seen him. “We only ever did what Dis asked.”

“But they’re adults now,” Bofur objected loudly. Even his furry hat looked angered and offended by the news. “He can’t do anything about it!”

“He can drag every detail of our lives back into the media circus,” Balin murmured wearily. “And every detail of THEIR lives, more to the point.”

Bilbo blinked at the idea, vague horror beginning to creep into his gut. He didn’t know how much evidence there would be, but if Fili and Kili were made the center of a huge story about kidnapped children, then any chance they still had for a normal life would be gone. Every crime they had committed, every injury or lack of proper schooling or allegation of neglect would be brought forward, and then where would they be? He shook his head violently.

“He’s got to be stopped!” They turned to look at him, eyes full of misplaced hope, and Bilbo cursed the fate that had led the gang of hardened criminal masterminds to believe that he could rescue them from every predicament. “I’m afraid I don’t know the whole story,” he said apologetically. “What is it that he wants here?”

“Who knows?” Thorin growled, still pacing wildly. “Not them, that much is clear. He never bothered to so much as check whether Kili had been born after he took off.”

“Happened when Fili was no more than a babe,” Dori said sadly, giving a little sniff. “He worked out who his in-laws were, and took off running.”

“My sister never went after him,” Thorin explained in a low growl. “Decided he wasn’t worth keeping if he didn’t want to make an effort for his children. We left someone at her address for nearly ten years, and he never made any sort of contact, or sought custody.”

“So he’s either after their money or their fame,” Bilbo said thoughtfully. “If it’s money he wants, there’s not much we can do.” The mines were far from fully operational, and every bit of capital they had was sunk into building this new little world for themselves, away up in the peace of the mountain. “And if it’s fame…” he trailed off, and narrowed his eyes, thinking hard.

“I never liked him,” Dwalin rumbled, fists creaking audibly as he tightened them threateningly. “He was never good enough for her.”

“You never liked any of the lads who came around after our Dis,” Balin corrected him gently, offering a kind smile. “He wasn’t always a bad sort. Didn’t have what it took to keep up with her, of course, but there’s few who could have done.”

Bilbo finished typing a quick email on his mobile and hit send, refocusing on the conversation with the sudden sick realisation that they had been discussing all of these matters in front of the lads themselves. He turned around a bit anxiously, and was unsurprised to see they were shoulder to shoulder, heads down together perusing the article and muttering away at top speed in the private language only they spoke.

“What do you make of all this, my lads?” he asked gently, going over to stand in front of them. “I’m sorry to spring it on you this way, but I only saw the paper this afternoon, myself.”

They gave simultaneous identical shrugs, both with veiled expressions that Bilbo could not read.

“I never knew him,” Kili said simply. “I don’t know what to think. I’d have to talk to him to get a read on his angle.”

“I remember bits and pieces, but nothing substantial,” Fili mused, eyes lost somewhere in the distant past. “He used to sing with mum, I think, when they weren’t arguing.”

Thorin was looking twitchy, standing near the door now as if to place himself between his nephews and all the dangers of the world. “We’d better sit down and think,” he began - and then there was a knocking at the door that left them all startled. Bilbo shook his head in resignation as he looked around, seeing that almost every member of the group was suddenly sporting some form of weaponry that had not been visible before - even the men who had been getting ready for bed. Thorin growled at the door like a wolf, and Bilbo rolled his eyes, marching forward to draw him back.

“And what good will that do?” he hissed, shaking his head. “Let’s handle this like mature adults, shall we? Weapons down, everyone.” They looked to Thorin for approval, and Bilbo held his breath for what seemed like interminable seconds, until Thorin nodded and all the weapons were suddenly gone again, leaving harmless-looking men behind.

“Boys, keep quiet,” Thorin ordered. “Let us do the talking.”

“Right, because that always goes well,” Kili muttered. His eyes were wide and dark, and the lads had twined their hands in one another’s sleeves without seeming to realise what they were doing. Bilbo recognised their fight or flight response, and his heart went out to them - but there was another knock at the door, and Thorin was storming forward to throw it open, glaring intimidatingly out into the cool evening air of the mountain.

It was nearly blinding, despite the late hour, as the dozen or so photographers immediately began to snap pictures of Thorin and the rest, leaning as close in as possible around the slight figure who stood directly in front of the door.

“Come in if you’re coming, and leave your pests outside,” Thorin growled, turning his back on the flashing mob. Campbell made his way in, and Thorin slammed the door behind him.

“If you’re going to kill me, brother, please do remember there is a crowd of witnesses outside,” Campbell said. Bilbo was relieved to find no trace of either of the lads in his tone and bearing. Except for the facial similarities, the man would have seemed a total stranger.

“I am not your brother,” Thorin hissed. “I warned my sister not to take up with you.”

“Yes, you did,” Cambell said coolly. “And then you stole my sons away as she lay dying. Not the best family behaviour, I must say.” A rumble of protest went up from the assembled men at that, and Campbell looked around, shrinking into himself a bit as he saw their numbers and the anger of them. “Not exactly the nicest family reunion, either.”

“You’re no family of ours,” Dwalin said, eyes narrowed to dangerous slits.

“No, but I am theirs,” Campbell said. He nodded directly at the lads, who were watching him wide-eyed, but hadn’t moved. “Hello, boys. It’s so good to see you after all this time!”

Unwillingly, the Sons of Durin were forced to let a path open up as Campbell made his way over to where Fili and Kili stood together, still silent. It was eerie to see them so still.

“Kili, isn’t it?” Cambell asked pleasantly, reaching out to offer Kili his hand. “My word, but you do take after your mother! I’m so sorry we’ve never met until now.” Kili did not take his hand, or make any move to untangle it from Fili’s, and Campbell shook his head. “Fili, then - you’ll remember me! I’ve missed you, son.”

“He’s not your son,” Thorin said. His voice was rough and strangled, and Bilbo could hear everything in it that he was not saying.

“Genetic testing will say differently,” Campbell shot back, not taking his eyes off the boys. “Their mother and I may not have seen eye to eye in all matters, but that much I do know. They’re mine, and no-one else’s.”

“What do you want from us?” Fili asked. He seemed to be wavering somewhere dangerously near hope, and Bilbo’s heart broke for him.

“Can’t a man want to see the children who were stolen from him?” Campbell asked piteously, reaching his hand out as if to touch Fili’s hair. “You were so small when I left, and now you’ve grown so tall! I never meant to miss so much of your life.”

There was another rustle and murmur of discontent around the room, and Bilbo thought the man must be some sort of idiot to make this fuss in front of all of the Sons of Durin.

“Well, you did,” Fili said stiffly. “We did just fine without you, too. Can you please leave now?” It sounded like it cost him something to say it.

“I suppose it was a bit too much to hope that you’d come running back to me,” he answered with a sigh. “Given time, though, I’m sure we can make a go of this! You two should come with me for a bit. We can get to know each other. I think it will be very beneficial all around!”

Kili straightened up, then, seeming to come back to life. He gave a sparkling, mischievous grin, shooting it past Campbell to where Bilbo and Thorin now stood side by side, radiating tension back and forth to one another. Bilbo felt himself answering that smile unconsciously. Kili knew what he was doing.

“Three out of ten,” he said diffidently, looking Campbell up and down with a cursory glance that seemed to take in the entirety of the man. “You’ve dressed all wrong for the part, your body language is screaming aggression instead of any sort of affection, and you’ve clearly been sizing us up for our monetary worth. I wouldn’t have fallen for that when I was six.” Campbell blinked at him in confusion, and Kili nudged his brother. “Besides, we already know your tricks. Tell him!”

Fili glanced at Kili, like he was looking for strength, and then nodded. He lifted his chin up, as though facing down armies again. “I hacked info on you years ago. You were married again not six months after mum died.” His eyes flashed like cold blue fire. “You never wanted us at all, or you’d have come looking.”

Campbell looked around, bemused. “What have you done to them? Criminals and liars, it seems. They’re as bad as the rest of you!”

“No,” Thorin said sharply. “They’re far better.”

“They’ve led you astray, boys,” Campbell said, turning back to them imploringly. “It was growing up without a father that did it, I know. I should have been there. But I’m here now! Let me make it up to you!”

“There you couldn’t be more wrong,” Kili said easily. He glanced around the room, eyes alight and shining with the peculiar joy that Bilbo had only ever seen from the lad in the presence of his family. “We grew up without a lot of things - but never without a father.” He nodded deeply to Thorin, and Fili echoed the move, both of them fixed on their uncle.

“Well said,” Balin said gently, moving carefully through the room to place himself at their backs, one hand on each of their shoulders as he stared down Campbell. “So the question is, why have you come now? What are you looking for from these boys, when it is clearly not the pleasure of their company, since you have shunned that all these years?”

Campbell’s face twitched, hardening into a much colder expression. “Very well, if that’s how you want to play it. I want the boys. At least two weekends a month, and any time needed for interviews.”

“Interviews?” Thorin sounded positively feral now. “What interviews? And what right do you think you have to demand any part of these young men?”

“I’m finalising a book deal now,” he replied easily. Campbell had turned his back on the lads entirely, ignoring their presence; Bilbo stifled a grin with his hand as he saw Kili easily lift the man’s wallet and rifle through, tossing several small items to Fili, who was already hard at work on his mobile. Nori gave him a proud grin and a subtle thumbs-up. “All about the way you kidnapped and twisted my children, and my ceaseless struggle to save and rehabilitate them. It’s going to be a best-seller. Real tear-jerker, I think. I’ll want them for the publicity, and to provide details for veracity.”

