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Title: Comes Wisdom in Defeat
Chapter III: Preface - Part 2
Pairings: Unrequited Kíli/Bilbo, unrequited Bilbo/Thorin, some Kíli/Tauriel
Warnings: angst, lots of pining, murderous thoughts
Word Count: 6614 (39,426 so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned the hobbit it would be an even bigger tragedy
Summary: Kíli is the only Durin to survive the Battle of the Five Armies but when his world falls into darkness, the Valar grant him one chance to make things right.

Chapter I: Epilogue
Chapter II: Prologue - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Chapter III: Preface - Part 1


Mirkwood did not look kindly on trespassers into its domain.

From the moment that Thorin and his companions stepped into the forest, the surrounding vegetation seemed to shake with malice, thick roots threatening to trip the dwarves while brambles snagged their cloaks. Every step made the chill on the air grow sharper and the Elven Road seemed slim protection when enormous trees grew in gnarled clusters up to the very edge of it.

These trees blocked out the sun so that Thorin's company walked in a never-ending twilight, fallen leaves crunching loudly underneath their boots. The deadfall upon the path grew thicker with every league they traveled until the dwarves and their hobbit rounded a copse of brambles and found their trail obscured. But even if the Elven Road was hidden, the earth always spoke true to Mahal's children, and when Dwalin tapped the shaft of his war hammer against the blanket of leaves before him, the metal rang out clear where there was stone beneath.

The warrior took point then, guiding his companions eastward along the safest road. However, while this method would protect them for the moment, Kíli knew that this forest would never allow the dwarves to escape so easily. Not when the once-king's every breath was thick with malice and he could feel Mirkwood’s hatred as a foul caress upon his skin.

This forest will kill us all without a second’s hesitation, the archer thought, a chill running down his spine when the shadows moved. While most dwarves would not see the threat in leaves and branches, Kíli had spent enough time in Thranduil’s kingdom to know that the trees of Mirkwood had their own awareness and even the elf king's kindred must step warily beneath this canopy.

So Kíli stayed on high alert as he and his companions journeyed onward, his nerves wound tight even though the dwarves encountered neither sight nor sound of any other living thing. His enemies were out there whether or not he could see them and the archer would be ready when the ambush finally came.

He would have to be ready because Thorin’s company would not hear their enemies approaching, the heavy atmosphere of this forest dampening all sound oppressively. Indeed, Mirkwood’s silence was not peaceful, it was the breathless anticipation that came before a battle, and the once-king was not the only one who did not trust this place. Kíli's kindred might not share his memories, but every one of his companions had heard Beorn's warnings clearly and those who remembered Erebor had little reason to trust in Thranduil's hospitality. The older dwarves were as wary of wood elves as they were of other dangers and their suspicion would soon prove justified if the once-king could not keep them on the path.

Even Bilbo had lost his sense of wonder at the thought of meeting Manwë's children, the joy that he had shown on entering Rivendell nowhere to be seen. Although, in truth, this was hardly surprising when the dank miasma of Mirkwood affected the hobbit more strongly with each mile that they traveled, his face growing ever paler while Kíli watched him worriedly.

The once-king did not remember their burglar looking so unwell during his first journey, but perhaps he simply had not noticed then. For the dwarf’s heart had still been wavering – he had worried for Bilbo no more than he had worried for the rest of his kindred – and his younger self had trusted in Thorin to save his company.

Kíli knew better now.

So the archer kept a careful watch over his companions, nudging Ori and Dori back toward the path when their steps began to wander and drawing Fíli into conversation when his spirits dimmed. He helped Balin keep track of their supplies, relieved Dwalin at the front of the line when the warrior’s arm grew tired and fought off the effects of Mirkwood as best he could.

This latter task was the most difficult by far, though Kíli's past experience helped him recognize the forest’s illusions more clearly than his kin. The once-king knew that the voices on the wind were no more than trickery and the lights in the distance only phantoms trying to lure him from the path. He would not listen to the whispers in the shadows – ghosts could not harm Thorin’s company when his dead now lived and breathed.

Yet the once-king also knew that there were real dangers hidden all around them; there were monsters lurking in the darkness and evils on their trail. For Mirkwood could be patient and as soon as the dwarves dropped their guard, the forest would destroy them utterly.

This truth kept Kíli from resting easy whenever his companions stopped for the evening, the archer jumping at every shadow instead of sleeping as he should.

