The March of Time

11: Maethor

Happy New Year's, everybody! 2014 is hereee. And you know what that means? Only 12 more months until There and Back Again comes out! I'm so emotionally unprepared for it. DoS killed me, and this next one...I can't. But I'm still excited!

So, Chapter 11 is here, and yay for chapters with character development (you can decide for yourself if that was sarcastic or not)

Anyway, thank you for all of your reviews last time, and I hope y'all enjoy!:)

Chapter Eleven: Maethor

When Bilbo awoke the next morning, it took him a few moments to remember where he was, and how he came to be in Rivendell. He sat up, taking in the sunlit valley and inhaling a deep breath of fresh, sweet air. He had overheard Alison and Gandalf's conversation in the cavern pathway on the way here, and he agreed whole-heartedly of the notion that this place was magical.

The trolls and the Orcs seemed thousands of lifetimes ago, far away from the safety and peaceful comfort of the Hidden Valley, and Bilbo imagined it as just a dream, a vivid nightmare that had manifested itself in his head, but he knew that wasn't the case. The sword by his side was far too real to be just a dream.

Bilbo still didn't know what to make of the sword. Though he knew Gandalf meant well when the Wizard had given it to him, he also knew that he would have no use of the blade, seeing as he had had no training whatsoever and was far too small to do any real damage in a fight. Even the thought of fighting made him feel nauseous, and he wondered if he could give it to Alison instead; from what he had overheard Ori telling their table at dinner last night about what had happened before entering the cavern yesterday, apparently Alison had thrown her knife at an Orc that was about to attack Fili, distracting the Orc and allowing for Fili to get in another blow before they made for the rocks, losing her weapon in the process.

The others had whistled appreciatively, and Bilbo along with them. Though he knew that Alison had "warrior blood", he had always been a bit skeptical; it just seemed too implausible that there was another world, the mortal world, beyond this one, and even more insane that people from these two worlds could cross back and forth and interact, even if it was only allowed through the will of the Valar. But after getting to know her these past few days, and now hearing about her supposed new skills, Bilbo was starting to believe, just a little bit, that she could be something more than a normal human girl.

Bilbo's stomach growled as he caught the scent of frying eggs and sausage, and he looked over from his bedroll to the center of the sheltered veranda where the Company sat, chatting merrily and cooking breakfast with Bombur's frying pan and some wood they had obviously stripped from a tree surrounding the veranda as Bilbo looked around.

With a slight pang, Bilbo remembered the dwarves' complete disregard for all things Elvish with a flashback to last night, and he shuddered a little bit as he recalled the flying food and Bofur's little jig and song. Apparently the dwarves' discourtesy had carried on from last night to this morning as the Hobbit gave one last look at the naked tree and went over to where the Company sat.

"Morning, Master Baggins," Balin said cheerfully, and Bilbo nodded sleepily to him as the old Dwarf puffed a bit on his pipe, watching the Company's proceedings with a sharp eye.

"Where did you get all this?" Bilbo asked, as Bombur began to load up plates and pass them around.

"Nori did a little reconnaissance for us last night," Bofur said, winking knowingly at Bilbo.

"It wasn't that hard, really," Nori said as he shoveled a bite of scrambled eggs into his mouth with his fingers. "These Elves have about as much security as a rabbit-hole."

Bilbo nodded as Bombur handed him a plate and he dug in. Though Bilbo enjoyed food as much as the next Hobbit, he valued manners very highly, and thought it was most disrespectful that they had been sneaking around stealing food from their hosts. But remembering that fateful night at Bag-End, Bilbo just decided to drop it, and he finished his breakfast in silence as the rest of the Company talked and laughed around him.

Once he had cleaned his plate, Bilbo decided he'd go do a bit of exploring. Rivendell intrigued him so, and he'd only seen glimpses of it so far. So he got to his feet and walked out of the veranda, almost running into Thorin, who was walking in the other direction.

The dwarf king looked tired, with dark shadows under his stormy eyes, and Bilbo wondered if he had lain awake all night, thinking about their journey to the Lonely Mountain and no doubt worrying about the deadline that was now hanging over their heads.

"Master Baggins," Thorin said, and Bilbo nodded his head, saying, "Thorin."

The dwarf king nodded back as he swept towards the veranda, leaving Bilbo alone in the corridor he had just entered. He knew Thorin didn't want him on the quest, and that maybe he didn't even really like him all that much, but Bilbo knew there was nothing he could do about it, either. He just hoped that by the end of this journey Thorin would come around to him, if only just a little bit.