“And if they refuse?” Ori asked from a quiet corner, and then looked quite impressed by his own bravery in speaking up.

“Well, it would be a shame to have so many questions raised about their upbringing and activities over the past few years,” Campbell said, sounding genuinely sorry. He was quite a fine actor, and Bilbo felt a little guilty for suspecting he knew where Kili got some of his natural talent. “And the memory of their mother, may she rest in peace - it seems a shame to disturb it with unprovable accusations…” he let his voice trail off meaningfully.

Behind his back, Fili gave a silent fist-pump of accomplishment, and Kili carefully replaced the items in the wallet and slipped it back in place. Campbell took no notice.

“You will not speak of her!” Dwalin rumbled, suddenly looming tall over the hapless man.

“To be honest, you won’t speak of any of this,” Fili called out, all lazy grace and confidence again. He flipped his mobile high in the air and caught it with a cocky grin. “Or I’ll be forced to publish all the details of these emails you just forwarded me. It would be a shame to have so many questions raised about your confessions of planned blackmail.” He raised an eyebrow at Campbell, who was gaping at him.

“That, and the stolen property you carry,” Kili continued. He gestured at Campbell’s left front pocket. “Get that off Smaug, did you? Is he the one who pointed you at us?”

Campbell slapped a hand over the offending pocket, beginning to look frightened. “Now see here,” he began, addressing himself directly to Thorin. “There’s no need for this to get unpleasant! Just give me their time, and I’ll see to it your name doesn’t get dragged into it too deeply. I’m sure you did your best with them. Their failings are clearly the result of disturbed minds rather than poor upbringings.” The sideways glare of scorn he shot at the boys was enough to give the lie to that statement, and to make Bilbo’s blood boil. He stepped forward, giving a quiet little cough.

“If you’re quite finished insulting our youngsters, Mr. Campbell, I’m afraid I have a bit of bad news for you. You will not be publishing a book at all.”

His face turned dark with rage. “How dare you interrupt us, you tagalong! I have serious business to conduct here, and none of it is your concern!”

“On the contrary,” Bilbo said easily. The adrenaline was flowing, and he felt like he was on top of the world. “You see, I am writing a book on our adventures, and my agents are very concerned that my book should not suffer in profitability due to competition. I’m afraid my cousins, the Sackville-Bagginses, are well known in the industry for being very protective of their clients. Cousin Lobelia has just emailed me to assure me your purported book deal is already being tied up in enough red tape to keep you from publishing, giving interviews, or even so much as leaking information about the Sons of Durin for at least the next decade or two.”

“Assuming you survive that long,” Dwalin growled. He folded his arms across his broad chest with an audible squeak of leather, and seemed to gain at least another foot of height as he towered over Campbell.

Bilbo patted his elbow gently, offering Campbell half a shrug. “It would probably be a good idea for you to leave now, and a better one for you not to come back again. You’ll get nothing from any of us, I’m afraid - and even if you did, you have no room to speak of it.”

“I have lawyers of my own!” Campbell hissed, eyes in narrow slits as he glared around the room at the lot of them. “Keep the brats, then, if you’re so keen on them. I see I was lucky to get free of them. But I will have my say! Smaug isn’t the only one with resources. There’s plenty of sources out there with their eyes on you lot.”

Bilbo glanced over to Thorin automatically, but could make no sense of the muddle of dark thoughts he could almost see chasing around the surface of Thorin’s mind. He crossed his arms and nodded tightly at the door, and Campbell caved.

“Very well. Expect to hear from my lawyers.” He crossed to the door, and then turned back to look at the lads, shaking his head. “I knew you’d take after her and turn out no better than the rest of this lot. Serves her right, to see her brats end up in this state.” He turned huffily and stormed off, though his would-be dramatic exit was rather ruined by Bifur slamming the door shut just behind him, leaving them to enjoy the sound of Campbell stumbling back into the flashing lights of his own photographers.

“This cousin of yours,” Thorin asked intently, laying warm hands on Bilbo’s shoulders, “will she be able to keep him quiet?”

“You don’t know Lobelia Sackville-Baggins if you’re asking a question like that,” Bilbo said dryly, trying not to smirk. “He’ll never open his mouth in public again - and if he does, she’ll see every word discredited. Cousin Lobelia has a keen eye for protecting the profits of her house’s books.”

Nods and sighs of relief went around the room, but the Sons of Durin were not about to relax. Bilbo watched the way they circulated, keeping eyes on the perimeter, the departing journalists, and, most of all, the lads. He knew from experience it would take them all a while to let go of the event.

Bilbo nudged Thorin gently, and they made their way over to Fili and Kili, who had flung themselves into a corner, sitting on the hard floor in a way that made Bilbo’s bones ache with the jealousy of the middle-aged. They had their heads bent together over Fili’s laptop, and did not look up as Bilbo and Thorin approached. Thorin glanced down at Bilbo, eyes full of worry. He cleared his throat awkwardly, looming over the lads.

“I’m sorry,” Thorin said. Bilbo blinked at him in surprise. Thorin was a man of action, and his words tended toward gruffness when he did speak. He did not apologise lightly. “The man is a fool and a coward, but he was right. You should never have been forced to grow up as you did, missing so very much.”

They looked up in unison, brown eyes and blue narrowed in identical looks of confusion.

“We were never missing anything that mattered,” Kili said quietly. Fili nodded agreement.

“Your father was wrong about so many things,” Thorin said, dropping to one knee to bring himself close to their level. “You are the finest young people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

“Uncle Thorin,” Fili asked suddenly, looking unusually uncertain. “What about mum? What would she have thought of how we live?” Kili fixed him with an intense stare at that, and they waited, nearly breathless, for his answer.

“My sister would have been as proud of you as I am,” he answered without hesitation. Bilbo squeezed his shoulder silently, as pleased as he had ever been, and felt Thorin relax a little.

“Lads,” Bilbo asked after a quiet moment, as they seemed ready to turn back to their work. “I have to ask. Are you doing crime again? Because you know you agreed to give that up!”

“Not crime as such!” Fili protested. “Just moving some information around. Information wants to be free!”

“He means he’s doing crime,” Kili translated, nudging his brother’s leg with a bare foot. “But nothing harmful, and nothing that will get us caught.”

“Leave them be,” Thorin said, failing rather miserably at hiding a smile. “Give them room on this one, Bilbo. You can keep them law-abiding all the rest of the time.”

Bilbo pulled them both away as the lads went back to work, and he grinned mischievously at Thorin. “Never can stand up to those two, can you?”

Thorin gave a self-deprecating shrug. “It hasn’t done them much harm. They turned out so much better than we ever might have hoped, despite everything I did wrong.”

“Come on, then,” Bofur shouted, interrupting the moment. Bilbo spun around, startled, to see that the door was open and the rest of the group were gone, vanished into the darkness of the sudden night. He grabbed Thorin’s arm and pulled him along, out into the crisp autumn air, where a fire was already beginning to crackle in their well-used firepit. “No sense moping about. Bit of fresh air will do us all good!”

Frodo came running, dragging a contingent of loud children behind him, and they found their laughing way to their parents as the light and smell of the fire drew all the people of the mountain. Bilbo shoved Thorin along until they were close enough to feel the warmth of the flames, and pulled them down to sit against a fallen tree. Conversation broke out all around them, and bits of song and laughter, but Bilbo and Thorin remained silent, leaning in together.

“He said Smaug isn’t the only one watching us,” Bilbo said after a while. “Who else might it be? Should we be worried?”

“We’re working on it, Uncle Bill,” Fili said, appearing out of nowhere to sit by Thorin’s feet. “We still have sources of our own, you know.”

Kili collapsed half on top of his brother, sprawling long limbs everywhere. “Don’t tell them that, Fee. They’ll keep us under lock and key forever.”

“Never again,” Thorin said gently. He dropped a hand on Fili’s head, and then moved it down to squeeze Kili’s arm. “Only good things from now. That’s what this place means.”

It wasn’t a realistic dream, and Bilbo knew that they all knew it. But in the crisp air of the evening, with the stars coming out overhead and their latest threat neutralised, it was easy enough to believe it. He smiled up at the sky, heart too full for words, and listened to the sounds of life around him. Life was good on their lovely, lonely mountain.

Chapter Text

Nori is a thief.

He is a thief long before he is a wanted man, before they lose their mountain and their home. He’s born with the skills to make him an excellent pickpocket, and blessed with anonymously homely features that leave him forgotten in an instant. He learned the trade at the knee of a skilled burglar and con man, but as a young man, he chooses his targets carefully. They have all they need on the mountain, and it is merely an intellectual exercise - a way to stir up the adrenaline that leaves his heart pumping and his mind singing in the wake of success. Their parents never know. Dori is a good man, and oughtn’t to know about such things. Ori is a child. Nori lives free, as he chooses, and doesn’t mind that he is soon a wanted man with a list of crimes as long as his arm - and that only a fraction of the things he has done.

But when the mountain burns, they are all wanted men - even those who have done nothing wrong. Thorin is hunted from one end of the country to another for no reason other than wishing to keep his home, and Nori watches, and fumes, as they are gradually all transformed into criminals. He has to teach them what he knows if any of them are to survive, and some of them take to it better than others. He tries not to be proud when he sees the devious shape of Ori’s mind, or the dexterity with which Bifur’s hands take to picking locks and lifting wallets.

