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This Long and Winding Road - Chapter 3

Title: This Long and Winding Road
Chapter 3: Gem
Pairings: Mostly Platonic Kíli/Fíli, Kíli/Bilbo/Fíli, Dwalin/Ori, Dwalin/Nori, Bilbo/Thorin
Rating/Warnings: None for this part unless you count epic amounts of pining.
Word Count: 5887 (16551 so far)
Disclaimer: If I owned it, there would be more threesomes.
Summary: Fíli and Kíli have spent decades searching for the last piece of their hearts, but meeting Bilbo is just the beginning of the tale.  Because hobbits believe in love, not destiny and someone else catches their burglar's eye.

Chapter 1: Ze'
Chapter 2: Nu'


So begins the quest for Azsâlul’abad and in the days that follow, Fíli quickly comes to the conclusion that his doubts were justified. Because Kíli throws himself into the task of befriending Bilbo with a vengeance. The older prince hasn't seen him this intent on something since he started learning archery.

His brother spends far more time planning out ways to talk to Bilbo than he does on his chores and while Fíli would be happy to pick up the slack if Kíli's efforts were successful, their hobbit mostly just seems traumatized. The younger prince tends toward intensity in all of his emotions and Bilbo cannot use their bond to ground him the way that Fíli does. Even with the ashânumahâl, the older prince sometimes finds his brother a little hard to take.

After the fourth time Kíli manages to leave their hobbit pale and shaking, Fíli finally pulls him aside, grabbing his arm and asking, “What in Mahal's name have you been saying, Kí, to make Bilbo look like that?”

“I was just explaining all the different ways that our company could perish. That way he knows we're ready to protect him when our quest gets dangerous,” Kíli explains cheerfully. The archer clearly sees nothing wrong with that sentence and Fíli has to back a sigh. He loves his brother dearly but sometimes he is utterly baffled by his stupidity.

“Okay, Kí. Listen to me. From now on, you cannot to talk to Bilbo when I'm not around,” the prince tells his brother firmly, sending a wave of love through their bond to ease the sting. “I know how much you care about our hobbit because I care about him too. But Bilbo doesn't know us yet and you can be rather overwhelming even when you don't mean to be. So you have to let me help you; befriending our burglar will be much easier if we work together now.”

“All right, Fí. I guess so,” Kíli replies with a small frown. “If you’re sure that’s for the best. I know I'm not always very good at reading people and I keep expecting Bilbo to feel me when he can't.”

The archer often has to stop himself from reaching out to his amrâbulnas, yanking his hands back before he can touch the hobbit’s skin. Such contact always makes the princes’ own connection stronger and Kíli is desperate to feel anything from Bilbo. He wants the burglar to acknowledge their connection, to know when he’s joking and share in his delight. But their hobbit just keeps looking at Kíli like he’s a stranger and so maybe Fíli's right.

The younger prince doesn’t like to admit to failure, but he trusts his brother's judgment and he can't deny that their relationship with Bilbo blossoms once the new rules are in place. As a trio, Fíli, Kíli, and Bilbo fit together even better than the princes always hoped they would, snapping into place like links of finely forged chainmail.

When the archer gets too excited and Bilbo starts looking twitchy, Fíli steps in to change the subject before their burglar can leave. When the older prince gets trapped inside his head, either Kíli or the hobbit finds a way to make him smile and together the brothers slowly draw their amrâbulnas from his shell. After a while, Bilbo even learns to handle Kíli's enthusiasm without his older brother's interference and so Fíli no longer has to worry about leaving them alone.

Indeed, the prince finds himself worrying less about Kíli than he ever has before. Suddenly Fíli doesn't always have to be the voice of reason because Bilbo is there to rein in the archer’s wilder impulses before things get out of hand. Kíli isn't actually stupid but he's always had a way of accidentally lighting things on fire when Fíli's not around.

Whether in pairs or as a trio, the princes truly enjoy their hobbit's company and the three of them talk for hours as their party rides along. Fíli and Kíli tell the burglar about Ered Luin and their years of traveling while Bilbo offers stories of the Shire in return, every word painting a vivid picture of his home. Hobbits may not be adventurous but that doesn’t make them boring and some of Bilbo’s relatives could give Thorin a run for his coin in stubbornness.