Shrugging off the dwarf king's coldness, Bilbo began to wander the halls of the Last Homely House, pausing every once in a while to admire a tapestry or statue, winding his way in and out of the buildings and taking everything in. Every once in a while he'd come across an Elf, and they would smile at him fleetingly but kindly before drifting away again, going to do whatever it was that Elves do.

Around late morning, Bilbo came to a hallway in one of the central houses, where the corridor curved around a circular courtyard one story below. Bilbo made his way leisurely down the hallway, coming to a stop in front of a statue to his left.

The statue, like everything else in Rivendell, was gorgeous, but it was what the statue of the Elf-maiden was holding in her hands that intrigued Bilbo.

On a pedestal shrouded in silvery-blue cloth lay a hilt of a sword, gleaming silver and etched with runes that spoke of great power upon the blade. The blade itself was broken, lying in five separate pieces apart from the hilt, yet still in meticulously good condition. With a shock, Bilbo recalled stories he had heard of since he was a boy, and he stared in wonder as he realized he was standing in front of the famous blade of the King of Gondor, Narsil.

"The blade that was broken," he whispered in awe, and as if some invisible force had turned him, Bilbo looked to the wall across from the shards and saw a painting, and he realized with another shock that this was the painting, the painting from the War of the Last Alliance.

There, in the left corner, was the human figure of Isildur, bathed in white light as he wielded his father's broken blade against the might of Sauron. The whole rest of the portrait was shrouded in darkness, and the chest, shoulders and wicked helm of Sauron were discernible through the mass of painted shadows, and even though it was merely a painting, Bilbo still shivered at the sight of Sauron. The Dark Lord was wielding a massive mace in one hand, looming over Isildur for the last strike; and there, on Sauron's hand, a thin band of gold on one of his armor-clad fingers. Bilbo stared at it, mesmerized: the One Ring. The Ring that had caused so much bloodshed, so much destruction. It was curious, how small and simple the Ring was made out to be, so insignificant-looking, but with the power to topple kingdoms and corrupt the hearts of Men. How very curious it was…

Bilbo tore his eyes away from the portrait as footsteps echoed further down the hallway, and a few seconds later Alison appeared, looking quite lost until her eyes landed on Bilbo, and then her face broke into a grin.

"Oh, thank God," she said, coming up beside him. "I've been wandering around this place for ages. It's like a maze here."

"Shouldn't you be resting?" Bilbo asked, and she shot him a sharp look. "I mean, with your injury and all…"

"Who told you?" she demanded, sounding peeved, and Bilbo stared at her in confusion.

"Uh, Bofur told me," the Hobbit said, and she raised her eyebrows. "And he heard it from Glóin, who heard it from… I think Balin, who heard it from Fili. Why?"

She sighed, shaking her head. "So much for keeping it on the down-low," she muttered, then looked back to Bilbo. "No reason. I just…didn't want everyone to know about it yet."

Bilbo watched her carefully, taking in her crossed arms and slight frown. "Why would you not want anyone to know about it?" he asked, and she shrugged, not meeting his eyes.

"I…" she let out a resigned breath, locking eyes with him again. "Can I be honest with you?"

"Of course," he said, a tad startled at how serious she suddenly looked.

"I don't like looking weak," she said, not breaking eye contact with him, the pale green of her eyes half-somber, half-stubborn. "I never have. And the only thing I've been doing on this quest so far is looking weak. I've almost gotten eaten by a Warg, I almost drowned, and now this," she gestured to her torso, where no doubt her ribs were wrapped up from their encounter with the trolls. "I just feel like everyone looks down at me, or they pity me because I'm a girl who can't fight or handle herself. I just…feel useless."

Bilbo watched her for a moment, her teeth worrying at her lower lip as she looked around the hallway. He stayed silent for a few seconds, not really sure what to say to her unexpected statement. Finally, he cleared his throat, and she looked to him again.

"I know what you mean," he said. "I feel the same way about how everyone views me. I have no experience whatsoever, but you…I believe it is true what they say about you, Alison. I think you are a warrior, you just need the right moments to define yourself. When the Warg attacked you, you managed to escape, and you knocked out its teeth with a rock and stabbed it; and when the pony fell into the river, you risked your own life to save it without hesitation. And Ori told us last night that you threw your knife at an Orc that could've hurt Fili, and you saved his life."