Kíli couldn’t seem to help it even though he knew that such constant vigilance could not be maintained and indeed, it wasn’t long before exhaustion started to weigh on him heavily. His steps grew a little slower and his thoughts a little fuzzier and eventually he began to forget why it was so important to follow the path beneath his feet.

After all, there were some lovely flowers in the distance, ones that he should pick for Bilbo, and the grass in that far clearing looked like such a comfortable place to sleep. Every time the dwarf wished that he could rest his aching head for a moment he would suddenly find himself halfway off the path, his feet moving closer and closer to the edge before he regained his senses once again. It was an ongoing battle, a struggle that filled Kíli's every waking moment, and with each new sleepless dawn, Mirkwood’s enticements became harder to resist.

The once-king felt as though he were walking through an endless dream, a nightmare from which he could not wake. From which Kíli feared that he would never wake again. For the forest was insidious in its torments, cruel and seductive even though the archer knew that its promises were lies.

By now every member of Thorin’s company was beginning to look ragged around the edges, the dwarves clinging to the Elven Road through force of will alone. For this path might be slim protection against Mirkwood’s many evils but it was the only shelter that they had. As long as the stones rang clear beneath Dwalin’s war hammer, the dwarves knew that they were traveling in the right direction, every hour bringing them closer to the forest’s eastern edge. This was the only thing that kept the archer moving; this and the Runestone clutched tightly in his hand.

But the blessing of the Valar meant little when the dwarves stood in the heart of Mirkwood’s power and despite Kíli's best efforts, he could not win this fight. His defiance meant as little as a single spark within a fire – it burned brightly and burned out just as fast.

So it was that Thorin’s company broke camp one morning, the gloom of this day no different than any that had passed. Yet today was different because the once-king had barely walked an hour when the forest suddenly twisted in his vision, the Elven Road disappearing between one step and the next. The path was gone as though it had never existed and another hour's searching could not find that thread again.

The dwarves were well and truly lost now, their shouts of distress mirroring the gloom in Kíli's heart. For with the loss of the path, Thorin’s company had lost its best chance of reaching Erebor before Durin’s Day was upon them and the once-king no longer hoped for miracles.

Fate was harsh and life was cruel and only a fool thought otherwise. Only a fool would have believed that he could change things even with the Valar on his side. It’s not as though Kíli's return had made this world better – indeed, the dwarf would call Azog’s resurrection much, much worse.

Mahal and his Lady should have chosen someone different, someone who could have been the hero that Durin’s Folk deserved. They should have chosen someone who had a chance instead of resting the fate of Middle Earth on the once-king’s shoulders and expecting him to stand beneath that weight. It was their fault that Kíli was failing in his purpose; their fault for putting him through this torment when they should have let him die.

The Valar should have let the once-king go on to see his family instead of forcing him to relive his greatest sorrow and his fury at their audacity was suddenly a burning knot within his chest. Kíli was angry at the Valar for their betrayal, angry at Thorin and his unfaithful hobbit for his heartbreak, and angry at the brothers Ri for walking much too close to him.

So the archer turned around and shoved Nori and his brothers shoved back and soon the entire company ground to a milling halt. Dwalin and Balin began arguing about directions while Bofur and his kindred moved to support Nori; Óin stared vaguely into the distance and Fíli stepped up to guard his brother’s side. The elder prince looked ready to punch Ori out this instant and Kíli could hardly blame his brother for his anger when he grew more livid with each second that passed by.

“I am trying to keep you fools alive,” the once-king growled, pushing Nori back another step only to receive a hard shove from Dori in return. “Where you would follow Thorin blindly toward destruction, I have seen that future; it leads to death, darkness, and the end of everything.”

Kíli was too angry to care that he was speaking of his secret; he just wanted his companions to know the pain their quest would cause. The dwarf wanted them to know what he had sacrificed before he carved his retribution from their ungrateful hides.

But the only thing that his companions heard was his attack on Thorin, his kindred jumping in to defend their leader’s madness as though it were justified. They shouted about loyalty and kingship as though Kíli did not understand the weight of duty – as though he had not lived it after they were gone. Thorin was the one who needed a lesson in responsibility, Thorin and his reckless plans who should be brought to task, and the once-king was prepared to do just that.

Only his uncle was too far away for Kíli to punch him, the dwarf lord standing apart from the crowd with a sneer upon his face. He was watching his companions argue like he was too good for fistfights and as soon as Dori got out of his way, the archer was going to show that hobbit-stealing bastard the true meaning of agony.