The more time Fíli and Kíli spend with their amrâbulnas, the more they care about him – the call of the ashânumahâl joined by honest admiration in their hearts. Because Bilbo is sweet and funny and surprisingly sarcastic when he stops being proper. He tells the worst jokes with a sheepish smile and his dimples are almost as bright as Kíli’s are when he laughs.

More importantly, the hobbit treats Fíli and Kíli as people instead of princes, listening to their opinions without judgment or expectation of what normal dwarves believe. Bilbo may not agree with everything that the pair says but he’s always civil even when they're arguing.

Honestly, between the hobbit’s intelligence, politeness, humor, and minor streak of whimsy, Kíli and Fíli could hardly ask for any more. Their amrâbulnas seems pretty perfect in their eyes. Sure Bilbo is a little set in his ways, but he’s willing to learn, and a touch of stodginess is understandable considering how long he’s spent alone. Their burglar may be younger than Fíli and Kíli in years but he’s well into adulthood by the standards of his people and ever since his parents’ death, Bag End has been as much his bolt hole as his home.

Thorin's company has been traveling for several weeks before Fíli and Kíli learn more about the hobbits who shaped their amrâbulnas’ childhood. The group has stopped for the evening, making camp in a small grove on the edge of a river, and it's easy for the trio to slip away when Bilbo asks if they can talk alone. The princes lead the hobbit to a secluded nook near the water so that the sound of the river gives them some privacy.

“I wanted to tell you…” Bilbo starts before trailing off into silence. Then he shakes his head and tries again. “I wanted to tell you about my parents. About Bungo Baggins and Belladonna Took. You’ve been so patient with me and I want you to understand just where I’m coming from.”

The hobbit speaks about his parents quietly at first and even Kíli can tell that their deaths still hurt him. But there is fondness in the pain and Bilbo's sorrow seems to ease in the telling of his tale.

“Everyone says that I look just like my father, but I think I've always been my mother's son,” he says with a bittersweet smile. The hobbit hugs his knees as he continues and Fíli and Kíli would give anything to wrap their arms around him now. “She was curious about everything and I don't know why I let that part of myself wither when she died. I suppose I should thank Gandalf for not giving up on me, even though I'm still not entirely sure just what I'm doing here.”

“You’re here to keep us company, of course,” Fíli and Kíli tell him with twin smiles. “We’d be so bored without you. And your mother sounds amazing. She must have been amazing if she was even half as bold as you.”

Bilbo may not have seen much of the world, but he hasn’t allowed his lack of experience to make him close-minded and he’s making up for lost time with a vengeance now. The hobbit is endlessly curious about the differences between their cultures and the princes are happy to tell him everything they can.

This is less than Fíli and Kíli would like since their people have always been secretive and while the rules about forbidden knowledge should not apply amongst amrâbulnâs, the princes cannot use that excuse if anyone finds out. Instead they skirt the edges of defiance, spilling enough secrets that Thorin would still be furious but not breaking any laws outright.

Fíli and Kíli even tell Bilbo about the ashânumahâl, though that conversation does not go as the princes hoped. Bilbo has never heard of such bonds existing between lovers and indeed, he seems to find the whole concept rather odd.

Even if the dwarves were willing to risk their burglar’s life by telling him the truth, they can hardly show their karrash to Bilbo after that. The only thing worse than getting killed for their amrâbulnas would be getting killed for his rejection and it's all Fíli and Kíli can do to mask their disappointment until the conversation turns to other topics.

However, even though Bilbo doesn't feel their connection – might never feel their connection – the princes refuse to give up hope just yet. The hobbit is their friend, that much has been proven, and while friendship is not love, it will give them a foundation on which to build upon.

Assuming, of course, that Thorin doesn't ruin everything before the princes get their chance. The dwarf lord’s opinion of Bilbo has only declined since their company left the Shire and he seems determined to send the burglar running back to Hobbiton. Indeed, Thorin takes every available opportunity to insult the hobbit’s skills instead of helping him get better and Fíli nearly strikes his uncle in anger more than once.