She rolled her eyes half-heartedly, a small smile twitching her lips. "Remind me to never trust a Dwarf to keep a secret," she said, and Bilbo was pleased to hear how much lighter her voice sounded.

"But see, Alison?" he continued. "Even in the short amount of time you've been here, you've already done some amazing things, and the others think so, too. They don't care if you're a woman, and I can tell you that they certainly do not think you're weak. Just…give it time. Your warrior instincts or whatever it is, I mean. They're there; you just have to learn to use them."

Bilbo wondered if he had only made things worse as she stared off into space, her mouth puckered, but finally she just looked to him and said, "You're an interesting Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. I'm curious to see what this journey does for you."

"I don't know what you mean," Bilbo said. "I honestly have no idea what I'm doing here. I can't steal, I can't fight; I'm not a warrior like you or the others. I don't know what Gandalf was thinking bringing me along."

"You're right," she said. "You're not a thief or a warrior, Bilbo; you're something much more. While everyone else has their weapons and their strength, you have your mind and your wits. You got us out of the troll mess using your brain alone, no swords or axes involved. Gandalf chose you because you do have something to offer on this quest, and it's more than your physical capabilities. You're meant to be here; don't doubt yourself so much."

She said it with such conviction, as if she could see the future and knew what Bilbo could do. Absurd thoughts aside, he looked up to her in gratitude anyway, feeling a small knot of tension in his chest dissolve at her words.

"Thank you, Alison," he said. "Truthfully, I—"

"Don't mention it," she said, smiling. "But seriously, don't mention this conversation unless you want everyone to find out about it. I swear, those Dwarves are worse than gossiping old ladies."

Bilbo laughed at that, his heart feeling lighter as the seriousness of their conversation dissipated, and suddenly Alison caught sight of the shards of Narsil.

"What's that?" she said, her eyes widening as she stepped closer to the pedestal.

"The shards of Narsil," he said, coming up beside her. "This sword belonged to the King of Gondor, Elendil. He was slain in the War of the Last Alliance, the war against the Dark Lord Sauron in the Second Age. Sauron had created these rings, you see, Rings of Power, and he gave some to each of the races of Middle-earth: the Dwarves, the Elves, and the Men. But he had a ring as well, called the One Ring, and he used it to try and control the other races to his will. It's a long story, but eventually the conflict culminated in a war in Mordor, the free peoples of Middle-earth against Sauron and his forces. Sauron killed Elendil, but his son, Isildur, took up the remaining hilt of his father's broken sword and used it to sever the Ring off of Sauron's finger. Since Sauron's life-force was attached to the Ring, he fell with it, and the war was won."

"That sounds…complicated," she said, turning away from the sword and looking instead to the painting. Her eyes lingered on the Ring for a moment before turning back to Bilbo. "Was this the war Gandalf was talking about back at your house all those nights ago? The one where he said my ancestor Johnathan Ashburne was summoned to help?"

"I believe so," the Hobbit said, stepping up next to her.

"Huh," she said, scrutinizing the painting one more time. "I wonder what happened to him? Gandalf said there was no record of him appearing back in the mortal world…"

Bilbo shrugged, and Alison turned to look at him. "So, were you as lost as I was when I first showed up, or were you heading somewhere?"

"I didn't really have a destination in mind," he said. "I was just exploring. It's so…peaceful here."

She smiled gently. "I agree. There's just something about this place…there's not even words, really, to describe the feeling here."

"It reminds me of home, in a way," Bilbo said. "All the open space, the tranquility. Yet it's also extremely different."

"I know what you mean," she said. "Would you mind if I explored with you?"

"Of course not," he said, and he led the way out of the hallway into another courtyard, glancing back one last time at the painting before it was hidden from sight.

They wandered around for the rest of the morning, marveling at the House of Elrond while entertaining each other with stories from their lives. Bilbo listened in disbelief as Alison described a place she had always dreamed of going to in her world, called 'Manhattan', where apparently they had buildings as tall as the sky that twinkled with never-ceasing lights every night and where the inhabitants never slept. In turn, he told her of the first time he had met Gandalf when he was just a young Hobbit boy at Old Took's Midsummer's Eve party, and he had decided to attack the Wizard with a fake wooden sword until his mother had told him off for it. She found this story highly amusing, so they traded tales back and forth until high afternoon, when eventually she had to stop and sit down.

"Are you all right?" he asked concernedly as he sat down on the edge of a fountain beside her. She was holding on lightly to her upper abdomen, her tanned hand a deep contrast to the light green material of her dress that matched her eyes so well.

