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Down the Road and Back Again

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Erectile dysfunction, Balin?” Thorin slammed the printed advertisement down in front of his adviser, barely missing the tip of Balin’s nose by an inch. “Do you have any idea what it felt like to hear about this from my nephews?”

“Now, Thorin, it’s not as bad as all that,” said Balin mildly. He pressed a fingertip against the freshly-printed line of Thorin’s two-dimensional head. When his finger came away, Thorin saw that it was smeared with ink. Well, he had rushed here before the ink had even dried, both literally and figuratively. This wasn’t the first time something of the kind had happened, either; next birthday, he’d ask Dís to stop badgering him about the fact that he didn’t need anything and give him a Mahal-damned laser printer. “They’ve not exactly said that you, well…”

Thorin ground his teeth. “That I have erectile dysfunction? I haven’t got a shirt on in that photo, Balin. It’s an advertisement for medication to treat erectile dysfunction. The connection’s just begging to be made.”

Dwalin snorted, finally pulling his face away from his phone. Thorin briefly amused himself with the thought of what sort of mining job he could consign Dwalin to if he hadn’t been family. “He’s got a point, brother.”

“Ah,” and now Balin sounded annoyed rather than disgustingly serene. “But it’s not a very fine point, is it?”

“Could be worse,” said Dwalin with a shrug. “We could still be findin’ out about the advert that ‘implies’” – he scornfully emphasized the word – “that he wears adult nappies.”

Thorin hit the table with his fist and immediately regretted it. While not hewn from the same hefty blocks of stone as the tables carved for great councils or mountain-wide ceremonial meals, Dwarf-carved granite of any thickness still hurt like a right bastard when one bashed one’s hand on it. “We barely survived that one at the last Gulbel,” he growled. “All anyone could talk about. We hardly even got to the real issues.”

That wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if ‘Great Council’ meant the weekly meetings he had with Balin and his like, but no – representatives of the seven Dwarven clans only journeyed to Erebor for a formal meeting once every three months. Unfortunately, if something amusing or humiliating were to come up then, everyone would take it home and there it would stick, much to the detriment of any problem that needed immediate attention. Twenty years ago, the public machinations Fíli went through to deal with his acne problem had been the talk of the council, and the bloody Internet had hardly been as easy to access as it was now. Sometimes Thorin had to wonder if anything good had, or ever would, come of Mannish technology.

Balin sighed, the sound echoing off the smooth stone walls of Thorin’s private council chamber as if the room itself wanted to express some mild level of prim disapproval. “Nothing came of it,” he said. “Everyone understands how deceptive advertisements can be, Thorin. Let’s not jump to conclusions, or at shadows.”

“I’m not jumping at shadows,” said Thorin. “This isn’t only my life, Balin, it’s the reputation of our entire country on the line. How long has that photo been floating around?”

Long enough to make me pull out my beard,” Balin mumbled in Khuzdul, so quiet that Thorin suspected he wouldn’t have caught the words if not for the room’s terrible acoustics, before switching to Westron again. “It’s true, the photograph is an inconvenience. Has Information Technology made any progress into finding out who took it?”

Dwalin set down his phone, plopping his massive elbows down on the table with an audible clunk. “Nori doesn’t think it’s been altered,” he said. “If it’s been Photoshopped, it’s too clever for him to tell and I don’t think that’s possible. He says he’ll keep going through the photo archives to see if it’s a cut-and-paste job.”

“Wouldn’t that be easier to detect?” Thorin asked. The literal type of cut-and-paste was far cruder than the work he’d seen of even the least-experienced Photoshop hobbyists.

“Last-ditch,” Dwalin answered. “The next step would be figurin’ out who took a whole photo of your top half with no shirt on and got past my husband to do it. Nori’s got some pride in him yet.”

Thorin massaged the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Mahal’s stones, if the spymaster in all but name couldn’t puzzle this wretched business out, then no one could. Nori’s title was only Assistant Director of Information Technology because he said it would come with fewer assassination attempts. He was certainly as good at spying as anyone who had ever openly held the title. “Ask him to keep working,” he said. “Please. Tell him it’s at the king’s order if he complains. I’ve dealt with the effects of that photo for two months already.”

“We know,” Balin said. “You’ve not stopped talking about it.”