He is not too proud to ply his trade, it must be said. He steals from any target he can find, now, because it is no longer a matter of professional pride or picking his marks with care. There are mouths to feed - and more, because the dangers are greater than most of the rest of them seem to acknowledge. Nori despises their innocence all the more because they are no longer allowed to be innocent. They cannot live their innocence, but they have no idea where to begin to live in his world. Nori must make connections and pay protections on them in all their hideaways and major cities. He negotiates passage for them with the worst of the worst, and hides that knowledge from them all. Thorin looks on him with barely hidden scorn, and Nori lets it roll off his back like water. Better that he not know what he is being protected from.

Dori asks him to hide it all when he is around Ori. Dori thinks he is a bad influence. Dori counsels him to be more careful, more circumspect, to choose his targets better, to let go and stop being so angry. Dori knows nothing of his anger - the way it burns in his throat and gut like acid, the way it makes his mind dance in tiny, furious circles around the problem, looking for any way to help. His anger pushes him forward and forward when weariness and fear and sorrow would make him stop. He goes away and stays away from Ori, and his rage burns like fire on the mountain. It is a cunning flame, though, and he wields it like a tool. Thorin is made of incandescent rage, and Dwalin has a temper that will leave you flat in an instant, but Nori’s fury is the stuff of ancient tales.

He wants to steal from Smaug - but that is the one thing Thorin will not allow, no matter how often he presents his ideas. He keeps a file on Smaug’s home, his office, his gym and car and favourite restaurants and clubs, and he is ready to move at an instant. Thorin will not see it done until he knows they will succeed.

“I can’t lose anyone else,” he tells Nori one evening, when he has had far too much to drink. Dis is dying, and they all know it, and Nori’s blood boils when he thinks about it, because there is nothing he can steal to ward off death for even a moment. “Every time we go against him, we lose. I need you.”

No-one needs Nori - or they don’t think they do, and that is to his liking. He drinks in silence with Thorin, and he is not touched by the sentiment, no matter what the drink may make him think. He lets Thorin have the last word, but keeps his files on Smaug current.

Nori isn’t like the rest of them, and he has always known it. He has no difficulty being on the run, and little more when they catch up with him every once in a while. He cools his heels in different cells over the years, finding favourites and most hated cells all over the length and breadth of Scotland.

He never wanted to be an honest man. He did want to be a good thief, and these days, he knows he is not one.

He corrupts the children. It must be done if they are going to survive, but it is the one crime he truly feels in his heart that he is guilty of, and it is a sin that will not wash clean. They are brilliant and good and decent young fellows, but his hands were the ones that taught them to break the laws, and his voice the one that twisted the insides of their heads until they can think like criminals and not even know they are doing it. Fili takes to cyber-crime with such delight and pride, stealing more in a moment from miles away than Nori has ever managed to take in all his long years. Kili steals their hearts and heads, breaking his way past every barrier without tripping a single alarm, and then grins at them with such sunny innocence that Nori half-doubts he knows what he is doing.

It is Bilbo Baggins, oddly enough, who manages to steal something from Nori. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Nori knows all along who his mother is - every decent sneakthief or burglar knows of Belladona Baggins. It goes against the code to share that information with outsiders, though, so Nori holds his tongue and lets Bilbo share what he will about his mother in his own time. With a mum like that, Nori thinks, of course he’s a natural burglar, though Thorin doubts he could steal himself out of a wet paper bag when they first kidnap him. Nori keeps to the edges and watches him find himself. There’s a professional detachment there, but it does not hold up. Bilbo, with his odd little face and curly hair and utter innocence, steals his way under all of their walls.

They become partners in crime when the Sons of Durin are imprisoned, and Nori does his best to help plot their escape - but Bilbo walks them out on his own, and then saves them over and over again. He steals from Smaug himself, and makes off with Thorin’s heart before their eyes - and he is still an honest man, and a good man, and Nori does not know how he has done it.

When he goes to prison again, Nori paces his tiny cell every day, fury spinning his mind in tiny circles and churning in his gut. They never should have been here - none but him, at least - and it is enough injustice to feed his anger, sending it higher and hotter with every futile turn around the cell. He asks Bilbo to visit after he has been there two months, and Bilbo comes the next weekend, bringing homemade biscuits. It is absurd.

Nori tells Bilbo everything he can remember - every theft and burglary, every window smashed and car stolen, every fraudulent bank transaction, and watches for the disgust to creep across his face. It doesn’t come. Bilbo tilts his head to the side and looks at Nori with eyes far too wise for his years.

“You know who my mother was,” Bilbo says evenly. “Do you really think any of this is a surprise? She raised me on far wilder tales every night of my life. Why are you telling me all of this now?”

“Someone should know,” Nori mutters. He stares at his hands. “When I get out, I’m going to leave. There’s no place for me with honest folk. But someone ought to know what I’ve done.”

“You’ve missed the important bit, though,” Bilbo tells him, more than a hint of amusement coming through. “Tell me, Nori, why did you rob that church on Christmas Eve all those years ago?”

“Needed clothes for the lads,” he says roughly. “They were all in rags that year, and it wasn’t right.”

“And why did you swindle the Iron Hills Motorbike Association out of their membership fees?” He’s definitely laughing at Nori now, but Nori will not look at him.

“After Bifur got hurt, there wasn’t money for what he needed,” Nori admits. “Bofur couldn’t manage alone, so I snuck him the fees. Told him not to ask, and he never did.” He chances a glance up, and Bilbo is looking at him with such unexpected fondness that Nori melts just a little and lets a wicked smile creep up one side of his face. “Besides, Dain’s a bit of an arse, if you know what I mean. Decent fellow in a pinch, but you wouldn’t want to know him personally.”

Bilbo chuckles, and Nori meets his eyes. There is no condemnation there. “You’ll pay your debt to society,” he says gently. “Thranduil will see to that - and then you will come home, because they need you. They always have. Where would they be without you, Nori?”

When Bilbo leaves, Nori sits on his narrow bunk and looks at his hands that have stolen so much. He still doesn’t regret most of it, and he can’t see himself living as honest a life as the others would like. But something has changed, and it takes him a while to work it out.

Nori is not angry anymore. Somehow, in talking to Bilbo, the little grocer has stolen away the furious heart of him and left him filled with an odd sort of peace. He is not an honest man, and he is not a free man - but Nori is no longer just a thief.

“Suppose he’s right,” he says out loud, and there’s no rage left in it. “Where would they be without me?”

Chapter Text

When Fíli is twelve and Kíli is just barely ten, they miscalculate badly. Thorin leaves them with Ori and Dori for a week, hidden away in a small and boring English town called Ormskirk, far away from London or anywhere interesting. The trouble is that Kíli hates it, and says (loudly and often) that he can’t breathe right there, and since Ori still isn’t speaking to them after the minor incident with the Queen two years earlier, and Dori keeps running long and mysterious errands without telling them where he’s going - well, the long and short of it is that they get terribly bored, and Kíli wants to go home.

So they do.

They know how to ride the trains without being caught, of course, and getting back to Edinburgh is the simplest journey Fíli's ever planned. They’re back outside the little house in Morningside without breaking a sweat, and Kíli sniffs the air gratefully and says it smells like home. There’s no arguing with that, so Fíli just nudges him with a shoulder and marches up to the door, pushing it open easily.

“We’re home!” Kíli calls - and it echoes in the empty front room. Empty - because all of their furniture and things are gone, leaving the place the way they found it four months earlier, when they first moved in.

“Something’s wrong,” Fíli says. Thorin always says act first and think later, so he grabs Kíli's shoulder and forces him out the door just as a shout comes from inside.

“Wait!”

It is only years of practiced obedience to gruff shouts that stops them, even for an instant, and Fíli feels his knees go shaky as he sees the uniforms of the officers who are on them in an instant. They don’t grab him or Kíli, but there are four officers around them in an instant, and his head feels like it’s spinning around wildly as he struggles to stay calm. Kíli presses back against him, tense and ready to dart, and Fíli wraps his arms around him from behind, locking his fingers together. No-one is taking Kíli away from him.

“You’re the Oakenshield boys, aren’t you?” The officer’s voice is kind and level, and she offers them a sympathetic smile. “Wondering where your family’s got to, I suppose?”

Kíli shifts as if to speak, and Fíli steps carefully on his foot. They can’t afford a mistake. Kíli glances back at him for a millisecond, and Fíli recognises the woebegone orphan expression he’s adopted. Good call, and Fíli shifts his features to match, as best he can. Kíli is far better at it. They blink up at the officer silently, and she shakes her head, still looking sympathetic.

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you all sorted, and I’m sure you’ll be back with your uncle in no time. I’ll just need you to come with me.”

“Are we arrested?” Kíli asks. He uses his very clearest, youngest voice, and Fíli is sometimes glad he’s so small and runty for his age. He sounds utterly pathetic, and Fíli watches the officers melt a little. “We didn’t mean to do anything wrong!”

“No, you haven’t!” Another officer steps forward to kneel down, putting one of his big hands kindly on Kíli's shoulder. “It’s your family that’s in a wee bit of trouble, lad - but you needn’t worry yourself.”

Kíli glances back at him, and they share a quick glance. The gullible officer has left them an opening. Fíli flickers his eyes to the gap.

Go now?

Kíli widens his eyes a bit, giving a microscopic nod back to their would-be captors.

Just a minute. Let me get what I can.

Fíli agrees with a blink, and Kíli whips back around to stare at them with wide, innocent eyes.