"I'm fine," she said. "I'm supposed to feel discomfort as my ribs heal. If I didn't then that'd be a problem." She rolled her eyes at Bilbo's continued worried look. "Honestly, Bilbo, I'm fine. It's just a bruise."

Bilbo nodded, not exactly convinced, and they sat in silence for a while, listening to the wind in the trees, the distant roar of the waterfalls, and the much closer sound of the musical tinkling of the fountain behind them.

After a few minutes of comfortable relaxing, there was the hushed noise of a ghost of a footstep, and suddenly Lord Elrond appeared in one of the courtyard archways, wearing robes of a rich red trimmed in silver, with the same woven circlet upon his brow as he swept into the courtyard.

"Lady Ashburne," the Elven-lord said, inclining his head regally to her, and she bowed her own head in return. "Master Baggins," he continued, with a courteous nod to Bilbo, who stood up and bent slightly at the waist.

"If I may intrude, my Lady, but I wish to speak with Master Baggins for a moment," the Elf said, and Bilbo felt a slight rush of anxiety run through him. Alison looked taken aback for a second, but she nodded. "I don't mind."

Elrond looked questioningly to Bilbo, who swallowed somewhat nervously. "I don't mind, either."

"Good," Elrond said, and he gestured for Bilbo to follow him as he drifted back out of the courtyard.

Bilbo shot Alison a helpless look, but she only shrugged and grimaced back, as if to say, I don't know. Just go with it. So Bilbo sucked in a deep breath and trailed after the Elven-lord, leaving Alison alone in the courtyard.

Bilbo ventured down a hallway until he came out on a balcony terrace with a stunning view of many waterfalls falling into empty space, before meeting the ground and flowing into streams surrounding the Last Homely House. Elrond leaned against the balcony railing, the afternoon sunlight glinting off of his dark hair and illuminating his fair skin.

He looked up as Bilbo came over and leaned on the rail beside him, taking in the view. "Not with your other companions, I see?" the Elven-lord said, and Bilbo looked to him, a little caught off-guard at the question.

"Ah, I shan't be missed," he said, shrugging a little; when he noticed the Elven-lord gazing questioningly at him though, he decided to elaborate. "The truth is most of them don't think I should be on this journey."

"Indeed?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "I've heard that Hobbits are very resilient."

Bilbo laughed uneasily, but when he looked back over at Elrond, he found the Elven-lord staring at him intently, completely serious. "Really?" he said, meeting the Elf's solemn gaze.

"Mmm," Elrond said, and Bilbo didn't know whether that was an agreement or no. "I've also heard that they're fond of the comforts of home."

Bilbo thought about that for a moment, feeling slightly confused about where this conversation was leading to. "And I've heard that it is unwise to seek the counsel of Elves, for they will answer both yes and no," he said eventually, looking back out to the waterfalls.

When Elrond didn't answer, though, Bilbo looked back to the Elf, wondering if he had crossed some line he hadn't been aware of. Elrond looked stern for a moment, but then his mouth twitched in a smile at Bilbo's words and he placed a slender, light-fingered hand on the Hobbit's shoulder.

"You are very welcome to stay here, if that is your wish," the Elven-lord said, and Bilbo looked to him, surprised at where the conversation had turned to. Elrond smiled once more, then he walked away, leaving Bilbo alone at the balcony.

The Elf's words left him spinning; stay? In Rivendell? Bilbo didn't know what to think. He had been chosen for this quest, and he would be abandoning the Company if he stayed behind. But did it matter? He had said so himself; most of them didn't think he should even be on the journey with them in the first place. So was it really a loss if he chose not to go any further? Bilbo stared at the waterfalls for the rest of the day, his thoughts tumbling as fast as the roaring waters flying above.

Alison felt a slight twinge of annoyance as Bilbo left the courtyard to follow Elrond and speak with the Elven-lord about…whatever it was they needed to talk about. She had quite enjoyed Bilbo's company that morning, swapping stories back and forth and just being content with one another's companionship. Now she was alone again, and she sighed, thinking about how stupid she'd look wandering aimlessly around the halls of the Last Homely House once more.

She looked behind her to the fountain, watching the spouts of water trickle into the pool below as the Elf-maiden depicted as the centerpiece held a pot as if she were pouring the water back into the fountain. She dipped her fingers into the water, hoping this wasn't some sort of sacred fountain or anything, and swirled her fingertips around, enjoying the cool and refreshing water on her skin. However, she almost toppled in as a voice suddenly spoke to her.