However, before the once-king could bring his blood-soaked thoughts to life, Thorin decided that he’d stood by long enough.

Enough!” the dwarf lord shouted. “Quiet, all of you! We're being watched!”

Eleven of Thorin’s companions froze at his command, their argument forgotten instantly. Only eleven because the voice of kingship no longer worked on Kíli and hobbits were not the sort to bow to anyone. A polite bob or curtsy maybe, but never the unthinking obedience that was natural when raised with royalty. Indeed, Bilbo did not even acknowledge the dwarf lord’s order for his attention was focused on the canopy above. The hobbit was muttering something about sunlight and while Thorin had failed to pull the once-king from his anger, their burglar succeeded when he began to climb.

That isn’t safe, the archer thought in panic, visions of Bilbo falling overwhelming the fury in his mind. Because nothing was more important than his hobbit, not even vengeance for the life that he had lost.

Kíli would punish Thorin once Bilbo was out of danger, but the burglar disappeared into the trees before the dwarf could pull him back to earth where he belonged. Every dwarrow knew that earth and stone meant protection and in such a place as Mirkwood, no member of their company should be traveling out of sight. However, while the once-king meant to follow Bilbo, he did not have the chance. For as soon as Kíli could no longer see his hobbit, a red haze washed across his vision, fury overcoming him once more.

He had been worried about something but now there was only anger, and he could see his rage reflected on the faces of his kin. Indeed, the archer was not the only one who was finding his emotions difficult to master and the silence that Thorin had commanded was already giving way to muttering.

Soon the dwarves would be back to brawling with each other and the once-king did not know if anything could stop the blood that would be spilled. In truth, Kíli did not wish to stop it anymore.

Why should the once-king run himself ragged trying to save his kinfolk when they ignored his efforts, marching toward their own destruction with blind confidence? Let them die again and this time their deaths would free him for Kíli had no intention of becoming king once more. He could not become king as long as Smaug ruled the Lonely Mountain and slaying Thorin now would ensure this never changed. One small death and this company would scatter; one small death and Kíli's debt would be paid.

So the archer gripped his dagger tightly and stalked toward his uncle, the dwarf lord blind to the danger that he faced. But Kíli had scarcely raised his weapon before Bilbo shouted something far above him, the hobbit’s voice muffled by the thick forest canopy.

While the once-king could not make out the words, the burglar sounded worried – almost frightened – and this made the archer pause. He was still angry, so very angry, but now he was torn as well. The once-king’s instincts said that he must find his hobbit even as his hate said he must strike and when Bilbo shouted again, he knew which one was right. Because Kíli had failed to save his Bilbo on that blood-soaked battlefield and even if this Bilbo did not want him, the archer would not stand by as he died. If there was danger then he would face it at his hobbit’s side.

Only the hobbit was not the one in danger, something that Kíli should have remembered from his last journey through this place. Bilbo’s shout had been a warning not a cry for assistance and the once-king had barely opened his mouth to answer when Thorin’s company was ambushed from above.

Enormous spiders scuttled down the tree trunks to leap upon his kindred, most of the dwarves caught entirely off guard. They either hadn’t noticed Bilbo’s warning or had ignored it and the spiders took full advantage of their prey’s surprise. Kíli's companions were captured within seconds, tied and tangled in sticky silken thread, and the once-king managed only a few glancing blows before he was brought down as well.

No matter how he struggled, the archer couldn’t break free of the spiders’ webbing and he had lost his dagger somewhere in the fight. Kíli was trapped, helpless to do anything as the creatures dragged their captives through the forest, and he did not know how he had forgotten about this.

For when his nightmares were not of blood, they were of being captured – blind and paralyzed and waiting for some unknown enemy – and now he was living one of his worst fears again. But that was Mirkwood’s power, to bend the mind and trick the senses and the dwarf had not realized how close Thorin’s company was to disaster before his current panic cleared his head.

I nearly killed my uncle, Kíli thought in horror, the lingering echoes of his blood lust raising bile in his throat. Mirkwood might have focused the once-king’s hate on Thorin, but the foundation was all Kíli – the bones of a kin-slayer waiting beneath the vows he’d made.

He was no longer innocent; he was rage and grief and fury, and where he had once felt hope and heartbreak in equal measure, the archer could not find the former now. There was only regret and an endless bitterness, the weaknesses that had allowed Mirkwood to delve into his mind.