Then, to make matters even worse, the dwarf lord proceeds to break his own rules about secrecy when Bilbo asks about Dwalin's karashumrâb one evening after they’ve made camp. Thorin gives the hobbit an in-depth lecture on ashânumahâl and of course, he has to mention that Fíli and Kíli are bound as well. He's so proud of the good omen that their marriage represents that he won't shut up about it, no matter how desperately his sister-sons try to cut him off. The princes can only watch and listen on in horror as Thorin explains their laws in gruesome detail, ruining their chances further with every word he speaks.

How is Bilbo supposed to fall in love with Kíli and Fíli if he knows that it's forbidden? Why would the hobbit wish for a romance that would probably kill them all?

Although the princes weren’t planning to court their amrâbulnas until later, Fíli had hoped to lay the groundwork before the law was gone. He had hoped to know that Bilbo would be open to the thought. But when Thorin finishes his lecture, the expression on the hobbit’s face is not encouraging.

Honestly, everything would have been so much easier if Bilbo had just stayed in the Shire until their quest was done. Easier and yet impossible for Fíli to imagine now. Indeed, the thought of losing their hobbit twists the brothers' hearts to breaking and they redouble their efforts to show Bilbo their adoration within the limits of the law.

However, even as Fíli and Kíli’s friendship with the hobbit continues to grow stronger, Thorin becomes increasingly critical of Bilbo’s actions and the princes' attempts to help their burglar prove his worth never seem to go as planned.

When Kíli teaches the hobbit to make snares, his uncle grumbles about the rope they're wasting. When Fíli shows Bilbo some basic knife-work, the burglar's first throw puts a hole in Thorin's coat. Every gain is met with sighs and griping and when the trio runs into a group of mountain trolls, the whole encounter goes wrong right from the start. Bilbo is supposed to steal back their ponies and thus return a hero but instead the entire company somehow ends up trussed and tied.

Although their burglar manages to salvage the situation, distracting the trolls until Gandalf can come to the rescue, Thorin refuses to acknowledge Bilbo’s cleverness. Instead, the princes’ uncle takes this entire encounter as further proof of the hobbit’s worthlessness and watching his amrâbulnas wilt beneath Thorin’s anger makes Fíli grind his teeth until it hurts.

And yet, despite all of this – despite their uncle’s insults and his unrelenting scorn – the way that Thorin looks at Bilbo is not what truly terrifies the dwarf lord’s sister-sons. If the hobbit decides to leave their company, Fíli and Kíli would survive that separation – the pain might come close to killing them, but they would manage if they had to – and their amrâbulnas is too loyal for them to think that likely now.

No, what makes Kíli turn to his brother in abject panic is not the way that Thorin looks at Bilbo, it is the way that Bilbo looks at Thorin in return. The archer first notices the hobbit's preoccupation just after their company arrives in Rivendell, how their burglar watches Thorin when the dwarf lord is distracted and the way he blushes when Thorin turns his way.

At first Kíli doesn't mention his suspicions to his brother; the younger prince cannot believe what he is seeing and he doesn't want to worry Fíli until he knows for sure. It doesn't seem fair that Mahal would bind the princes' hearts to Bilbo only to let him to fall for Thorin; why hadn't their creator simply left Fíli and Kíli to each other if he planned to treat their hearts this way?

The archer does not want to believe that Mahal could be so cruel and yet the more attention that he pays to Thorin and Bilbo’s interactions, the more obvious it seems. Even when the dwarf lord is insulting Elrond’s hospitality or trying to leave Bilbo out of his secret meetings, the hobbit can’t keep his eyes off Thorin. He’s not in love with the princes’ uncle, not yet, but he’s clearly headed in that direction and that simply cannot stand.

Fíli is in firm agreement on this point as soon as Kíli tells his brother what he’s noticed and discovers that the older prince has seen these signs as well. It may be selfish of them but the dwarves will not let their amrâbulnas go without a fight. Bilbo is supposed to be theirs and even if the hobbit never loves them, he deserves much better than Thorin's endless scorn.

So the princes make a plan and when the company leaves Rivendell, Fíli and Kíli begin a campaign of interference. Every time Bilbo starts to sigh after their uncle, the brothers do their best to distract him with other things instead.