“Why did they leave without us?” he asks piteously. Fíli knows there are fat tears starting in his eyes now, and that his lower lip will be quivering. Bofur has a great deal to answer for in teaching him this, but it may save them today. “Don’t they want us any more?”

Now all the officers are exchanging worried glances, dropping their wary stances to hover anxiously over the two of them. Fíli hopes they don’t offer to buy Kíli a sweet if he won’t cry. Sometimes he still bites people who patronise them.

“No fear, lad.” The gruff voice of the officer directly behind them makes Fíli's heart leap, and they turn quickly to stare at him with wide eyes. It’s Gloin, who they see infrequently, but enough to be sure that he knows them. His face is still stern and professional, but his eyes twinkle kindly at them, and Fíli knows they’re going to have to hear about their dramatics later. “We’ll find them for you. They can’t have gotten far.”

Fíli gives a silent sigh of relief. Not arrested, then, no matter what the other officers would like them to believe. He nudges Kíli's foot with his own, gives a silent three-count, and they take off in unison, darting through the opening left by unwary officers and making for a narrow passage between two houses. Behind them, Gloin is clumsily getting in the way of their pursuit, and Fíli knows they will have no trouble losing their pursuers. They have learnt Morningside like the backs of their hands in the months they lived there, and they can find a hundred ways out without batting an eye.

“So that’s why Uncle Thorin left us there,” Fíli says glumly as they run. “Wanted to move house without us in the way.”

“Where did they go this time?” Kíli pants. He looks frantically from side to side as he runs, as though Thorin might have left them a sign, and Fíli rolls his eyes. For all that he can talk them out of anything, he is still such a baby sometimes.

Fíli sighs, thinking hard. “We’d better go back to Ori. At least then Uncle will know where to find us.”

Kíli shakes his head stubbornly. “I hate it there, and Ori’s still mad. Let’s go to Skye instead!”

“And how do we know they’ll even be there?” Fíli argues. “Balin and the rest might have come to help them move!”

Kíli turns on him, eyes wide and pleading, and Fíli holds out for six whole seconds before he sighs and shakes his head, giving in.

“Fine. But you’re faking sick on the ferry this time!”

It takes them a day and a half to get to isolated Waternish, where Balin and Bofur and Bifur live most of the time now, and Fíli spends the whole time looking over their shoulders nervously. If the police were so hot on their trail that Thorin had pulled them out of Morningside with no warning, there was no certainty that Waternish would be safe. His fears subside when they get close enough to see the lights glowing gently at the windows, and Bifur pacing outside, arms folded thoughtfully across his chest.

Kíli takes off with a shout, and Fíli is just behind him, feeling fear bleed away into the surety of family.

Bifur hugs them both, checking them over to be sure they are unhurt, then pushes them back far enough to be sure they can both see his hands. He signs quickly and sharply, anger flowing off his movements, and they both shrink. They have been missed, of course, and Thorin is furious. They slink inside the little cottage, and Balin and Bofur fuss over them and offer them the first decent food they’ve had in days. Fíli eats pointedly, while Kíli pushes the food around his plate and scowls.

“We knew we were going to about hear it,” Fíli whispers in a hushed tone. Kíli glares down at his mash and stabs his fork indignantly into it.

“It’s not fair, though. He shouldn’t have left without telling us.”

Kíli's unhappiness with their uncle has been building for a while, and Fíli has been watching it nervously. When Kíli is unhappy, they all wind up hearing about it. He nudges his brother’s leg with a foot, trying to make a connection, but Kíli keeps stabbing at the poor abused potatoes. He doesn’t look up.

Thorin arrives early the next morning, storming in all righteous fury, his face like thunderclouds. Fíli lifts his chin and locks his knees. No matter what, he will take the rebuke that is coming. They’ve earned it, after all. Kíli, by his side, is scowling at the floor.

“Would either of you,” Thorin begins in a dangerously careful tone, “care to tell me why you ran away from Ori? Again?” He stares at them for a good long while, letting the silence build uncomfortably. “I see. Would you care to tell me why you ignored all the rules we have agreed upon, and wound up nearly getting arrested?” More silence. Balin clears his throat loudly, and Thorin shoots him a quelling glare. “Very well. Would you like to tell me why on earth you snuck all the way up here instead of going back to Dori and Ori, where you knew we would be looking for you?”

Kíli is growing tenser and twitchier at his side, giving off all the non-verbal signals that Fíli understands clearer than words. He’s about to explode, and then nothing good will come of it. They’ll be washing Minty for WEEKS.

Fíli gives a little cough, and straightens his shoulders. “It was my fault, Uncle. We were bored in Ormskirk, and we didn’t think there would be any harm in coming home early. We didn’t know you were moving us out of Morningside.”

Thorin stands even taller, frowning down at Fíli with such strong disapproval that he wants to melt into the carpet. He does not always agree with his uncle, but the look of disappointment on his face is the worst thing Fíli knows. He cannot hold Thorin’s gaze for long.

“I expected better of you, Fíli,” Thorin says after a moment. It is terribly gentle, and that makes it so much worse. Fíli swallows hard, and promises himself he will not cry. “When I leave Kíli in your care, it is because I trust you to follow the rules and keep both of you safe. You let us both down.”

“He did not!” Kíli steps forward, in front of Fíli, hands in tight little fists and chin high, glaring at his uncle. “It wasn’t either his fault. I made him come home with me, and I talked him into coming here because I didn’t want to go back to stupid Ormskirk. Ori won’t even speak to us, and the rest of the family are all scattered and it’s awful and it’s all your fault!”

To say Kíli is disenchanted would be underselling it rather, and Fíli steps up to grab his shoulder, intent on stopping him from making things worse. Kíli doesn’t even look at him; his eyes are locked with Thorin’s.

“Fíli is older than you, and supposedly wiser,” Thorin snaps. “I left him in charge, and he should have known better than to let you pester him into foolishness.” He shakes his head, breaking eye contact with both of them to pace the small room, lost in thought. “I always thought I was doing right by you two to keep you together, to let you have what freedom we could. But every time I leave you unsupervised, you bring disaster down on your heads, and on all of us!” Fíli sucks in a shocked breath, eyes going wide. Thorin can’t mean what it sounds like he’s threatening.

“So don’t send us away!” Kíli shouts, voice high and sharp. “Let us stay with you! We can be helpful, you know!”

Thorin ignores him and continues to pace, looking torn. Fíli's fingers tighten on Kíli's shoulder.

“I am afraid this is not working,” Thorin finally says, sinking down into a chair and putting his head on one hand. He looks worn out, and Fíli notices with a shock that he is going grey - silver strands appearing in his hair and beard as if by magic. “You push one another on to your worst, and think you can escape all consequences because you are clever. It cannot continue.”

“It won’t, Uncle,” Fíli says quickly. He knows he is half begging, and he doesn’t care. “We’ll do whatever you say.”

“Fíli,” Thorin sighs. He looks up and makes eye contact, and Fíli swallows hard. “You’ll be going to stay with Oin in Edinburgh for a few months. He’s in a quiet location, and has offered to help you catch up on your studies.”

It feels like the breath has been knocked from his body, and he just gapes at Thorin, speechless.

“Kíli, you will stay here with Balin and the rest. The isolation will give you a bit of freedom, I think.”

“You can’t,” Fíli whispers, feeling the words ripped from him without his intent. “Please, Uncle, don’t do this! You can’t split us up!” His breathing is rapid and shallow, and he doesn’t know how his arms went around Kíli's shoulders again, fingers locked so tight. No-one, not even Thorin, is taking Kíli away from him.

“I don’t have a choice!” Thorin’s voice rises quickly to a shout, and they step back, shocked. “You were almost arrested! If Gloin hadn’t been there, you could be in prison now! How can you think we can just move on as if nothing has changed?”

Fíli's arms are so tight around his brother that he’s a little worried about Kíli's ability to breathe. Kíli's hands have come up to clutch his wrists just as tightly, though, and Fíli's not quite sure either of them are breathing right.

“We can change,” Fíli breathes tightly. “We’ll do whatever you want, just please, please!”

“It’s already decided,” Thorin says tiredly. He rubs at his eyebrows. “We’ll try this for a year or two, and then reconsider.”

“We won’t,” Kíli says. The anger is gone now, and he looks up at Fíli, comforting certainty in his eyes. “We aren’t going to do it, Uncle.”

“Yes, you are. We have a job to do, if you have forgotten! I cannot be chasing you two all around the country because you get it in your heads to wander off!”

Kíli shrugs, and pats Fíli's wrists comfortingly as he pulls away to stand on his own. “Uncle, you don’t understand. We just aren’t going to do it.” He steps forward, and Fíli stares at him, surprised. He looks so much like Thorin in miniature, all of a sudden. “We’ll run away, if we have to. We’ll go to the police ourselves. We’ll hide where you won’t find us, if you make us.”

Fíli blinks once, and then finds himself in the middle of a war. Thorin and Kíli are shouting at one another, voices pitched and faces equally intent. Kíli is half Thorin’s size, but twice as fierce, and he fights without mercy. Every trick of rhetoric and argument they have ever taught him is fair game, it seems, and Fíli watches in astonishment as Kíli tears through Thorin’s arguments.

He’s doing it for me, Fíli realises after a moment, and he exhales slowly. Kíli gets angry with Thorin, sometimes, but Fíli has never seen anything like this from his little brother. Kíli's first priority has always been the family, and it is all he wants - but now he has put everything aside to fight for this, and tells Thorin in word and stance and certainty that this will not happen.