Indeed, the once-king was turning out to be a rather awful hero and if Thorin’s company somehow managed to reach Laketown safely, it would be in spite of Kíli, not because of anything he’d done. He hadn’t saved his kindred from the goblins or the trolls; he hadn’t stopped the Defiler from striking Thorin down. That had been the wizard and the hobbit and now the dwarves’ only hope of survival rested with their burglar once more.

Kíli could do nothing but wait and think on his failures, praying that Bilbo’s courage wouldn’t fail him now. Yet if the hobbit could take on Azog without flinching, surely a nest of spiders would not turn his heart aside.

This incarnation of Bilbo might be different than his predecessor, but the dwarf did not believe that he would stand by and watch as his friends died. Their burglar would try to help and the admittedly unreliable timeline of Kíli's memory said that he should have found his ring by now. Indeed, the evidence supported this assumption because the archer had seen Bilbo fiddling with his pockets several times since leaving the Misty Mountains and Kaminzabdûna had promised that some things were the same. She had promised that the most important moments of their journey would hold true across the timelines and the hobbit could not have survived without his ring in hand.

In all honesty, the once-king did not think any of Thorin's company would have survived without the burglar’s magic on their side. They had needed that advantage in the past and they needed it now, their situation looking more dire with every minute that dragged by.

If Bilbo did not have his ring then the dwarves were dead already and Kíli really should have kissed his hobbit when he’d had the chance. Yet how could he have done it when their burglar was staring after Thorin with pining hopeless eyes; this Bilbo no more than a living doppelganger who wore his past love's face. It wouldn't have been fair to kiss him, not when the once-king would have been kissing the shadow of a dream instead.

Kíli had not ruined his second chance, he had simply never had one, and the dwarf must learn to be content with that. After all, he had grieved already – grieved for long cold decades – and attempting to mold this Bilbo into the one that he still loved so dearly would be a disservice to them both.

Thus it was that when the hobbit finally arrived to free Thorin's company from the spiders' webbing, Kíli tried to see him with new eyes. Well, perhaps see was the wrong word since there was no sign of Bilbo even after the dwarves were cut free from their webbing to land on the forest floor. But the once-king was unlikely to see the burglar as long as he needed his ring's assistance and there was no one else who could have set the company free.

Indeed, the archer did not need to see their hobbit in order to think upon him and there was much thinking that the dwarf must do. For Kíli had finally recognized a truth that he had been denying and while this incarnation of their burglar was certainly a friend and ally, he should no longer be the master of the once-king's heart. He should not be able to make the dwarf tremble with a smile or falter with a frown and the sooner that Kíli could separate the past and present, the better for the completion of his task.

So the dwarf forced himself to reflect on the differences between the Bilbo of his memories and the one that he had grown to know since dying and when another wave of spiders suddenly set upon them, it seemed only natural to mutter, “My Bilbo killed them all.”

A small shift in perspective that would make a world of difference, though Kíli was much too busy fighting to give it the attention it deserved. Because every spider the dwarves killed only brought more of the creatures down upon them and it wasn't long before the once-king's blade was black with the ichor of their blood.

This nest of spiders must be far larger than the one that had captured Thorin’s company in the past and Kíli was beginning to wonder whether the dwarves would be victorious when the elves arrived. Thranduil’s people announced themselves with a rain of arrows as they dropped from the trees, sweeping through the spiders like scythes through wheat. Only when the first wave of creatures had been slaughtered did the elves turn to those they’d rescued, pointing their weapons at the dwarves suspiciously.

Despite the clear threat in their eyes, it was difficult for the once-king to see Mirkwood’s elves as stranger after so many years of being somewhat reluctant allies and indeed, he had to stop himself from greeting Prince Legolas by name.

While Kíli had not considered the elf a friend, they had been cordial acquaintances and it was good to see him hale again. Legolas had not survived the destruction of his homeland, but now he looked no different than he had at their last meeting some eighty years in the future, scant months before both their kingdoms fell.

Of course, just because the once-king was glad that Legolas was breathing didn’t mean that he had any desire to be captured by the prince’s kin again. So Kíli began shuffling toward the edge of the group while Thorin and Legolas were busy glaring at each other, hoping to sneak away and find their burglar before the elves noticed he was gone. With his knowledge and Bilbo’s ring, the two of them should be able to accomplish the company’s escape from Thranduil’s dungeons far more quickly than his hobbit had managed in the past – perhaps quickly enough to keep their quest on track.