“I’ve a right to talk about it, don’t I?” said Thorin, and dared another glance at the advertisement. The medication in question was apparently called Viaron, probably the next-generation successor to Viagra, and in small print (but still bold red letters) across his belly, the damned circular claimed that nine out of ten physicians – Mannish, Dwarvish, Elvish, and Hobbitish, although he had no idea how they could come up with a consistent sample size out of all that – recommended this new and improved formula over the leading competitor.

“You’ve a right. What I don’t know,” Balin said, “is how we’re going to fix it.” He reached under the table with a groan, probably related to the chronic pain in his back that remained unfixable more than a century after Azanulbizar, and pulled out his laptop. “Now, we’ve got a few options. Nori could continue his work on tracing the source of the photograph. Do you want him to redouble his efforts to find who took it?”

Thorin looked up at the ceiling, the stone ribs of which came up to a point that worked well with the room’s shape. How many times had he sat here and stared upwards, trying to come up with a solution to a problem of agriculture in the mountain’s outlying lands, or a dispute between Man and Dwarf? The latter situation was likely the whole reason the photograph had been taken in the first place. “All I know is that the photo turned up after our conferences with Bard and Thranduil,” he said. “And I don’t remember half of that week.”

“Neither do I,” Dwalin confessed. “I’ve left it to Nori. Hell Week, I call that. The half that I do remember, that was just us walkin’ King Bard through his first set of trade shite. Why’d King Gervan have to choose this year to up and die?”

“No one chooses cancer,” said Thorin. “I do think he prepared Bard well. The timing isn’t his fault.” He watched Balin’s fingers pause in their typing. “Yes?”

“Have we thoroughly investigated everyone?” Balin asked. “Truly thoroughly, that is to say. I know we’ve questioned Bard. Could any of his children have, erm…Princess Sigrid, especially.”

Thorin couldn’t think of any time that they would have had the opportunity to sneak up on him. Practically the whole mountain had been up working the midnight forges for the week the Elvish and Mannish groups were there, not least since the old Master of Laketown demanded special accommodations to his rooms and they couldn’t very well kick him out without risking international uproar, especially in the middle of preparations for the Gulbel that would take place a scant three weeks after. “Bard and his family were nowhere near the royal quarters,” said Thorin. “Nor the baths, or – yes, I’m fairly sure I didn’t disrobe anywhere else.” Damn his memory. “I won’t have children questioned, Balin. Especially not those three. They have shown absolutely no signs of deceitfulness.”

“All right,” said Balin, letting out his breath very slowly. “Just King Bard, the Environmental Minister, and the low-level officials. I’ll have that done. Email would be easiest.”

“Whatever you need to do.”

Balin tapped one finger lightly on his trackpad. “Thorin, another option we have is to initiate a lawsuit.”

“What? No!” Thorin shouted before he could control himself. Dragging the courts into it? By all the Valar, that was the last thing he wanted. “Balin, a suit would be a public-relations nightmare and we have no one concrete to direct it against. Who would even take the case?” None of his lessons with Grandfather on law and politics had in any way prepared him for law in the Internet age, and as was increasingly common these days, Thorin suddenly found himself floundering for terms. “Would it be...defamation? I’ve never heard of any precedent for this sort of thing.”

“Defamation is a possibility,” said Balin. “There’s breach of privacy as well. If it can be proven that someone took the photo when you were in your quarters or the baths, we could argue that. You’ve a reasonable expectation of privacy there.” He stroked his beard with a thumb and forefinger, and his bushy white brows furrowed. “How much did ye read about the, what was it, Aranel case when it came out? This was…oh, thirty years ago? My memory is not what it was.”

The name rang a faint bell in Thorin’s head. “Something about photos in Valinor,” he said. Balin nodded. “She’s related to Thranduil’s wife. Someone did it under false pretenses – who was it, a pilot?” He didn’t even remember how he’d received the news, only that he’d laughed to hear it and then gone back to cleaning up the ink that Fíli had spilled while writing runes. If his nephews weren’t so terribly clumsy, Thorin suspected he’d never remember a thing; there would be no annoyances to which he could attach his memories.

Balin nodded even harder. “Along those lines. Just a moment, I’ll be right back.” He gathered up his laptop and hurried off, leaving Thorin and Dwalin at the table.

“Bad luck about the advert,” Dwalin said; there was real sympathy in his eyes, though the crinkles at the corners suggested merriment at Thorin’s expense. “Need me to crush some heads?”