It takes forever, it seems, and Fíli is half-certain that Kíli will not get the full use of his voice back for a week - but Thorin breathes a heavy sigh, and backs down.

“One more chance,” he says quietly, looking a little shaken. “One more. Pull a stunt like this again, and you’ll be in different parts of the country before you can draw a breath.”

Fíli breathes out, slow and steady, and nods quickly. “Yes, Uncle. Thank you.” Kíli darts over to his side again, grabbing his shoulder in delight, and Fíli wraps an arm around his shoulders, holding him close. There had been a moment when he thought he would not be able to do that again, and it burned in his chest. Kíli grins at him, and Fíli shakes his head. Thorin had never really stood a chance, after all.

Thorin shakes his head and stands up like an old man, walking off to speak to Balin and the others. Fíli gives a long, low whistle, and ruffles Kíli's hair proudly.

“If you can talk him around, I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do.”

“I didn’t think it was going to work!” Kíli sounds astounded, but his eyes are bright and joyful. “I couldn’t let him do that, though. Even if he doesn’t speak to me for a year, I don’t care!”

Fíli laughs at that, because it is so patently ridiculous, and Kíli darts off to find a drink of water. Fíli whistles again, soft and low.

It’s a question that he has never dared to let himself ask, because he was so afraid of the answer. All Kíli wanted was to be with the family, safe and sound together - and he had not been sure. If it came down to it, in the end, did the family mean more to Kíli than Fíli did?

He had his answer now.

Chapter Text

In Which Bilbo Has Unmemorable Encounters: Or, Three Times Bilbo Met the Sons of Durin, and One Time He Didn’t.

1. Nori

Bilbo sat perched atop a small mountain of potatoes, working his way slowly through the book he was meant to be reading for school. It was slow going - not because it was difficult, but because watching the drama unfolding in his parents’ quiet little grocery was far more exciting than the words on his page.

"No, Nori", Belladonna Baggins snapped. She stepped around the gangly, spot-ridden teenager, whose wild ginger hair seemed to light up the interior of Bag End on that gloomy rainy morning. "I've told you time and again."

"But miss," he protested, following her around. "You can't just send me away! I've gotta learn, and it's gotta be from the best, and everyone knows that's you!"

"Be that as it may," she said easily, shoving apples into their proper position with graceful hands, "I won't do it. I don't take on apprentices, and certainly not ones who aren't even old enough to look after themselves."

"Am too," Nori muttered, kicking at the floor with the well-scuffed toe of a shoe. "Miss, can't I just follow and watch? I won't get in your way, swear to Durin!"

"Don't ask again, lad," she warned. She stopped and turned her full attention on him, and Nori moved back a step. There was something dangerous in her eyes now. "I won't take you burgling, and I won't teach you. Learn on your own, or give it up and be an honest man." He shook his head stubbornly at that, and stuck his chin out. Bilbo watched him dreamily over the edge of the book he was meant to be reading. He had quite liked Nori, the times the older boy had come around, and almost wished his mother would allow him to tag along. After all, if she wouldn't let someone who was already fifteen come along, what hope did Bilbo ever have of convincing her that he was ready to learn, when he was only nine?

The bell over the door rang merrily, and all three looked up quickly. At the sight of their visitor, Belladonna smiled widely, and took a few quick steps forward - which put Nori behind her back, blocked from the visitor’s view.

"Gandalf! How lovely to see you!"

"Mrs. Baggins," he said pleasantly, offering her a quick little nod of the head. "And young Bilbo! Good to see you again, lad."

"Yes, sir," Bilbo said. It wasn't the proper answer, but he never was quite certain what to say to this man when he came around. He was impossibly tall, with impossibly sharp and piercing eyes, and Bilbo's father said they must be very careful not to give any hint of what Bilbo's mother actually did - but as far as Bilbo could tell, the man already knew everything.

"And what brings you around today?" Belladonna asked, leaning one hip against the apple display and eying Gandalf with a certain fond amusement. "Having a craving for fresh produce? Some nice biscuits, perhaps?"

"You and I both know better than to waste our time this way, Belladonna," Gandalf said cordially. "I’ve come about the diamonds, of course."

"Diamonds?" Belladonna asked innocently - and if Bilbo hadn’t known she had a whole case of them up in the flat, hidden away in the secret safe that Bilbo was not allowed to even touch, he would never have suspected a thing. "Why, Gandalf, I'm sure you must be thinking of someone else. We certainly don't have any of those hanging about the shop!"

"And I would be surprised if you ever did. You're far too canny for that!" He chuckled dryly. "And I suppose you'll tell me you haven't been in Prague at all this month?"

"I would hardly know how to spell it, let alone visit!" Belladonna said. Behind her, Nori was staring, wide-eyed, at both of them. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a new shop-boy I'm trying to train up, and he will insist on letting customers walk out without even offering to bag their shopping. I'm afraid I really don't have time to offer you tea today."

"Of course," Gandalf said with a nod. "We'll stop by this evening or so with the search warrant. All done up properly, of course."

"Naturally!" She smiled warmly. "Come by around seven, and you can stay to supper."

He left with a nod to Bilbo, and Belladonna turned back to Nori, all traces of warmth and humor gone.

"Until you can manage that, lad, and keep your calm, you've got no business being in this line of work. Go home. I'm sure you've got your poor mother worried sick."

“That’s all you know,” Nori said, a touch bitterly. “Haven’t got a mum, have I? Dori can fuss all he likes, but he’s not my mother, and I won’t be kept locked up!”

Belladonna shook her head, and Bilbo hid a tiny smile behind his book as he recognized the expression on her face. It had shifted from stern rejection to what he privately thought of as her “mum face,” the one she wore when she was worried about him or about to hug him tight. Nori seemed to recognize it, too, because he backed away a step.

“Why are you doing this?” Belladonna asked quietly. “You know there’s no glory or honor to be found in this life. You’ll probably never make enough to live a comfortable life. Men like that-” she gestured at the door where Gandalf had just been, “will be after you every day of your life. You need to figure out whether it’s really worthwhile.”

“It is,” Nori said obstinately. He stared down at his feet, and wouldn’t meet her eyes. “It’s all I’ve got, miss. It’s the only shot I’ve got at helping my family, now that da’s dying - and good riddance to him!” He glanced up then, and there was something in his homely features that Bilbo suddenly found very interesting - something that made him look warmer, and younger. “It’s the only chance I’ve got to live free.”

Belladonna crossed her arms, staring at him intently for a long while, and Nori stared back, unblinking. Finally, she sighed, and gave a quick nod.

“Very well. Come back when you’re eighteen - not a day before! - and we’ll see what can be made of you.” She smiled, then, a tired and crooked thing that made Bilbo want to hug her tight. “You may have the makings of a burglar, after all.”

Nori grinned at that, and darted out through the back door without another word. Bilbo turned to watch him go, and Belladonna looked at him. “And not a word from you, my lad,” she warned. “I won’t have you muddled up in this dark world. You mind your studies. You’re going to make us so proud.” She swept by him, stopping to drop a fond kiss on his head as she headed back for the produce, already humming an old ballad as she got back to work. Bilbo went back to his book, already losing interest in Nori now that he was gone. Even if he did come back in a few years, Bilbo knew his mother well enough to be sure that she would keep Nori far away from him, and wouldn’t let him even peek into the world of crime and danger that they would share. He wasn’t to be a part of it, except through the stories he read and heard.

In a month’s time, he wouldn’t even remember Nori’s name.

2. Balin

Bilbo rubbed at his forehead, trying to suppress a groan. Lecture was about to begin, and his tutors were strict enough about comportment in lecture without him flaunting the consequences of his rather-too-exciting night out. It was his own fault if he had a hangover, and there was nothing to be done about it but to tough it out. He couldn't afford to miss another lecture, or he was in danger of failing the module.

"Good morning," the lecturer called from the podium, in a voice far too loud and cheerful for Bilbo's current tastes. He pushed himself into more of a upright position, pointedly ignoring the snicker of his mate Dave in the row just behind him. Dave had more sense than was entirely fair, Bilbo thought bitterly, and resolved to swipe his wallet the next time they went out, just to see how long it would take him to notice.

"As you may have noticed- those of you who have bothered to peruse the syllabus for this module, that is - the topic of today's lecture was left blank. I was hoping from the beginning to bring in an old friend of mine as a guest lecturer, and we are very fortunate today. Balin Fundinson is a world-renowned expert on mining history. He's going to be giving a talk today on the local history of mining and it's relation to the historical period we have just been studying."

Bilbo sighed heavily, and then immediately regretted it. It hadn't been his idea at all to take a module on local history. He had wanted to sit in on Mediaeval, but his tutor had insisted that he needed to broaden his interests, and had forced him into Local History. It had been about as dull as he had feared - and now he was going to have to stay awake for an entire hour of MINING history? He turned his head just enough to shoot Dave a long-suffering glance, then turned back to his desk, slumping over his papers.

At the front of the room, a middle-aged man, with an astoundingly impressive reddish beard that was deeply peppered with grey hairs, had taken the podium, and was shaking hands with the usual lecturer. He looked out at the room, filled a little more than halfway to capacity, and shook his head.