However, the archer had barely reached the edge of the clearing when another spider burst from the bushes and seized him by the leg. Kíli fell with a shout, his sword jerking loose from his fingers as he hit the ground. The once-king tried to grab the blade but the creature pulled him toward the trees before he could, his hand closing on naught but leaves instead. Even his bow was useless, the weapon caught beneath his back where he could not reach it and it was only his frantic kicks that kept the spider's maws away.

Valar, but I refuse to die like this, the once-king thought, cursing his lost dagger as more spiders appeared between the trees. He might have been able to fight off one without a weapon but half a dozen would kill him easily.

Indeed, this might have been the end of Kíli’s journey if an elf had not suddenly joined the battle on his side. This elf – elfine truly – burst into the scene with style, cutting through her enemies like the sharp edge of a blade. She took out three spiders within seconds before freeing Kíli and the once-king had to pause for a moment to admire the carnage that she’d caused. Sure, the elfine’s refusal to throw him a dagger was damn aggravating, but it had been a long time since the dwarf had seen such skill and he decided then that he wanted to know more about his rescuer.

This was partially just curiosity since Kíli thought that he had met all of Thranduil's guard in his last lifetime and yet he knew that he would have remembered an elfine with hair like that. The fire-crowned were considered most attractive by Mahal's children – Glóin and Bombur the only members of the company who had been blessed with wives for a reason – and this elfine bore a shade of red that the archer had never seen in life before. Which meant that she must be like Azog, dead or lost before the Valar had reshaped all history, and it was good to know that Kíli's enemies were not the only ones thus saved.

Admittedly, the wood elves were acting rather a lot like enemies at the moment, stripping the dwarves of their weapons so that they could not fight or flee. But the bad blood between Durin's Folk and Mirkwood did not make their captors evil and now that Kíli had failed to avoid being captured, he would have to try diplomacy.

Not with Legolas – the elf prince would have no reason to listen to the once-king now. But the elfine who had rescued Kíli wore the armor of a captain and she did not look at the dwarves with the same hatred as her kin. Instead she seemed almost curious and if the once-king could convince her that Thorin's company had meant no harm in their trespass, perhaps she could intercede with her king on their behalf.

Of course, this was not a request to make of a total stranger so the archer would have to bide his time for now. He would wait and watch and pray that observation would give him insight into the elfine's mind.

His information gathering was aided by the wood elves' complacency, none of them bothering to hide their conversations from the once-king's ears since no dwarf should have understood Sindarin. However, Kíli had found that same assumption quite useful during trade negotiations and he'd always had an ear for other tongues.

So the archer listened as the elves talked amongst themselves, their discussion painting a far bleaker picture of Mirkwood than he truly wished to hear. For while the forest had been dark and dangerous in the past – and indeed, it had not treated Kíli kindly – the dwarf had not thought that anything truly threatened Thranduil's kingdom before the Easterlings razed Mirkwood to the ground. However, now he was learning that the elf king's realm was under siege by a far greater evil and Thranduil looked to protect only his own borders when the hammer fell.

Of course, this last did not truly surprise the once-king since the wood elves had always been insular to a fault, but he did start when Legolas spoke the name Dol Guldur. That was the same fortress Beorn had mentioned, a fortress the elves talked of in hushed whispers and toward which Gandalf had been riding when he left. Their captors seemed to think that it was the source of the evil that crept over Mirkwood's borders and if the elves were right, perhaps Gandalf's errand had been justified.

Perhaps the wizard had needed to abandon Thorin's company in order to right some greater wrong and if that was so, Kíli could not truly blame him for his choice. Kíli should not blame him when the once-king had faced such decisions far too often on the throne of Erebor, and yet that is exactly what the dwarf had done.

Kíli had cursed the wizard's name in his darker hours, cursed him most unfairly it now seemed. For who could say whether Gandalf's presence would have changed things for the better or whether evil would have overrun Middle Earth even sooner if he'd stayed.

No one knew the answer to that question, not even the Valar, but the fact that the wizard had made the same choice in both timelines was a telling sign. Gandalf must have seen a danger in the North that the once-king did not know of and it was time for Kíli to release his bitterness. This was a new lifetime after all and the dwarf's burden was heavy enough already without adding resentment to the weight upon his heart.