There is always something for them to show the hobbit – some conversation or piece of scenery to draw his attention away from Thorin and back where it belongs. However, keeping Bilbo’s focus away from their uncle is much harder than it should be considering the dwarf lord's temperament. Thorin has never shown Bilbo any sort of respect or loyalty and while the princes love their amrâbulnas, his taste in dwarves is terrible.

Fíli and Kíli run themselves ragged trying to keep Thorin and Bilbo separated while still completing all their duties and by the time they reach the Misty Mountains, both princes are exhausted. Although they won't give up on their hobbit, Fíli knows that the status quo cannot continue; they’re going to burn themselves out if something doesn’t change.

So he and Kíli are grateful for the respite when Gandalf convinces Thorin to call an early halt one evening. The dwarves are still in the lower reaches of the Misty Mountains but the road is only growing steeper and it has been a long few days for everyone.

Thorin orders Fíli and Nori to collect firewood while the other dwarves set up their camp. It takes some time for the pair to find dry kindling and on their return, the prince finds himself glancing Bilbo's way. His eyes are often drawn to the burglar but tonight he does not have the strength to look away.

Not when Kíli is sitting next to their hobbit and helping him repair a small tear in his pack. The archer's face is lit up with interest, his smile wide as Bilbo explains something energetically. The burglar can be almost as bad as Kíli is once he gets going and while Fíli cannot hear what his amrâbulnâs are saying, the scene strikes him to his core.

That is where Fíli wants to be. The prince wants to come home and find both of his amrâbulnâs glowing with excitement over some story they've just read. He wants to curl up between them by the fire and kiss them thoroughly when desire strikes. Most of all, Fíli wants Kíli and Bilbo to always know such happiness, their smiles warming him from head to toe.

“Be careful, my prince. Your eyes are straying.”

Nori's murmured warning brings Fíli back to his senses with a jolt, the prince caught between defensiveness and fear. No one is supposed to discover what he and Kíli have been hiding for so long, not until they can shout it openly. But when the prince meets Nori's eyes, he does not see any judgment. All Fíli sees is a quiet understanding and he lets his denials die before they leave his lips.

“Why?” the prince asks instead, leaving the other dwarf to interpret this question how he wants. Why warn me? Why help me? Why don't you hate me for my crime?

“Because you're not the only one who loves outside the law,” Nori replies with a half shrug, answering Fíli's unspoken queries all at once.

This cryptic response only makes the prince more curious since there must be a story behind the other dwarrow's words. However, Nori is still walking toward the rest of their companions and Fíli won't risk his questions being overheard.

So the prince just follows the other dwarf back into camp. He puts his wood in a pile next to Bombur and then sits down by his brother, waving Kíli off when he starts to ask what's wrong. The archer knows that something happened – he would have felt his amrâbulnas' surprise – but Fíli can't explain the situation now. Even using Iglishmêk would be too dangerous with everyone else around.

“I'll tell you later,” Fíli promises and while Kíli isn't happy about the brush off, he lets Bilbo distract him soon enough. This leaves the older prince free to watch Nori as the dwarves eat supper and then spread out their bedrolls, watch and wonder what he'd meant. Fíli has never imagined that any of his companions could share his sorrow and now he can hardly think for curiosity. But eventually exhaustion pulls him under and the prince sleeps deeply until dawn.

When he finally wakes up, Fíli takes his brother aside and tells him about what happened, murmuring his explanation into Kíli's ear.

“I think Nori may be an ally,” the prince says once he's finished. “But I need to find out more.”

“All right,” Kíli agrees. “If you want to get him alone, I can ensure that no one follows. Unless you'd prefer to have me there?”

“I always want you with me, you know that. But it'll be too suspicious if all three of us suddenly disappear,” Fíli says, clapping his brother on the shoulder. “You had best run interference while I talk to Nori; we can't risk anyone else overhearing this conversation and we still need to keep Thorin and Bilbo as far apart as possible. Will you watch over our hobbit while I'm gone?”

“Of course, Fí. You know I always will.”