It was everywhere and nowhere at once; Alison could feel it in her mind, as if some unseen specter had slipped into her brain and was curling itself around her, whispering into her ear. The voice was ancient and heavenly, loud and soft, strong and serene at the same time, and she vaguely compared it to a voice of that of a goddess, for it was distinctly feminine. We have waited many years for you to come to us, Alison Ashburne, it said. Now it is my turn to come to you.

Alison leaped to her feet, staring around wildly at the courtyard, but there was nobody there besides her and the fountain. "Who's there?" she demanded, and on some weird impulse she looked to the statue in the fountain as if expecting it to be the one talking.

"It gives me great heart to see you here, Maethor," came the voice from behind her, and Alison whirled around, her breath hitching in her throat as she saw a figure behind her, suddenly there as if she had been plucked from the air. And it was definitely a she as Alison took her in, her eyes widening at the radiance surrounding the other woman.

She was clearly an Elf; it was obvious from her tall and slender demeanor and pointy ears. But while the Elves of Rivendell radiated gentle power and were simply beautiful, this she-Elf was power all unto herself; she literally glowed with it, and if Alison had thought the Elves of Rivendell were angelic-looking, it was nothing compared to the haunting and breathtaking beauty of this she-Elf. This was the type of beauty that left women weeping in envy and made men launch wars.

She seemed to be made of starlight, with skin as fair as snow and long golden hair that seemed to be spun from the finest threads of silk, tumbling down past her waist and resting gently on the simple yet stunning white dress she wore. A silver circlet rested upon her fair brow, and her eyes were the deepest, most ancient blue Alison had ever seen, filled with a wisdom and power that could crumble worlds and bend even the gods to her will.

Alison was positive she had never seen this woman before in her life, but looking at her, she felt as if a memory long since buried had been uncovered, and she breathed out her name as if she had known it all her life: "Galadriel."

The she-Elf smiled gently at her. "Fate has come to pass, Alison Ashburne," she said in her powerful voice, and Alison resisted the urge to curl into the fetal position at the she-Elf's feet; she was so small, so small and meek compared to the might of the Lady Galadriel. "Your choosing by the Valar was foretold by the stars a thousand years ago, and your presence brings great hope, yet great loss."

"W—what do you mean?" she asked, her voice cracking from nervousness; why had the she-Elf sought her out? "I thought the Valar called on me because I was their only choice, I was the most eligible? I don't know how they could have chosen me from so long ago—"

"Your path was already forged when Eleon the First crossed the veil into your world," she said, beginning to circle around the courtyard in silent, smooth movements without taking her eyes off of Alison. "No one could have foreseen the consequences Eleon set in motion from that one simple mistake. Your world was never supposed to find out about ours; there is a reason we had kept you separate from us. But the Ashburne line has broken those boundaries, and as the Valar watch for conflict or strife in Middle-earth, they have allowed you to continue crossing the veil to help in times of need. But it is dangerous."

"Why?" Alison breathed, her heart beginning to pound.

"The Ashburnes have rewritten the course of history in this world," she said gravely. "And although the Valar can see far, far ahead into the mists of the future, it is constantly changing now, never certain, never stable, for your ancestors have upset the balance between this world and the other. It is impossible to see what lies ahead now."

Alison shook her head, her brain beginning to hurt from trying to process what Galadriel was saying. "Wait. But you said I give you great heart or whatever. How can you say that and then jump to talking about how I'm basically not supposed to be here because I'm upsetting the balance and the future and everything?"

"You do give me great heart, Maethor," Galadriel said gently. "Your path blazes as bright as a star. I have foreseen what you must do, though your ultimate fate is clouded from my sight. You will do a great many things on this quest. However, it is not the quest and your role in it that concerns me. It is your part in the greater tapestry of the world that bothers me."

"What? What tapestry? What role?" she demanded, her eyes widening.

"Blood calls to blood," Galadriel said. "A Shadow watches you, Maethor, a Shadow that will try to consume you. You must not succumb to it as your ancestors did. You will have to be the light that sees in darkness, or I fear you will fall, and these two worlds with you. Something stirs, hidden from our sight, but your presence will awaken it, though I do not know what the outcome will be."

Alison felt as if she were slowly being strangled, a cold, rotten hand clamped down on her windpipe, torturing her as she listened to the she-Elf's dark words. "Why are you telling me this?" she whispered. "Why would you tell me that I will ultimately fail?"