Indeed, there was more power in forgiveness than in rancor and while it would take time for Kíli to let go of his bitterness completely, this first step made the world seem brighter than it had before. Enough that the once-king found himself smiling even as Thorin's company was locked away again, the dwarf turning back to flirt with his fair rescuer once she'd led him to his cell.

“Aren't you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers,” the archer said, dredging up his best shit-eating grin from some vault of memory.

It was as much joke as strategy, an attempt to rattle the elfine and see what lay beneath her calm. Most elves were rather devoid of humor and the captain's reaction would tell Kíli whether he had any chance at all. The once-king truly wasn't expecting much, maybe a chuckle or a slight break in her facade.

However, to Kíli's great surprise, he saw a flash of interest in the elfine's eyes before she shut him down, her rejection eased by the smile on the edges of her mouth. That was more than the archer had expected – that was admiration and possibly attraction – and it could give him the opening that he'd been looking for.

Sure the once-king was somewhat out of practice at flirtation – very, very out of practice considering how things had gone with Bilbo – but hopefully the elfine's attraction would blind her to his stumbling. And it was attraction for the captain was not quite out of earshot when Legolas cornered her, the once-king's knowledge of Sindarin coming in handy once again.

The prince demanded to know why Kíli was staring at the elfine – Tauriel, he called her – and her voice was almost dreamy when she replied. Not for long, her mask snapping back in place as soon as she realized it was slipping, but those few seconds were enough for the archer to be sure that she'd come back. She'd be back and with a bit of luck, she could convince Thranduil to release Thorin's company before their time ran out.

Of course, the once-king's task would have been much easier if his uncle hadn't been determined to make the elf king as furious as possible. Thorin returned from his meeting with Thranduil with the world's most feral smile and when he said, “I told him to îsh kakhfê ai‘d dûr rugnul” in answer to Balin's question, Kíli bit back a sigh.

Hopefully Tauriel would return soon, before Thorin managed to get all of them executed or Durin's Day arrived. While Kíli had lost track of the exact date after entering Mirkwood, one of his guards had mentioned the Feast of Starlight, a celebration that only took place near the waning of the year. Which meant the dwarves still had a few days left and the once-king wasn't going to give up without a fight, not when he didn't entirely trust this incarnation of Bilbo to rescue their company again.

So the archer waited, tossing Kaminzabdûna's Runestone through the air to pass the time while the rest of his companions settled down to sleep. Kíli waited for almost three hours before his patience was rewarded, long enough that he almost began to doubt what he had seen. But eventually Tauriel did return; she came back just as the dwarf had known she would.

Ostensibly checking on Thranduil's prisoners, the elfine paused by Kíli's cell when there was no reason to. She could not truly believe that the Runestone in his hands was a threat to her kingdom's safety and while the archer's first attempt at conversation nearly chased her off again, some fast talking brought her back. Tauriel's curiosity was the once-king's advantage, her eyes lighting up when he began to tell her about the Runestone's history.

Not that Kíli could tell Tauriel the truth about the token that he carried, but he did not lie to her entirely. The stone was a gift from his mother and it was meant as a reminder of the promise he had made. For Kaminzabdûna was the Mother of all dwarves as much as Mahal was their Father and the Vala had been quite concerned about the once-king's task.

“She worries. She thinks I'm reckless,” the dwarf continued, playing up the foolish dwarrowlad that he had been in the past. He was probably overdoing it but Tauriel didn't seem to notice, her wariness slowly dissipating beneath the once-king's feckless grin.

However, as Kíli drew the elfine deeper into conversation, giving her the fire moon at Dunland in exchange for the glories of the stars, he found himself smiling truly instead of putting on an act. He liked this elfine as more than a means to freedom and if his hobbit was truly lost to him – if his Bilbo was nothing more than a ghost of memory – perhaps the dwarf should try to turn his heart toward Tauriel instead.

Maybe there could never truly be love between them, but the once-king could do worse than mutual admiration and his life would hardly be more than a brief moment in her eyes. Didn't Kíli deserve some joy after everything that he'd suffered in his life?

Right. And then the two of us will run off together, healing the feud between Mirkwood and Erebor with nothing but the power of our hearts. You're just using her to escape Thranduil's dungeons so don't be a fucking idiot, the archer told himself, shoving away such useless fantasies.