Binjablûn,” Thorin said, “you’re the reason people stereotype Dwarves. Go train some hotheaded Dwarflings if you have such a strong urge to be violent.”

Dwalin gave him a rude hand gesture, one he’d obviously picked up from some of the more vulgar Mannish. A proper Dwarf, as Balin might say, didn’t tell people to perform such anatomically-impossible acts, and Dwalin likely never would have pulled such a stunt if his brother were still here. “My title’s General of Armies, not ‘brainless,’” he said. “Where’d you have been without me fifty years ago?”

“Still alive, thank you,” Thorin replied. “Because Dáin’s army provided the backup and your husband fired that shot. I think I’ll call you ‘useless’ instead of ‘brainless.’” He glanced down at his watch. Half three and his limbs were already disintegrating into exhausted jelly. Weekly grievances for three hours in the morning (because some traditions would just not die), five of consults with the Agricultural Minister after that to double-check the efficacy of this year’s crop growth, and now this. No lunch, even. If he couldn’t taunt Dwalin a bit, he would probably slit his wrists.

“Thorin, go lie down.” Dwalin leaned forward across the table. “You look like you’ll fall over any second now.”

Mahal, grant me the strength to not cry from frustration, Thorin thought. I can’t possibly deal with that again. “I’ll be able to lie down when Nori can give me concrete information on who’s sending out my image,” he said in a sharper tone than he’d intended. Guilt immediately stabbed at him. “I’m sorry.”

Dwalin waved his hand. “No need for that,” he said. “Believe me, I’m with you on this. I’ll get Nori on questioning whatever Mannish he finds suspicious. That’s the purview of Information Technology, aye, it is.” He winked. It was a very disturbing gesture on him. “Any other activities fall strictly under that, ye understand.”

Balin’s reappearance saved Thorin from having to warn Dwalin that Nori had best not get caught hacking emails. “Here!” his chief adviser puffed, waving a yellowed piece of paper in one hand as he sat down. “I knew I had it. Here’s the information on the Aranel case.”

“Another point to your organizational system.” Thorin straightened up in his chair. “What are the details?”

Balin brought the paper up to his face and squinted at it. Thorin rolled his eyes as discreetly as he could. There was something to be said about the stubbornness of Dwarves; for over fifty of his two-hundred-plus years, Balin had very obviously needed reading glasses. Woe betide the foolhardy Dwarf who told him so and got an ever-so-polite brushoff in return. “Alright, here it is,” Balin said, loudly clearing his throat. “They permitted a Mannish pilot to enter Valinor so Aranel could return from a visit, and he snapped a photo of her from the plane when she landed.” He shook his head. “Of course they saw the flash.”

“What happened?” Thorin asked. “Is there precedent for us?”

“Not particularly,” said Balin, and his face fell a bit. “Unfortunately. I do loathe this computerized age.” He tsked. “It was a single-photo contraption, so they took it off him and that was that. Thranduil only told me as a courtesy warning, just here.” He picked the letter up and waved it again. “Say what you will about him, but he was concerned it could happen to you.”

“Only because he didn’t want to rule the kingdom next door to a monarch with his private photos spread across the continent,” Thorin said. To say that there was no love lost between him and Thranduil would mean vastly underestimating the depth of their mutual feelings. He called it abject hatred on bad days; on good, he could admit their relationship tended more towards cordial animosity.

Balin wagged a finger at him. “Not now, Thorin.”

Dwalin snorted and caught Thorin’s eye. Thorin did his best to telepathically communicate his misery, and on some level, it must have worked; Dwalin raised an eyebrow and snorted again, this time at Balin. “Why’d ye bother bringing that thing in here if it won’t help?”

“I said there’s no precedent. I didn’t say there’s nothing we can use,” said Balin. He folded his arms across his robe-clad belly and arched his back in a familiar stretch against the back of his chair, squeezing his eyes shut and groaning. “Their council determined she had a reasonable right to expect privacy in the Undying Lands. A gag order came into play and the pilot lost his job.” He brought the letter up to the end of his nose and squinted. “Thranduil didn’t give me any more details. I think he mainly intended this letter as a veiled threat to stay out of Valinor.”