"But you will not," Galadriel said firmly. "As Mithrandir so rightly said, you are the catalyst that will change everything. There is no telling exactly what the future may bring now. You have already touched so many fates in the short time you have been here. If you can influence them, you can shape your own. Everything has changed already; the future is now a game of chance."

"But why tell me this?" Alison said, feeling tears well up in her eyes. "'Blood calls to blood', 'the Shadow?' What does any of it mean?"

Galadriel shook her head. "I cannot say. But just remember that you do have a choice, Maethor. You create your own destiny in the end. Fate is there merely as an outline."

"But none of this makes sense," she protested. "You can't just give me a few cryptic warnings about my future and then expect me to control my own fate. That's not fair!" Alison's initial shock was being replaced by a slow anger that surprised her; but she was tired of everyone talking about her fate as if it were beyond her control. She didn't care if it was. She wasn't going to listen anymore. This was her life, her fate.

"But it is," Galadriel said. "If I told you everything, would you have the strength to continue? Could you go on, knowing the outcome, whether it be good or bad?" Alison stayed silent, her argument dying on her lips.

Galadriel was right; if Alison still wanted to go on this quest, it was better being in the dark. If she found out that she would ultimately fail in saving the line of Durin, she didn't want that baggage on her shoulders, that horrible sense of dread of knowing that no matter how hard she tried, she would lose everything in the end.

"You have courage, Maethor," Galadriel said gently. "A great courage that has long since been forsaken in this world. Use it wisely, for you have many challenges ahead of you. Do you believe you are ready to face them?"

Alison swallowed hard, nodding. Ever since she had come to Middle-earth, she had done things that she thought she could never have before. The fiery sense of determination she had been feeling since she came rose up in her, as well, filling her with new hope. "I do," she said, and she was relieved to find that her voice came out clear and strong.

Galadriel smiled again, her face brightening like the dawn breaking over the horizon. "Do not let fate define you, Maethor. Keep your heart steady, and you will be the greatest Hero of them all."

And with that, the she-Elf turned and began to drift away, leaving Alison alone as she tried to process what had just happened and Galadriel's abrupt departure. "Wait, Lady Galadriel!" she called. "What does 'Maethor' mean?"

But she had already disappeared into a haze of starlight.

Alison sat back down on the edge of the fountain, her legs shaky as mind-numbing fear and red-hot hope burned and raged inside of her, fighting against each other as she realized how very real all of this suddenly was. This wasn't just an adventure around Middle-earth; she was going to fight a dragon, she was going to be caught in a war. And from what Galadriel had been saying, her journey doesn't end there. "Blood calls to blood". "The Shadow". What did that mean?

"You have courage, Maethor," she had said. "You will be the greatest Hero of them all." She let Galadriel's words wash over her, repeating them to herself over and over again until the fear subsided. She was a warrior, a Hero; she could do this. She had to.

Maethor, Galadriel's voice whispered to her, and Alison almost pitched herself into the fountain again, startled at the she-Elf's voice. It means 'warrior'.

Kili shook his wet hair out of his eyes as he bent down to re-do his boot straps, listening in amusement as the rest of the Company splashed and roared behind him as they "bathed" in the large outdoor fountain located on the skirts of the House of Elrond. Kili wasn't sure if it was acceptable to use the fountain as a bath, but it hadn't stopped the Dwarves from skimming down to their bare hides and quickly taking advantage of the spacious fountain.

He stood up and tugged on his undershirt as there was a particularly loud splash behind him, and he turned, seeing Dwalin roaring in victory as Dori fumbled to the surface, choking out water before instigating Dwalin into another wrestling match.

Kili grinned and shook his head, laying out his over-clothes and cloak to dry in the sun, fervently thinking he had been smart to get out when he had before Dwalin could put him in a headlock and dunk him under the water much as he was doing to Dori then.

He looked up as Fili approached, jerking his head to his brother as he got back to his feet from his previous crouching position. "Where've you been?" he asked, as Fili came closer and nodded his own head in return.

"I was getting this re-sharpened," he replied, pointing to his great iron sword as he placed it gently on the ground and began to remove the other various weapons from his clothes, placing them into a neat pile.

"Huh," Kili said. "I didn't know they had that sort of thing here."

"'Course they do," his brother said, shrugging off his thick fur overcoat. "They're actually not that bad; though nothing compared to Ered Luin, I might add."

Kili nodded distractedly, observing his older brother. "Are you all right?" he asked, as Fili avoided his eyes. "You seem…distant lately."

"I'm fine, Kili," he said, still not meeting his eyes.