The princes have to stop talking then since their companions have begun to stir around them, the dwarves breaking camp and starting their journey once again.

As they climb further into the Misty Mountains, the path becomes rougher and narrower, forcing Thorin's company to walk in a single file line. Under these conditions, Fíli can't hope to talk to Nori so he inserts himself between Thorin and Bilbo instead, Kíli tugging their hobbit back so that the older prince can jump ahead.

“Walk by me,” the archer says when Bilbo looks askance at him, “I want to hear more about your garden; we don't grow much but potatoes in the plots back home.”

Kíli keeps the burglar engaged in conversation so that he cannot even think of Thorin and tries to keep Bilbo's spirits up when he starts to flag. His amrâbulnas is not made for trekking but between the two of them, Fíli and Kíli help the hobbit match their pace. They make him forget his exhaustion with stories and with laughter and when a section of the path is blocked by a rocky landslide, they are there to aid his climb.

However, both dwarves are still careful not to touch Bilbo skin to skin. Fíli and Kíli have enough trouble ignoring their desire with only a vague sense of the hobbit's presence; feeling Bilbo's true heart would ruin them.

With our luck he'd probably be lusting after uncle; then I'd have to puke or throw myself right off this cliff, Fíli thinks bitterly. Or Kíli would spill the truth and we'd just get executed. Uncle would probably kill us all himself.

He and his brother manage to distract Bilbo while they're with him but as soon as they move to other tasks, the hobbit goes right back to staring after Thorin dreamily. His persistence would almost be admirable if it weren't so damn irritating and Fíli really doesn't understand how Bilbo can want someone who treats him terribly. Sure his uncle is attractive if their burglar likes the brooding type, but no amount of majestically flowing hair should make up for his ill temper.

And yet, it seems it does.

Which is simply one more reason that I need to talk to Nori; keeping uncle away from our amrâbulnas would be so much easier with allies on our side. We have to keep Bilbo from falling any further until Kíli and I can make our true intentions clear.

Unfortunately, Fíli still hasn't managed to get Nori alone when Thorin's company finally stops for the evening many hours later. By then the prince is cold, damp, and tired, and while he means to only sit down for a moment before trying to talk with Nori, he doesn't wake up until Thorin shouts them onward at the dawn.

Half a dozen more attempts to speak with Nori run afoul of bad luck or poor timing and the prince is starting to feel quite ragged when their company finally nears the highest pass. Between distracting Bilbo, stalking Nori, and keeping Kíli motivated, Fíli barely has a chance to breathe.

The rest of his companions aren't in much better temper and the prince is worried that his brother may actually try to hurt Thorin if he doesn't curb his vicious tongue. Not that Fíli can blame Kíli for his anger when their uncle's insults make the older prince want to rip the dwarf lord limb from limb. At this rate, Bilbo really is going to leave and Fíli doesn't want his amrâbulnas where he can't protect him; the hobbit wouldn't be safe traveling all the way back home alone.

So Fíli is almost ready to forget about Nori in order to focus on his uncle when Mahal decides to smile down on him at last. First the weather finally breaks, everyone’s mood improving greatly as their clothes begin to dry. Then the company stumbles on some actual shelter just as night begins to fall, a few stunted trees growing against the cliff face offering protection from the wind.

Seeing these trees gives the dwarves hope that they might be able to light a fire for the first time in days and when Nori offers to gather wood, Fíli catches Kíli's eye. His brother nods, sending him a flicker of encouragement in answer to his unspoken question, and so the prince volunteers to help Nori with his task. He barely waits for his uncle to agree before running after the other dwarf, worried that he might lose him in dark.

However, Fíli needn't have hurried because Nori is waiting for him several meters up the path.

“I thought you might want to talk to me,” the older dwarf says before turning and walking farther from the camp. The prince follows without a word, both of them picking up twigs and branches along the way. They don’t want the others to ask questions and Thorin would be furious if they went back empty-handed after this.

Nori only stops once the rest of the company is definitely out of earshot, setting his load aside and turning to Fíli expectantly. “If you want my story then you had best be telling yours."

The prince hesitates for a moment, deep-rooted secrecy warring with his need to know the other dwarrow's tale. But Nori has already seen enough to ruin Fíli if he wished and so the dwarf has nothing to lose by honesty.