“Of course.” Thorin rubbed the tender areas over his brows with his fingertips. “We’d still have to get the international courts involved. We have no authority to keep a trial like this completely isolated.” An intra-Erebor issue, yes. Extraditing a Man (or, Mahal forbid, an Elf) to the mountain for a closed trial – no, everyone else’s armies would besiege the gates within a day. “Is there any chance I could simply give a press conference?” An hour or two, over and done. His personal life would only stand so much invasion before it ceased to be private.

Dwalin tilted his head. “Could work,” he said. “Bit of a catchall solution, isn’t it? We could tailor it. If Thorin said he wants his privacy respected…”

But even as Dwalin trailed off, Balin was already shaking his head. “We’d put ourselves at the mercy of everyone else’s good will,” he said. “I hate to say it would make us look weak, but – how to put this?” He twisted a fist in his beard. “It’s not our kingdom’s reputation I’m worried about, exactly. If you publicly disavowed the advertisements, very businesslike and glowering, yes, anyone who put out the photo after would learn that our dictate on the matter didn’t have any teeth. We can’t do anything.” He set his hands on the table, palms up. “The point is that without a source to aim at, we can’t go public.” He did (to his credit) look apologetic. “I’ll be vulgar about it: we have no short hairs to tug.”

Fablith,” Thorin said, seized by a sudden urge to smack his head into the table. Fíli could have this job, if he wanted it so badly as to intrude on the airing of grievances with unwanted suggestions. Perhaps even Kíli would make a better king than Thorin himself right about now.

Dwalin barked out a laugh. “Come on, Thorin, you can do better than that.”

“Do you want the direct translation,” Thorin said, “Or do you simply want me to curse you out in Westron?” He knew a few Sindarin curses that would curl King Thranduil’s lank curtain of hair. Dwalin, however, was likely to just laugh them off.

Balin cleared his throat - loudly - and flung his hands out in front of him. “The main issue here, Thorin,” he said, “is that we have no leverage. But there’s something else. A press conference naturally includes the press, and that would bring up a few rather unsavory questions.”

Thorin frowned. “Such as?”

“I assume you want to publicly disavow the advertisements, as I said,” said Balin. Thorin nodded. “Yes, of course you do. Well, were you to publicly disavow an advertisement that claims you’ve erectile dysfunction, then by necessity, you’d publicly refute claims of having erectile dysfunction. Explicitly, Thorin.”

Thorin felt, as much as heard, a dry croak squeaking its way out of his mouth, which he was certain had dropped open at some point. “Would I need…” He coughed hard into his hand to wet his stinging throat. “Would I need to say it so explicitly? ‘I do not have erectile dysfunction’?” In spite of the horrendous idea, his chest vibrated as his voice dropped down into the register he used for important announcements. Kingly matters and penile matters, what a terrible mix.

Dwalin snickered. “You’d have to, unless ye want people to come out and ask. ‘King Thorin, how’s your pocket rocket and set o’ jambags work?’ Can y’ imagine that coming out of the mouth of some Mannish?”

“Brother,” Balin said as Thorin’s entire body heated up to levels heretofore seen only in parts of the forges so dangerous that one couldn’t even work there with gloves and eye protection, “A pocket rocket is a vibrator, not a certain part of our king.”

“How d’ye know that?”

Balin paused for far, far too long, finally admitting, “I’m not illiterate in the Internet.”

Thorin, thankfully, did not gag; he could pride himself on that later. His cousin wasn’t so lucky. Dwalin’s face went first pale and then a bit green. “He’d also be refutin’ the idea that he wears adult nappies,” he said. “That’s more important. But if you still don’t think we should have a press conference, fine, no press conference.” Balin frowned, and inwardly, Thorin smiled. Balin would do well to have a taste of his own passive-aggressive medicine every now and again. “What’s your idea, then? Got to be something we can do, aye?”

“Are you certain I would have to do that?” Thorin blurted out. Mahal’s stones, surely there were other options besides completely airing his dirty laundry for weeks on end. “Even the Mannish know not to pry into my personal life.”

“They also don’t know much about the love lives of Dwarves in general,” Balin said. To his credit, he did look sad. Thorin suddenly, fervently wished that his father – decades dead – could pull him onto his lap and hold him like he had when Thorin was only a Dwarfling. He didn’t care if that meant crawling into a boggy grave somewhere in Mirkwood. “No one could pass up the opportunity to ask about Dwarves only…” He drummed the table in rhythm with all five fingers of one hand. “Loving once. It’s far too, ah, juicy of a subject.”