Getting to know Tauriel was just part of Kíli's mission, one step toward the better future that the Valar had promised him. He didn't need the captain's love and he wasn't foolish enough to think that he would get it; the dwarf just needed a sympathetic ear. In truth, Kíli wasn't cruel enough to court the elfine, not when Manwë's children loved as eternally as Mahal's and his own heart wasn't his to give.

So the once-king did not speak of love or attraction, instead telling Tauriel about the journeys that he had taken with his kin. There had been trading trips from the Blue Mountains to villages around the Westlands and jobs as hired hands for merchants needing guards. Kíli had been rather young when these journeys started but Thorin had trusted in his sister-son's training and the once-king had never been willing to let his brother leave his side for long.

The archer had followed Fíli everywhere when they were younger, tagging along to dozens of meetings and lessons through the years. Kíli spent his time fletching arrows while his brother learned the fine art of kingship and he'd never thought that he would need to use the knowledge that he'd gleaned. Those hadn't been his lessons, the throne was never supposed to be his future, and it was Kíli's greatest wish to never wear a crown again.

All he wanted was to see his uncle become King Under the Mountain, his brother standing tall and proud at Thorin's side. All Kíli wanted was to know that his family would be happy, that his kin would smile as they did in his memories. The old memories, before the war that took his brother and his uncle and his hobbit and the decades that took his mother's life.

Truthfully, the dwarf's voice held more sorrow than he'd meant to show the elfine, but his longing for those bright days seemed to strike a chord inside of Tauriel. Indeed, it was only when Kíli finally told the captain about his mother that she dropped the last of her walls before him, revealing a loneliness that resonated with the once-king's time-battered heart.

“I envy you those memories,” the elfine admitted, resting one slim hand against the bars. “All of my kin were slain in battle when I was but an elfling and I cannot even remember my own mother's features anymore. I only know that she loved me - that she died to save me - and I will always be grateful that my lord Thranduil took me in. I cannot say that he raised me as his own since there has always been a gap between our stations, but my lord saw that I did not go wanting and his son is the closest friend I have. For Thranduil's favor has made my kindred walk carefully around me, no one quite sure exactly where I stand.”

“I think your skill speaks for you from all that I have seen,” the once-king told Tauriel, the elfine's story sounding far too familiar. “Whatever hesitance your kindred feel is their mistake alone and you should not carry that burden on your heart. I am sure that your lord Thranduil understands your worth.”

Kíli and his brother had been close for many reasons. Blood and friendship had bound the dwarves together – blood and friendship and a dash of loneliness. Because there had always been a certain amount of distance surrounding Thorin's heirs, more than the lack of near age-mates could explain, and while Kíli truly adored Fíli, sometimes he had longed for a close friend just his own. But the uncrowned king had still been royalty, his sister-sons had still been princes, and Durin's Folk would never have overstepped their bounds.

So Kíli and Fíli had grown up with no one but each other with whom to share their secrets and Tauriel's situation sounded similar. Indeed, the elfine likely had it worse since she was not a true member of Thranduil's family, no bonds of kinship to support her when the world grew cold.

Yet the once-king's words of sympathy did not have the effect that he'd intended. Kíli had meant them as a comfort, a way to show Tauriel that he understood her struggles just as he hoped she would understand his own. But instead the captain suddenly seemed to remember that she was speaking with a prisoner, her expression becoming as hard as stone again.

“I have tarried here too long,” the elfine said frostily, no remnant left of the laughter they had shared. “Keep your sympathies and your stories; I know my duty and I will give my king no cause to doubt me now.”

With this pronouncement, Tauriel spun on her heel and left the dungeon, Kíli staring after her in shock. He couldn't believe that he'd managed to ruin everything so quickly, a few ill-chosen words destroying all the progress he had made. Kíli should have waited for the captain to offer her assistance instead of trying to cajole it, the nearness of Durin's Day pushing the dwarf into impatience when he should have stalked his target slow. So the archer had tipped his hand too early and now Tauriel was gone, disappearing as quickly as any doe startled in the brush.

Thorin's company would receive no aid from that quarter unless the elfine had a sudden change of heart, and Kíli did not think that this was likely given what she owed to Thranduil. Maybe if the once-king had had a week he might still have swayed her, but the dwarves did not have a week to spare.

Sorry, Bilbo. I guess it's down to you again, Kíli thought, cursing his failures even as he slumped back against the wall. He might as well get some rest before the morning; he would need his wits about him if the company's burglar did not come through this time.


Chapter III: Preface - Part 3