"Is this about the Elf thing last night at dinner?" Kili said, grinning. "'Cause if it is, I was just messing around, Fili. I have no preference for Elves—"

"It's not your preference for Elves that's bothering me," Fili said, finally meeting his brother's eyes. Kili was surprised to see how serious they looked. "It's your preference for humans that bothers me."

"What do you—oh," Kili said, his eyes widening as it hit what his brother was saying. "Are you talking about Alison? Fili, you can't be serious."

"I'm completely serious, Kili," Fili said sternly. "I don't care how secretive you think you're being; I know you, and I've noticed the way you look at her."

"And how do I look at her?" Kili asked, his bemusement vanishing and being replaced by bafflement.

"You just have this…light in your eyes," his brother said, shaking his head. "When she walked into the pavilion last night, you couldn't keep your eyes off her. And it's not good, Kili. You're a Dwarf, and she's a human from another world. It could never work—"

"What, so is it frowned upon to look at someone with a certain 'light' in their eyes now?" Kili said sarcastically, cutting off his brother.

Fili looked to him with a frown. "Don't turn this into a joke, Kili. I'm being serious."

"So am I," Kili retorted. "Honestly, do you really think I'd be interested in a human? I'll admit, she's pretty for a human, but I'm not stupid. I know what I am and what she is. It would never work anyways, even if I did have interest in her."

Fili didn't look convinced, and suddenly a thought struck Kili, causing him to grin widely. "You like her, don't you?"

Fili looked at him sharply. "What? No, I don't."

"You do," Kili said, grinning more broadly. "Why else would you be asking me about her? You're telling me to stay away from her because you want her. Mahal above, this is so great—"

"Kili!" Fili snapped. "I do not like Alison! She's our companion, and she's our friend. Nothing more. It's just too weird, with her being a human and all."

"So…you're saying if she was a Dwarf, then you'd like her?"

"I. Do not. Like. Alison." He enunciated coldly. "She's a friend. Nothing else."

"All right, whatever you say," Kili said with a cheeky grin. "But I'll be watching you." He laughed at the half-angry, half-stupefied look on his brother's face as he walked away, jogging up a small staircase and wandering back to their campsite to look for some Old Toby and his pipe.

Despite his ability to play off such an awkward question, Kili felt slightly uneasy over the weird conversation he had just had with his brother. A few weeks ago, if someone had told him he'd start liking a human, he probably would've laughed in their face and maybe punched them before shrugging it off and going to get an ale; now, he wasn't so sure.

He was aware that he had always been pretty reckless, whether it came to fighting or even feelings, but this was something on a whole other level. He'd always been cocky and flirty with the Dwarven women back home, and in some ways, he even found Elf-women attractive. But Alison was another category all her own.

Kili had been intrigued by her since he had first met her, with her being a human and from another world and everything. He liked her sarcasm, for it melded with his own cheeky personality and he liked to banter, but he also liked her serious side. The faraway look she'd get in her eyes as she talked about her family or her home, or the way she had tilted her head to the side, her face open and earnest, when she had talked to him after he apologized for letting her get caught by the trolls; it captivated him, and he found himself being slowly drawn in towards her. And when he had seen her last night, in that dress and walking with her head slightly down, as if she were self-conscious, and her bright green eyes full of light as she joined in the dwarves' revelry, he began to suspect something more than just a flirtatious game with her. And it scared him.

As Fili had so rightly said, he was a Dwarf, and she was something else entirely. It would never work. And what if he became too attached, and something were to happen to her? The thought pained him in a strange way.

All right, he thought to himself, as he walked along, head down. All right, all you need to do is distance yourself a little bit. You're overreacting. You don't feel anything more than friendship towards her, and you know she doesn't feel anything back. So everything will be back to normal in no time. Just stay away—

Not paying attention to where he was going, Kili didn't even realize he was on a collision course with another person walking until he smashed right into them, eliciting a sharp "Ow!" from the other person.

Kili looked up, about to apologize gruffly to whatever Elf he had run into, when the words died in his throat as he met a pair of ice-green eyes, and his heart sank as he realized it was Alison.

Oh, Mahal.

Alison was hopelessly lost. Again.

After regaining her composure from the cryptic talk she had had with the Lady Galadriel, she had begun to walk around once more, looking for anyone or anything to keep her mind off of the thoughts swirling around in her head.