“And by loving, he means tuppin’ into the mattress,” said Dwalin. After a moment of thought, his eyes brightened. “They’d probably ask Thranduil if he’s even got anything down there anymore once they’re finished with you. That’s a plus, Thorin! We’d find out a wee bit about Thranduil’s shriveled –”

Balin interrupted with a firm “Not helpful, brother.” Then he got out of his seat and came over to Thorin, placing a gentle hand on his. “There’s another solution,” he said. “I’ve been trying to tell you so. Likely would have, if this lout didn’t keep interrupting.”

“Please tell me,” said Thorin, even as his headache started beating wavering lines into his field of vision with every throb of his pulse. “I need to rest for at least a minute. Otherwise I, ach.” He leaned forward and took his forehead in both hands. “I don’t know how long I can stay conscious.”

“Well, I’ll keep it as quick as I can,” Balin said. He squeezed Thorin’s hand. “What I thought is that we could hire an attorney for a private civil suit. A barrister, yes, I think that’s the correct term.”

“No,” Thorin said. “That’s worse than Mannish reporters asking after my personal business. How can I trust something this humiliating to…to…” To people who only began to see me as their king fifty years ago, he wanted to say, but Balin abhorred outright vanity in himself, and likely in Thorin as well. “There’s no other way?”

Balin’s eyes suddenly lit up. “Oh!” he said, nearly a shout – or as close as Balin ever got to shouting, anyway. “No, Thorin, I didn’t mean from here. Is that what you thought I meant? Outside the Mountain, of course. No Mannish from nearby. Would a Hobbit suit you?” He didn’t wait for Thorin to answer before continuing. “I could ask some of my contacts in the Red Mountains. Not the Iron Hills, of course. Dáin’s too close to you. Far Harad could pose a travel problem –“

“I see,” Thorin interrupted. There were worse ideas. “Are you certain this is our best option?”

Balin gave one short, decisive nod. “Aye, I am. I think you could win a defamation case against these companies if you put it as an unlawful thievery of images.” Thievery. Sometimes Thorin had to question what age Balin thought he still lived in. “Due diligence with emails, that sort of evidence. They’d have to provide it to prove they got the photo legally, and I’m sure they didn’t. If we went after the companies instead of the source, hmm. Yes.”

“Intellectual property rights,” put in Dwalin, who had remained so silent Thorin realized he had thought him asleep. “These are print ads. Came up in journalistic publications and the newspaper websites, very technically. We can’t legally make ‘em release their sources. Or were ye asleep in your schooling?”

“Brother,” said Balin, crossing his arms and raising one disapproving eyebrow, “there is a clear difference between an article and an advertisement.”

Thorin’s headache roared to a peak and he barely bit back a groan. “Wait,” he said. “Do these sites purchase ad space, or the ads themselves?”

Both of his cousins turned to stare at him with identical wide eyes, as if surprised that he knew anything about the Internet beyond the three-finger salute. He’d seen that look before from his nephews, and he would have these two bastards know that Balin’s undoubtedly encrypted vibrator purchases were not the only evidence of Internet know-how from the Line of Durin. “Good question,” Dwalin said. “Balin?”

“Hmm.” Balin slowly let his eyes roll up towards the ceiling and leaned backwards. His back emitted a sudden sharp crack that made Thorin wince, and Balin hissed through his teeth. “Better,” he said. “Now that’s a good question. If it’s ad space, we’ll certainly have a case. Brother, could Nori have a look at those sites?”

“I don’t think he’s got anything better to do today,” said Dwalin with a shrug. “Apart from –”

No,” Balin said (luckily sparing Thorin from having to do the same). “No.”

Dwalin made a rude noise through his pursed lips. “I meant to say sittin’ around on the computer and drinkin’ Lonely Mountain Dew,” he said. “That shite’s the reason he’s got to piss ten times a day. I ought to sue.”

“Thorin’s the one who needs to sue.” Balin leveled him a long stare. “And you know that’s not made here. Dáin still refuses to sell it back to us. Did you know I phoned him yesterday about it?” He sighed and let out a tsk. “Used to be fine stuff. Now it’s…it’s bloody Mannish soda. Dáin’s too smart for his own good.”