"I see the mid-year doldrums are upon us," he mused in a creaky voice. He didn't sound used to lecturing; it was the kind of tone more suited to shouting instructions at a crowd, Bilbo thought, and wondered how long it would be before he died of boredom. "Or is it the subject matter that has turned away the certainly keen interest of your colleagues?" Some of the students nearer the front of the room offered weak denials, but Balin (was that his name? Bilbo had half forgotten already) just shook his head. "It's understandable enough. There's not much glory to be found in recent local history, I'm afraid. I'm no historian myself, but I do have some stories to share with you - and a bit more than stories."

He stepped away from the podium, and Bilbo picked his head up, interested despite himself by the change of pace. Balin went to the long, low table by the back wall of the lecture hall, and picked up the first of what Bilbo now noted was a series of mismatched items, all laid out there in a neat row. He walked forward, holding the item up for perusal. It looked, to Bilbo, like a miner's helmet - but one that was hardly a helmet at all, anymore. It seemed to have gone through a fire, and was deeply pitted and scarred.

"Anyone care to have a guess at how old this is?" Balin called. He handed it to a student in the front row, and it began to wind it's way through the hall. "No? Why not?"

"Can't tell," one of the keener students piped up. "It's all charred. There's no way to know."

Balin nodded serenely. "That's quite true. Fire has a way of distorting all our perceptions." The helmet came to Bilbo, and he took it with careful hands, turning it over to study it. "This helmet is more than two hundred years old." Bilbo gaped at the battered old thing. He would never have suspected. "This came from an old lead mine in the mountain where I live, and it's an artifact I discovered myself, when I was not much older than you young people. Do you know why it is burned?"

Bilbo looked carefully at the rough workmanship of the helmet, the places where rust and fire had eaten holes in the metal, and thought. "Mine fire?" someone asked. Balin shook his head.

"Not much to burn in a lead mine, lad."

"War?" Dave called lazily. "Seems everything always comes down to that in here."

"Seems it always comes down to that in most of history," Balin replied. "And yes, in a way - but how?"

Bilbo looked at the helmet, somehow unwilling to pass it along just yet. It felt old and impossibly heavy in his hands, and he touched a finger to one of the jagged holes in the helmet.

"This is a bullet hole, isn't it?" It took a moment, and then Bilbo realised that it had been his own voice posing the question. "Sorry, but it is, right?"

"That it is, lad," Balin said soberly. "So tell me. What's a lead miner's helmet from the late eighteenth century doing riddled with bullets and burned with fire?"

Bilbo furrowed his brow, studying the helmet as though it held the answers. He looked carefully inside, and was startled when he saw a tiny engraved image. A unicorn, hidden deep in the bowl of the helmet.

"Unicorns - Stewarts," he muttered. "Eighteenth century." He looked up at Balin, feeling the rush of excitement that putting the pieces of a historical puzzle together always gave him. "They were Jacobites!"

"Exactly right, lad," Balin said. He came over beside Bilbo and took the helmet with gentle hands, patting Bilbo's shoulder warmly as he left. "The lead miners wound up on the wrong side of a power struggle that was not theirs. They were supporters of an exiled king, and the new powers decided the lead mine was a threat, because it might supply ammunition to the deposed king." He held the helmet up for all to see. "They were murdered in cold blood, and their homes burned. It is an old story, and one without much glory to it - but it is one we must not forget."

“Forget it, and you are doomed to repeat it," Bilbo muttered. Balin caught his eye, a little surprised, and held his gaze for a long moment, and then nodded solemnly. There was a weight to it that surprised Bilbo, and he looked away. His hands were covered in a thin layer of soot and rust particles, and he stared at them for a moment. Balin moved back to the low table, placing the helmet back carefully, and picked up the next item.

The lecture moved on, and Bilbo's hands gradually lost the feeling of the scarred old metal that had stained his fingers. By the time lecture was over, he had a few sheets of notes on local history, and he gave Balin a respectful nod as he left.

But the notes were lost a few weeks later in a game of poker gone tragically, impossibly wrong. Three months afterward, Bilbo's father passed away, and he left university to go home and keep the family shop.

There was no reason left to remember the man who had told him of the murdered miners of Beinn Chuirn, and so Bilbo forgot.

 

3. Fili and Kili

People try to steal from Bilbo all the time.

He notices.

Of course he notices! How could he not, with the mother he had? She had taught him enough about theft to notice it in others - in the set of their shoulders and pace of their feet as they walked in with nefarious intentions, in the way their eyes would shift and slide around the room, in the way they would smile and speak to him. He knew what they were about before they came within five feet of their intended targets, and he had no trouble setting them straight. He was never confrontational about it, of course - it was the farthest thing from his mind, to pick a fight - but he had the hang of it, after many years of practice. He could slide up behind them just as they were about to lift their chosen item and tuck it away, and make a kind comment, or suggest they might like to look at a particular item. Sometimes they jumped and startled. Sometimes they put the item back. Usually, they paid for it - and a great deal more that they might not have planned to buy. Guilt was a powerful motivator.

He ran the shop well, and he knew it, but there wasn't a great deal of leeway in his books. He couldn't afford to just be letting his product walk of the shelves, after all!

But once in a while, someone gets the better of Bilbo.

They didn't look terribly suspicious when they came in. Two lads - brothers, from the looks of them, in dark clothing that had seen better days. It was a warm summer day, and he thought absently that they were dressed a trifle warm for the weather - but he wasn't one to judge. He gave them a pleasant nod, but part of his mind was looking them over carefully and cataloging them. They didn't walk like criminals, or glance at him with the sidelong look of a thief. They looked as honest as teenage boys ever could.

That was probably what set off the first alarm bells, to be honest.

He placed himself behind the counter and watched as they made their way around the little shop. The taller of the two boys had golden hair, and watched the other with a startlingly protective gaze, given the entirely un-perilous nature of Bilbo's business. The younger brother - and that much would have been obvious to even a grocer who had not been trained by Belladonna's keen eyes - had wide, dark eyes that seemed intent on taking in every detail of the shop.

"Can't we?" he asked his brother quietly, the words almost drowned out by the quiet shushing of the breeze outside Bilbo's open window.

"Sorry," the older one said - and he meant it, that much was clear. He shrugged a helpless shoulder, looking around the shop disconsolately. "I thought there'd be something on discount."

The younger brother sighed, moving closer to the produce display. Bilbo looked away pointedly, though his senses were all still trained on the two boys. He didn't like the look of them, now that he was paying better attention - not that they looked criminal. They looked hungry. The layers of clothing that they wore hid the worst of it, but he could see the pinched cheeks, and the way they stared at the food that seemed now to be so egregiously displayed before hungry children. Bilbo worried at his lip, uncertain what to do. Most youngsters their age would not appreciate a meddling old busybody like himself informing them of where they might be able to get help, or a free meal. He wondered bleakly where the parents were in such a situation.

"I could-" the younger one whispered, and then cut off sharply with a little hiss of indrawn air as his brother stepped heavily on his foot. They were silent for a moment, and Bilbo chanced a look back.

They were standing in front of the apple display now, silent and wistful, just staring at it. The apples were piled higher than was quite wise, and Bilbo looked at them for a long moment, their bright reds and greens looking like a promise for hungry stomachs.

He coughed loudly, and heard the lads spin to look at him, all on edge. "Bit warm this morning, isn't it?" he said loudly. "I think I'll go open up the back door and let some of the breeze move through here." They were staring at him now, wide eyes in hungry faces, and he cleared his throat again, feeling incredibly awkward. "I'll just be in the back if you need anything, my lads," he said with forced cheer, and took off for the back door. He ducked inside the doorframe, waited a moment, and then peered back through.

They were still staring at the apples, mournful, and he bit his tongue, worried that he would slip up and shout out for them just to take the damned apples already! If he hadn't suspected that offending their pride would send them running, he would have come out and packed up the food for them himself.

The older boy reached out and snatched up an apple, and then another, and began tucking them into his pockets.

"Fee," the younger lad said reproachfully, looking up at his brother, and the older brother sighed.

"I'm not having you go hungry on your birthday. Grab some and let's go."

The younger boy glanced back at where Bilbo was hiding, then flew into action, dropping apples into his pockets and making them disappear into his baggy sleeves. In a moment, the two were heading for the door, something like a dozen apples secreted away between them both. Bilbo stepped out just a moment too soon, and the older boy caught his eye with a guilty start. All Bilbo could think to do was offer a friendly smile and a wave, just as though he hadn't seen a thing - and the two were off, like frightened rabbits.

Bilbo sighed and shook his head, moving to the produce display to rearrange the disarrayed apples, restoring a sense of order. The cost of the lost items was a minor thing - such a very little amount, and Bilbo wished he could see a way to do more. He reassured himself that all was not lost. He had the measure of the two now, and if they turned up again, he would do his best to see that they did not go away hungry.

They didn’t show up again. Sensible, he supposed, when the thought of the hungry young brothers floated past his mind. Most thieves wouldn’t make the mistake of targeting the same shop twice. Bilbo kept his books, and his shop, and discouraged the would-be shoplifters who came through his doors, and the memory of the lads faded away.

It wasn’t like he’d ever done enough for them for it to matter, anyway.

1. The Miners of Beinn Chuirn

A year and a month after Bilbo's father dies, he was in Edinburgh, shopping for specialty items. He didn't mind the trip. The shop had been a bit stifling for him lately, to be honest, and though his mother had done her best to ease him into the role of full-time grocer, it had been a difficult adjustment. Bilbo grew up in Bag End, surrounded by apples and potatoes and biscuits, but he had never intended to run the place full time. It had always been his father's shop.