“Bilbo is our amrâbulnas, mine and Kíli's,” the prince says quietly. It feels both strange and wonderful to finally speak the words aloud. “We are bonded to him just as we’re bonded to each other, though the law says otherwise.”

“You are a trinity then; I had wondered,” Nori tells him and maybe Fíli and Kíli haven’t been as subtle as they thought. “I recognized the expression on your face because I have seen it on my own amrâbulnas many times.”

The other dwarf starts to remove one of the strips of cloth that are wrapped around his forearm and Fíli cannot hold back a gasp when his skin is revealed. For while both of Nori’s wrists are bare, Dwalin Fundinson is written down his arm in neat black runes.

“You have a karashumrâb? But it's not upon your wrist,” the prince murmurs in surprise. “I thought only second names went outside the law. And Dwalin, he's…"

“Married to my brother, yes,” Nori finishes for Fíli. “From what I have discovered, dwarves with only one ashânumahâl almost always bear their karash upon the wrist. But this is not set in stone and our so-called false karrash seem to be far more varied in location, although their position always matches between amrâbulnâs. That much has been true in every case I’ve found.”

The other dwarf looks down at his karash with a crooked smile before wrapping his arm in cloth again. “I am not Ori's amrâbulnas, not as you are to Kíli. However, my brother and I both carry Dwalin's name and he is marked with ours in turn. It is a little odd that Ori received the wrist mark even though I’m older, but if only one of us could be recognized as Dwalin's amrâbulnas, I am grateful it is him. I am better equipped than Ori to face this world alone."

“I am sorry; at least Kíli and I still have each other. We knew we weren't the only dwarves with other karrash but we didn't know you shared our pain,” Fíli says, his heart aching for Nori's sacrifice. The prince doesn't know if he would've been strong enough to accept defeat as gracefully; considering how hard he and his brother are trying to keep Bilbo from their uncle, the answer is probably no. But the other dwarf just shrugs one shoulder in reply.

“It's not your fault, lad. There are far more ways to love than are recognized by the laws of the khazâd. I knew a couple back in Azsâlul’abad who bore five karrash between them and only they knew exactly where their hearts were tied.”

“What happened to them?”

Fíli has to ask. He has to know if there is any hope for him and Kíli if the law remains unchanged. But the prince can see the answer on Nori's face even before he speaks.

“What do you think, Fíli? Someone caught them,” the other dwarf says wearily. “The couple was seen with another of their amrâbulnâs and all three dwarves were thrown into the dungeons to wait for sentencing. They were still there when Smaug attacked our kingdom so I assume they burned or died of starvation after all our kin had fled. So be careful, lad; I doubt most of our companions would be as understanding as I am if they learned the truth. I’m surprised that your hobbit has not let it slip already; he may be our burglar but he seems the honest type.”

“Bilbo doesn't know,” Fíli admits and the words are like glass inside his throat. “Our bond is fainter than it should be and when we asked him, he said that hobbits do not have amrâbulnâs. Hobbits marry where they wish and Bilbo has set his sights on uncle; he keeps running after Thorin while we cannot even court him. Not until we change the law.”

“What do you mean, change the law?” Nori asks sharply. “There is no way to change it. We drew the short stick when Mahal handed out amrâbulnâs and we must live with that.”

“Not if we succeed. Think about it, Nori. Once Thorin is crowned as King Under the Mountain, he will be able to rewrite our laws as he sees fit. That is the power granted by the Arkenstone. And what better boon to give those brave souls who aided him than a chance at happiness? That’s why Kíli and I volunteered to help Thorin reclaim the Lonely Mountain. We meant to earn the right to court our amrâbulnas when we found him; we never expected that we might meet Bilbo first. And now we must stop our hobbit from falling any more in love with Thorin before we miss our chance entirely.”

Although Fíli's speech begins impassioned, his words have turned pleading by the time he finishes. When said out loud, the princes' task seems insurmountable and he doesn't know how they will manage if Nori does not help. Indeed, the last few weeks have proven that Kíli and Fíli definitely need assistance if they are to have any hope of winning Bilbo over without courting him openly.