“Gets the Mannish to like us. He’s a genius.” Dwalin smiled. “Trade’s never gone so well since he joined us. Now, Thorin.” The avuncular concern in his voice reminded Thorin horribly of Balin, and when Dwalin felt his forehead, the feeling only worsened.

“Get off me.” He batted Dwalin’s hand away, then replaced it with his own. “Would it be irresponsible of me to go to bed?”

Dwalin and Balin shook their heads in tandem. “You’ll faint otherwise,” Balin told him. “Said as much yourself. I’ll draw up a list of candidates with Dwalin and you can have your choice.”

“Fine,” said Thorin. “Look up some barristers. Good ones. I’d prefer the Shire.” Without the assistance of those Hobbits, he would have no mountain to reclaim; Smaug would have destroyed it by now, and his nephews would still be growing up in the Blue Mountains, hungry and haunted by their family’s memories. “I should go.”

Dwalin grinned at him. “Go,” he said. “Kiss Dís and Víli and the lads hello for me. I’ll thrash Fíli the next time we play a game of strategy.”

“Truly, they’re effective,” Balin cut in, for some reason bringing up an argument that he and Thorin had long since thrashed out. “At Gulbel, Fíli conducted himself –”

“I know. You don’t need to convince me of the merits of board games.” Thorin bent slightly at the waist in the traditional goodbye. “Nori will have information for us soon, I hope. And I’ll be waiting for that list, Balin.”

Balin waved a hand at him. He had, Thorin observed idly, more age spots than the last time Thorin had looked. “Go,” he said. “Dwalin and I will close up.”

Thorin left quickly, needing no further invitation. Gone were the days in which the king personally oversaw the checking of the council chamber after every meeting, and he did not miss them. Dwalin’s marriage to the main culprit guilty of spying in the secret passages nullified a great deal of danger, at any rate.

He did have much to be grateful for, Thorin reflected as he moved through the corridor and the automatic lights flicked on with his passage, one by one. More than his grandfather, certainly. Thrór Dáinul had died without the ease of communication that his grandson enjoyed now, or the widespread vaccinations that might have saved the life of his son. But then if rumors had spread during his reign that he lacked the ability to perform in bed, no mass media would have existed to hear them.

Speaking of mass media…Thorin pulled his phone out of his trousers and turned it on, still walking. Allowing calls from his nephews was never a good idea during council meetings, but now that it was done, he supposed he had to face the lads sometime today.

Four missed calls, so they’d taken the hint after about two minutes. Thank Mahal for small mercies. But the texts –

From: Fíli
Uncle! Congratulations on the advert! I always knew you didn’t have it in you.

Thorin sighed and slumped against the rough stone wall, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. Bloody kids. The Mannish were right to use that goat-derived word if everyone’s children had the same ability to chew adults’ nerves to papery pulp.

From: Kíli
Congratulations, Uncle Thorin! You’re a meme!

That likely meant only one thing: social media was having a massive laugh.

From: Fíli
Is it true??? Inquiring minds want to know! *holds microphone up to your beard*

With a growl, Thorin punched the “2” key for the speed-dial. He didn’t wait for Fíli to answer after the ringing ended. “Fíli Vílul Durinul.”

An audible gulp, one that Thorin hoped was born of fright, sounded from the other end of the line. “Hi, Uncle Thorin,” Fíli said. “How was your meeting?”

“Never mind how my meeting was,” Thorin said. He pushed himself away from the wall and resumed his walk through the corridor to the royal quarters, following its spiraling pathway inward. Though they were meant to confuse anyone looking to make trouble for the royal family, he could walk these areas in his sleep. Unfortunately for Fíli, he could also simultaneously talk and walk. “You phoned me four times. I only read three of those wretched texts from you and your brother and that was enough for me. Why did you feel the need to contact me about the contents of my trousers?”

“Oh, Uncle, it was just a joke,” said Fíli. “We’re poking a bit of fun. We don’t really want to know, ‘course not – Kee, give me my tablet!” Something crashed on his end. “I’m trying to mark up those reports you sent me and Kíli keeps being a fucking prat, sorry, Uncle, I mean a prat.”

Thorin had to briefly stop one more time, just to smack his palm against the wall. “You haven’t really answered my question, so here’s another. Did your parents raise you to act like this?” He waited, but heard only silence. “Did I turn you in the wrong direction in training you to be king of this damned mountain?”