The trip to Edinburgh had been easy enough, and it was a warm July day, with unusually bright sunshine beating down on the streets of the old town. Bilbo had finished negotiating for one specialty shipment, and was taking his time in wandering toward his next meeting. The vendor he was meeting with was notoriously late for meetings, and he saw no point in wasting more of that fine day than necessary in stuffy back rooms.

There was a commotion up ahead, by the parliamentary offices, and Bilbo stopped on the edge of a crosswalk, debating which way to go. He could proceed along toward the Haymarket and stop by one of the pubs for a quick pint, which would ease the pain of the meeting he was about to have to suffer through quite a bit. On the other hand, he could make a quick detour and see what was going on by the government offices. It sounded something like a mob - though quite a small one, from the sound of it. There might be something he could do - some word he could offer to calm the chaos, though that didn’t seem incredibly likely. He paused, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.

The sun bore down a little stronger, and Bilbo reached up to wipe a trickle of sweat off his brow - and it was decided. He turned left, heading toward the Haymarket and the quiet peace of a cool pub and a cold drink. Behind him, the noise faded a bit, and then was gone in the distance.

In front of the office of the new Minister of the Environment, young Thorin Oakenshield stood, poised in similar indecision. His copies of the mining permit applications for his mountain were clutched tightly in one hand, and all around him, his family and neighbors were pressed close, shouting varying opinions and pieces of advice at him. Girion Bowman of Tyndrum had advised him to come in person, to bring the men who would help him in mining the gold that lay under his mountain - but now that they were here, he was struck by an unusual indecision.

The building loomed above them, cold and heartless, and Thorin stared at it, willing it to blink first. If something went wrong now - if the Minister said his permits had been denied, or that they were not qualified to do their own mining - well, that was an end to all of his long years of hoping. It might almost be better to go back home, to take up their ordinary lives and wait to hear in the normal way. It might be better to give it up entirely, and make the mountain self-sustaining in another way.

It might be better if he didn't come face to face with the man who was staring coldly at him through a high window, looking down upon them like a predator upon his helpless prey.

He hesitated, turning in a quick circle to look at the city around them. Edinburgh was all hustle and bustle in the heat of the day, and there was not a sympathetic glance turned on this lot of ragged miners, so obviously out of their element in the midst of the city. For a wild moment, Thorin had the thought that if he had a sign - just one comment or glance of concern from a single person in this city - then he would pack it all in and go home.

He waited a long moment, looking around, half-willing the universe to send him a sign.

No one came to look at them, or see the causes of the unusual ruckus. No one spared them a single moment of thought.

Thorin sighed, letting the crazy thought slip away, and squared his shoulders.

"Right then, " he said as confidently as he could "We'll beard the dragon in his den. Who is with me?"

Thorin Oakenshield and the miners of Beinn Chuirn marched into Smaug's office, and Bilbo Baggins sat down in a pub with a cold drink comfortably in front of him, and the sun shone down on Edinburgh in the middle of a windless July day.

Somewhere, someone laughed.

Chapter Text

Bilbo Baggins was, he had determined, quite possibly the worst parental figure on Earth. Certainly, he was the worst parental figure in Scotland to have wound up caring for three damaged boys, none of whom were technically his own yet.

The first and most pressing issue, naturally, was young Frodo. It had been a full week since Frodo had swept into their lives in a confusing whirl of paperwork and inspections and hurried advice on dealing with traumatic grief in youngsters. When he had agreed to take Frodo in, Bilbo would have to admit that he was really thinking a good deal more about himself, and less about the lad. He didn’t know Frodo, aside from a passing familiarity with his tragically deceased parents, and he had honestly had no idea the depth of grief in the little lad - though he should have known, he should have, because how could Frodo possibly be fine? He had seemed very well adjusted at first - a calm, composed lad, very well behaved.

He still was. That was the problem.

In a week of living with Bilbo, Frodo had never once let down his guard at all. He had not relaxed, or spoken except when directly addressed, or touched a single item. Mostly, he sat politely on the sofa staring at the pages of books he did not read, or lay, curled up in a little ball, on the small bed in the bedroom that Bilbo had set up for him. He never complained about Bilbo’s sad excuse for home cookery, or how little there was to do in Linlithgow, or even about the long hours he had to spend in the shop while Bilbo worked. He just - endured, perhaps, was the best word. And Bilbo had no idea how to even begin to make anything well again in the little lad’s life.

And of course it wasn’t just Frodo, because how could a Baggins ever have only one insurmountable problem to overcome? No indeed. He had two others on top, both of whom addressed him as Uncle Bill, and were as close to him as any people had ever been, and who seemed to be spiraling down into the sort of trouble that Bilbo had no idea how to prevent or alleviate.

It was supposed to have been easy, once they were hale and healthy again. Bilbo had invited them to stay with him without a single thought, at least partially because two months of knocking around his quiet, empty flat were enough to drive him half mad. They were meant to have come and stayed with him while they did their social rehabilitation programmes, and finished healing up, and learned to be proper and law-abiding citizens.

That… wasn’t really working out.

Well, Kili, at least, did attend his programme, but Bilbo was certain that it was more out of a deep and abiding fear of what Beorn might do to him if he didn’t show up. Fili seemed to be missing his at least half the time, from what Bilbo could gather, and judging by how often Gandalf stopped by to loom over Bilbo, looking for his wayward sometime-nephew. When Bilbo asked him about it, he never could get a straight answer. Fili still had the gift of dancing around the truth and winding it into bewildering new configurations that might not exactly be lies, but were certainly not truth any longer - and Kili always, always helped him, even though Bilbo thought he had no better idea of what Fili was up to than he did himself. He had found smartphones more than once that he knew Fili was not supposed to have, and tried to content himself with the fact that the boy had promised not to do any more crime.

The lads were as close as ever, despite spending more time apart - but they were not happy, and Bilbo could see it. Kili seemed to have no peace in him. He swung back and forth from delighted enthusiasm about anything and everything, to black moods so deep that he could not be stirred, and there was no telling which Kili he would see at any given moment. The boy was mourning for his family, that much was clear, but Bilbo had no idea how to help. He seemed likely to twitch out of his own skin. They went to visit as often as they could - but the family had only just been sentenced, and they could spend years like this, with only a few hours a week of contact with the family that were the only thing that Kili wanted in life. He had even seen the lad crying a time or two, when he hadn’t thought anyone was around.

And the problem, Bilbo thought bitterly, with the lads’ codependency, was that when Kili was unhappy, so was Fili. He watched his brother constantly, with a growing urgency that Bilbo did not much like. There seemed now to be nothing in the world that mattered to Fili but keeping the two of them happy and together, and his rehabilitation was suffering for it.

The real last straw, though, came the night that he woke up at three am for no apparent reason, and found himself dreadfully thirsty. Grumbling uselessly to himself, Bilbo crept out of his room toward the little kitchen, so eager for a glass of water that he almost missed the little conspiracy taking place in his own sitting room.

Fili and Kili were both sitting on the floor by the sofa, heads bent together over a set of hand-drawn plans, all illuminated by the glow of a laptop that Fili definitely was not supposed to have. At Bilbo’s startled little cough, their heads came up in unison, and they stared at him with wide, frightened eyes that were far too reminiscent of the times he had seen them in real peril. Part of him wanted to reassure them at once that he was not bothered by their being awake - but the part that sounded more like his own mother was already taking over. He folded his arms as sternly as he could, given the fact that he was in his pyjamas, and pressed his lips together in a line, and waited them out.

“This isn’t,” Fili said after a minute. “I mean. You shouldn’t think-”

“Fili Oakenshield,” Bilbo said quietly. “I have taken you into my home, and loved you as though you were my own children. Please don’t lie to me now.”

Fili looked down at that, clearly ashamed, and Kili’s chin came up sharply as the innate reflex to protect his brother kicked in.

“He wouldn’t! We wouldn’t!” Kili said fast. “Trust us, Uncle Bill!”

“My dear boy,” Bilbo said fondly, and took a seat on a chair facing them both. “I thought you might have learned by now that this old grocer is a bit harder to con than your average citizen. I trust you entirely - to be yourselves, that is. And I’m rather afraid of what that entails here.”

They looked at one another, exchanging the glances of wordless conversation that still mystified Bilbo, even after several months of close companionship with the lads. Kili caved first, moving into a crouch in front of Bilbo as he proffered their notes. “We can do it!” he whispered, dark eyes alight with excitement. “We’ve been studying and figuring for weeks now, and it can be done. We can get them all out! Thorin will be trickiest, that’s certain, but especially if you help us -”

Fili hissed a sharp negation at him. “We’re not involving him, Kili!” Then he shrugged apologetically at Bilbo. “Sorry, Uncle Bill, you know what his sad excuse for a brain is like. I’ve told him and told him that we’re leaving you out of this one. You’ve already risked enough for us.”

Bilbo blinked at them both, with warring sensations of fondness and anger and fear for the lads all churning up within him faster than words. “Oh, my lads,” he murmured quietly, and shook his head. “You cannot do this. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through, but this isn’t the way to make it better.” There was an ache in his throat as he looked at them, sitting on his floor in the dark, looking up at him as though he might be able to provide the answers he was looking for. They suddenly struck him as little different from young Frodo, other than in age. All three were adrift, not quite sure where they could set their feet and find solid ground - and Bilbo knew, with a sick twist in his gut, that he was not yet that place of certainty he wished to be for them. “They’ve agreed to serve their sentences, you know. They’ll do their time and come out free men. If you do this now - if you break them out - you’ll all be on the run again, possibly for the rest of your lives!”