“You are dreamers, the both of you,” Nori replies, shaking his head in disbelief. “But maybe dreamers are what our people need. So my brothers and I are at your service. We will do our best to make this mad hope of yours successful, no matter how slim the chance might be.”

“Truly? You will help us?” Fíli asks, surprised by the other dwarf's quick change of heart.

“Of course,” Nori tells him with a wry smile. “Your lives are not the only ones that will change for the better if Thorin grants your plea and I would do much worse than help you court your hobbit in order to make Dwalin mine at last. Besides, Thorin doesn't deserve Bilbo with the way that he's been acting; I don't understand what your amrâbulnas sees in him at all.”

The prince winces at this last comment but despite the painful truth of Nori's words, he's glad to have the help. So he just thanks the other dwarf sincerely before gathering some more wood and heading back to camp.

When Fíli repeats the conversation for his brother later, Kíli can scarcely believe it even though he knows that the older prince would never lie. The rest of their companions have always seemed so normal, so put together, and the archer never imagined that such secrets lay beneath.

However, once Kíli starts watching Nori and his brother, the signs seem obvious. He recognizes his own longing in the glances that Nori shares with Dwalin and the guilt in Ori's eyes suddenly makes sense.

Truthfully, the archer finds it comforting to know that he and Fíli aren't the only members of Thorin’s company whose karrash do not fit within the law. The princes are not freaks; they're just what Mahal made them and with Nori's help, they will prove their mother wrong.

Indeed, the other dwarf is true to his word and the princes’ quest to keep Bilbo single starts going much smoother after that. When Fíli and Kíli are busy with their chores, one of the Ri brothers steps in to distract their hobbit so that Bilbo is never allowed to speak with Thorin for more than a few moments at a time.

If the burglar starts talking about the dwarf lord's flowing hair, Ori is there to say that Kíli's is much nicer and Dori is always ready with a list of Thorin's flaws. He snores, he's rude, he has a temper; the list goes on and on.

Slowly Bilbo seems to realize that Thorin is hardly perfect and he no longer looks so desolate when the princes’ uncle starts to yell. Hurt, yes, but Fíli and Kíli are more than happy to soothe the hobbit's feelings and Nori does a wicked impression of the dwarf lord when he’s not around. Together the princes and their allies show Bilbo just how much he's valued and with their support, the burglar starts to win over the rest of Thorin's company as well.

Everyone but Thorin since the dwarf lord seems determined to treat Bilbo as a burden no matter what he does. Even when their group runs into some stone giants and the hobbit nearly dies, Thorin somehow manages to blame Bilbo for falling off the path. As though it could be the burglar’s fault that the giants decided to throw rocks everywhere.

This is the last straw for Kíli. Although the archer tries to respect Thorin, his uncle isn't acting very kingly now. The archer almost lost his amrâbulnas tonight before he even got to kiss him and he cuts the dwarf lord’s rant off with a growl.

“Enough, uncle! Any of us could have slipped as easily and I'm tired of you blaming Bilbo for our company’s bad luck.”

Thorin's expression is priceless and Fíli's amusement resonates through their bond as their uncle starts blustering. However, the blinding grin that Bilbo sends to Kíli is what makes the archer feel like he can do anything.

They've totally got this. Thorin has lost the contest and nothing will stand in the princes' way when their quest is done. Kíli's uncle would need to have a total change of heart to even be considered and that does not seem likely now.

So the archer finds himself smiling despite the freezing rain that's dripping down his ears. Life is good and will only be getting better; indeed, the company soon finds a cave in which to weather out the storm. Gandalf wanders off to smoke while the dwarves ring out their dripping clothes. Fíli and Kíli lay their bedrolls on either side of Bilbo – just to keep him warm, of course – and as the younger prince drifts off to sleep by his amrâbulnâs, he doesn't think he's ever been more content in all his life.

Which, of course, is when Thorin's company is suddenly swarmed by goblins and in the ensuing chaos, Bilbo disappears. The hobbit is there one instant and gone the next, only the faint hum of the princes’ ashânumahâl to prove that he still breathes.


Chapter 4: Ramekh