“Stop trying to make me feel guilty!” Fíli protested.

“Then search your memory,” Thorin said, “and try to remember what happened twenty years ago when all the news sources picked up the story of your acne cure. Does the term ‘do-it-yourself facial peel’ strike you as familiar?”

Fíli’s whimper told Thorin that he’d hit the heart of the mine. “I remember.”

“Then don’t revel in my humiliation,” Thorin told him shortly, and then more gently, “Are you home?”

“Old library. Kee and I are in one of the side rooms.”

“Then I’ll see you at home,” Thorin said. “I love you.”

He could almost hear Fíli’s smile. “You too,” his nephew said before hanging up.

Thorin pocketed his phone again and continued the rest of the journey to the royal quarters in a slightly better mood, save for his headache. The wavering vision had not improved with time and distance away from Balin and Dwalin, though the low lighting helped. Modern air filtering made it so that the walls no longer glistened, either. However, apart from that, Thorin could close his eyes and imagine himself an ancient Dwarf in any time he wished. No Internet, no texts, no easy ways for Thranduil to contact him if he wanted (and he hoped to Mahal that the wagstaff wouldn’t take the opportunity to do so over this).

Finally, the double doors he’d sought loomed in front of him and he let out a breath of relief. Home. He tapped the keypad next to the door with his keycard and watched with pleasure as a fiber-optic pattern of blue light swirled out from the center of each door before they slid apart to admit him. Brilliant work; he appreciated it even years after its installation. A click or beep could alert any evildoer in the area to his presence.

Bombur Boburul, barely of age and only just a journeyman in architecture at the time of their Quest, had had ample opportunity to blossom in skill since they reclaimed Erebor. When he looked at such work as Bombur could produce now, like this, Thorin found it easy to admit that blossom he had. That homage to the Doors of Durin, hope for the reclamation of another home they had lost, spoke of the poetry in his hands.

“Dís?” he called out as he entered the front hall, even more labyrinthine than the outer corridors. “Víli?” No answer. They must have still been away at work. Not that it mattered; his room was far enough away from theirs, as well as his nephews’, that he might as well have chosen to live by himself. They’d been well aware of his need for privacy when they chose their section of the royal quarters. Not for the first time, Thorin silently thanked Mahal for his sister having been born with some sense.

Another keycard tap got him into his own bedroom, illuminated a soft yellow from the afternoon sun casting its shadow over the side of the mountain. He’d come home to that view many a time and, as always, closed his eyes to let the warm rays touch his face. Even a Dwarf could appreciate sunshine. Those who had designed their quarters to wrap around the side of the mountain, incomprehensible as the schematic seemed to any Mannish privileged enough to be invited within, showed yet more Dwarven ingenuity. In the center of the mountain, where other peoples might keep their families most in need of protection, mine shafts and communication tunnels cut a straight line to the vulnerable royalty. On the outside, mountain stone two meters thick served as protection that had stood the test of time.

“Enough woolgathering,” he told himself. His grandfather himself would roll his eyes at such thoughts. Thorin turned his attention to his bed, which still lay unmade, and took time only to set an alarm for three hours and tug off his boots before he toppled onto the covers and slept.

His alarm – a five-second clip of a nationally-attended opera from last year – pulled him forcefully out of his nap what seemed like seconds later. Thorin opened his eyes with great difficulty, croaked a curse in Khuzdul, and reached to turn it off.

He had a number of emails, a few of which he could see had been mistakenly directed to him instead of his sister. He flagged them to forward on to her; the senders belonged to the Dwarven Economic Committee, and she’d need their information on conference organization for this year’s Gulbû-zizî . Another, from Nori, bore the cheeky subject line Lol look wat I got thru ur spam filter. Ignore. It was likely full of penises.

But Balin had come through already with a list of names that Thorin blinked at, with the ones Balin most favored marked with an asterisk. I would prefer the one at the top of the list, Balin wrote. His credentials are a bit less flashy than the others, but he’s had a steady record of civil victories. I’d like to send him a request email.

Thorin suspected that he would take anything at this point. Anything to keep him out of the limelight and prevent his headache from returning. “Bilbo Baggins,” he read aloud, the name pinging a memory in his brain. That family’s dealings with Dwarves had proven helpful in the past, and he needed help now.

Bilbo Baggins will work well for me, he typed with clumsy fingers. Send it.