Kili’s jaw clenched at that, and Fili frowned stubbornly. “We lived that way our whole lives!” Kili protested. “We’re used to it! It was better that way.”

The lad didn’t mean to be hurtful. He was frightened of the way their lives had changed so fast, and missing his family dreadfully. It still hurt. Fili nudged him sharply with an elbow, and Kili shut up fast, looking angry but contrite.

“It wasn’t better,” Fili corrected quietly. “Remember how it was? We were hungry all the time, and scared, and running. Half the time we didn’t see any of the family for months at a time, anyway.”

“But they were still our family!” Kili turned on him, looking like a wild thing in the darkness of the room, his eyes shining with what might have been tears, had the light made it easier to tell. “We had them, even when they were far away. We could always go home.”

“And this isn’t home to you,” Bilbo said quietly. Kili glanced away, looking wretched and guilty, and Bilbo forced his knees to cooperate as he slid to the floor to sit with the boys, putting out a hand to pat each of them on a forearm. “Don’t worry, lads. I won’t take offense. I never thought to replace them for you! I’m just sort of a placeholder while they’re away.”

“It’s not you, Uncle Bill, honest,” Fili assured him. “You’ve been amazing! But it’s not the same as having the family.”

Bilbo patted them both again for good measure, and then sat and thought for a little bit. There simply was no way that they could be allowed to go through with this absurd idea of a prison breakout. It had barely worked the first time, and that was with external assistance and extreme good luck on Bilbo’s part. The two hot-headed youngsters would wind up in prison themselves, and any chance the Sons of Durin had to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye would evaporate. But it was clear that their current situation was not working. He cursed himself quietly for a while, berating himself for his own lack of understanding of young people and how to repair their lives for them.

“Family,” he said after a while, thinking hard. “Your family has always been a bit unusual, lads. Tell me - when you were small, how did they look after you?”

They exchanged a glance at that, and identical smiles spread slowly across two very different faces. “They did their best,” Fili said carefully. “But somehow we always managed to be getting ourselves into scrapes and having to be rescued from the police, or getting ourselves lost halfway across the country from where we were meant to be. Never our fault, of course,” he added virtuously. “The adults were just a bit preoccupied at times.”

“We were happy,” Kili said nostalgically. “I mean, sometimes we didn’t have much to eat or wear-”

“Or wore girl’s clothes for a year,” Fili muttered darkly, and then let out a huff of air as Kili elbowed him cheerfully in the stomach.

“But we were happy,” Kili concluded. “They never stopped trying. Birthdays were always important, whenever there was money and not too much heat on us. They used to throw us parties like nothing you’ve ever seen, Uncle Bill!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Bilbo said wryly, thinking back on the truly astounding parties he remembered with his very extended family as a youngster. “Birthdays, you say?”

The lads shared a meaningful look, and then grinned. It was all the answer he needed.

“Well, my lads, I may have a bit of a job for you, then,” Bilbo told them, leaning forward with hushed solemnity. “I’ve just discovered that it’s Frodo’s birthday in just a few days. I’m afraid I have very little idea how to arrange things so that he has a nice one.”

That, unfortunately, was all he had time to say. The next thing he knew, Fili and Kili had shoved all of their highly illegal preparations for crime aside and were furiously plotting the birthday party of an eight-year-old orphan.

He got nothing sensible out of either of them for the next day. Every time he spotted them, they had their heads pressed together, talking solemnly, or were making notes or phonecalls with their usual lack of care for the typical ways of doing things. They would conduct two phone conversations at once, barely pausing between words to throw their mobiles to the other, who would pick up the thread of conversation effortlessly. Bilbo tried hard not to listen in on the plans they were making - but his fingers were getting a bit itchy at the thought of how much this whole affair might cost him when he heard words like “bouncy castle” and “fireworks” tossed around, and when the packages started to mount up.

The night before Frodo’s birthday, he finally did have to stop them. The mountain of gaily-wrapped presents had reached an alarming height for one very little boy.

“Fili, Kili,” he began hesitantly. “I know I asked for your help in this, and I ought to leave it up to you, but-” Bilbo sighed. “Where have you been getting all of this? You know we can’t keep up the stealing and whatnot.”

They looked genuinely hurt at that - none of the artifice they were so good at displaying. Kili blinked at him, wide-eyed and solemn, and Fili looked offended. “We wouldn’t, Uncle Bill! Steal presents for Frodo? That would almost be worse than none at all!”

Bilbo blinked at him for a minute, then shook his head. “Has anyone ever told you lads that you’ve got a rather warped set of priorities?”

“All the time!” Kili said lightly, seeming to shrug off the sting with ease. “But we bought all of these, Uncle Bill - properly! With our own money! Proper, legal money that we earned!” They looked suitably awed at that, and Bilbo felt a little gleam of hope begin to grow in his heart. Perhaps they weren’t lost causes after all. “It matters,” Kili said firmly, and that was that.

“There was a lot we didn’t have as kids,” Fili said later, when they had almost finished decorating the flat. It looked like a party supply store had been violently ill all over the inside of Bilbo’s tidy home. “Decent haircuts and homes in one place and regular baths.”

“A mum,” Kili muttered, and then squeezed his brother’s shoulder tight. He brightened, then, though it looked like it took real effort. “But that doesn’t mean we were missing much. Frodo won’t either.”

“Lads,” Bilbo said slowly. He was beginning to recognise their manic determination. “You’re adopting Frodo, aren’t you?”

“Well, naturally!” Fili said, laughing. “If he’ll have us, of course. I’m an excellent older brother. Very good at raising kids.”

“That’s all you know.” Kili ducked away when Fili would have grabbed his hair, and grinned over his shoulder at his brother. “But we are good at adopting people, and Frodo needs adopting.”

“I’m doing that legally, you know,” Bilbo felt obligated to point out. They both laughed at him, and he had to shake his head in weary understanding. Legality would always take something of a back seat to their other concerns, even if they lived to be a hundred, he thought.

The party itself was a smashing success. Somehow, Kili had managed to find and invite every decent child from Frodo’s new school - and even convince the parents to let their tender young offspring attend a party at Mad Baggins’ house, which was an accomplishment to rival any of his acts of fraud, back in his old life. Fili played the gracious host, welcoming everyone and making them feel at home with an ease that took Bilbo by surprise. Fili caught him staring at one point and winked cheekily at him, and then Bilbo could relax, and not feel like his young ruffian had been replaced by an alien.

Frodo looked, at first, like he was about to fall over in shock. He said nothing to any of them for the first while, and then he found Bilbo in a quiet corner of the kitchen and tugged at his jacket.

“Um, Uncle Bilbo?” he asked uncertainly. “Is this really for me?”

“Of course it is, Frodo!” Bilbo said cheerfully. “We weren’t about to let you miss your birthday!”

“But,” Frodo said, staring up at him with the biggest blue eyes Bilbo thought he had ever seen, “birthday parties are something parents do!”

“Sometimes,” Kili said soberly. He had appeared from thin air at some point, and now hopped up on the counter, his long legs dangling down and looking slightly ridiculous. “But sometimes kids haven’t got parents - not properly. We didn’t either, you know.” He jerked his head sideways to indicate Fili as well, and Frodo stared up at both of them with his mouth open.

“You didn’t?” Frodo turned to Bilbo to confirm this amazing news. “They really didn’t?”

“No, they didn’t,” Bilbo said sadly. Fili came in closer, and Bilbo ruffled his hair absent-mindedly. “But they still had a family - just as you do, Frodo. For as long as you’ll have us, we’ll look after you and organise parties and whatnot.”

“You promise?” Frodo’s question was almost inaudible, and Fili and Kili shared a quick look, and then both dropped to one knee in front of him, as if pledging fealty.

“I promise,” Fili said brightly, “to help you research all your essays, and to carry you on my shoulders if you’re about to be buried in snow, and to tickle you until you scream whenever I see fit.”

“Believe him,” Kili said earnestly. “He’ll do it, too.” Fili swatted him on the back of the head, and Kili smacked him back. “Well, Frodo, I’m not sure I’ll be quite as good at this older brothering thing - but I did learn from the best. I promise to teach you all the best tricks for getting people to give you things for free, and to help you sneak around Uncle Bill when it’s really necessary, and to-” he hesitated for a minute. “To learn how to be a part of this family.” .

Frodo stared at both of them, all amazement, and Bilbo smiled gently down at them - all three of them, learning how to find solid ground beneath their feet. Frodo’s face twitched a little, and Bilbo understood. He was trying to smile, and trying not to, all at the same time.

“Frodo, my lad,” he said, with as much warmth as he could muster. “We do understand. What you have lost is beyond words, and you can be sad about it for as long as you like. Part of you will be sad for the rest of your life, I think.” Fili and Kili both nodded at that, and Bilbo had to suppress the urge to pat them all again. “But it’s also fine to be happy, when you’re ready again. It might happen slowly, or all at once. Perhaps some days will be very hard, and then the very next will be brilliant again. But I knew your parents, my boy, and I know they would want you to be happy - even if you’re still sad at the same time.”

Frodo looked up at him for a long while, and then, like a star peeping out from under cloud cover for a brief and shining moment - he smiled.

It wasn’t the end of his sorrow, and Bilbo knew it well. It wasn’t the end of Kili’s miserable longing for his own family, either, or of Fili’s obsessive watch over his brother. But it was what they had needed, all of them, to begin to move forward.

It was hope.