She didn't know how Galadriel knew these things about the Shadow and her destiny or whatnot, but she trusted the she-Elf's advice. She did not seem like a deceiver, and she had said everything with such conviction that Alison knew it wasn't a hoax. But she didn't want to think about it right then. She wanted just a few more days of comfort before she was thrust back out into the world of danger and constant stress.

So she ambled about for a few more hours, singing songs to herself and swishing along the skirts of her dress. She wished she had her normal clothes back, but the Elf-maids had taken them to be washed that morning and they hadn't been returned since, leaving Alison with the light and gauzy wardrobe of the Elves. The dresses were pretty enough, but they were too frothy for her taste, and not to mention more breezy downstairs, so to speak.

When the sun began its descent from its high point in the sky, Alison had already accepted defeat of trying to get back to her rooms by herself and was looking for an Elf to help her when she was suddenly knocked into from the side.

The impact jarred her ribs, and she snapped "Ow!" before thinking to keep her mouth shut. She whirled around, about to tell off whoever had so carelessly run into her, when she stopped suddenly, realizing it was Kili.

"Oh. Kili, it's you," she said, her irritation ebbing away as she saw the dwarf prince behind her. His dark eyes looked panicked for a moment, until it was gone and replaced by his usual cheeky grin and mischievous gleam.

"Kili?" he said in mock confusion, furrowing his brows. "Kili…oh, are you talking about the Dwarf with the dark hair and the shockingly handsome features? Yeah, I believe that's me."

Alison rolled her eyes playfully. "Wow, someone has a high opinion of themselves."

"I have to," he said. "Since no one else seems to appreciate how good-looking I am."

She laughed at that, wincing slightly as her already-jarred ribs twinged more. "I'm fine," she said, before Kili could ask her what's wrong. "I'm supposed to feel a little discomfort. Nothing I can't handle."

He closed his mouth, nodding, and she noticed then that his hair was wet and all of his armor was missing, leaving him in a dark gray tunic, pants, and boots. He also looked distinctly cleaner, the dirt and travel stains on his body removed. Alison thought he looked kind of strange without his armor or over-clothes or weapons, but she also liked it; it made him look less severe and bulky.

"Did you take a bath?" she asked.

"What? Surprised at my natural skin tone?" he said, his mouth quirked into a grin.

"Astounded," she replied. "Is that where everyone else is?"

"Uh huh," he said. "I wouldn't go wandering after them yet, though. Dwarves can be a little…rowdy when cleaning, and I don't think you'd really want to see that."

"Ugh, no thanks," she said, shuddering a little at the image that came to mind. "I'm already scarred enough from seeing them roasting on a spit in their underclothes."

He laughed, raking his wet hair out of his eyes. "So, what have you been doing today, wandering around all by yourself?"

Alison felt a slight flare of panic in her chest as she remembered her dark conversation with Galadriel earlier, but she quickly squashed it; she knew what she had to do, and this she had to keep to herself. "Oh, you know," she waved her hand vaguely. "Just enjoying the peace while I can. Trying to heal. Where are you off to?"

"I was going off for a little smoke," he said, shrugging. "It's quite overwhelming with the others when Dwalin keeps trying to strangle you in the bathwater."

"Way too much information," she said in horror. "Are you trying to give me more nightmares?"

"Sorry," he said, chuckling. "I just wanted you to imagine how I feel when he—"

"Stop," she said, trying to keep those images away from her brain and holding up a hand. "Just stop right there."

He chuckled again, then gestured for her to follow him as he went off back to their campsite. She followed, shaking her head with a small grin on her face.

They walked in silence for a few minutes until they came to the veranda where the Company was staying, and Alison looked to him in incredulity. "How did you find this place without getting lost?"

Kili shrugged, kneeling to search through his travel pack and removing a pipe and some leaves. He didn't start smoking yet, though, which Alison was relieved by; she didn't particularly approve of it. "There are some people in this world who aren't as directionally challenged as you, Alison," he joked, and she huffed in mock indignation.

"If you're just going to insult me, I guess I can just leave," she said, and spun around, planning to walk away as a joke, when she suddenly stopped, almost bending double and gasping. The quick movement of her torso had upset her ribs, and they began to throb until the herbs kicked in again and faded the pain to a dull ache once more.

"Alison, what happened? Are you all right?" Kili said from beside her, placing a light hand on her shoulder. "Do I need to send for help?"

"No," she said, gritting her teeth and straightening up slowly, careful not to jar her injury again. "I'm fine. Now I know not to move like that anymore." She caught the look on his face and scowled. "Seriously Kili, I'm fine. The herbs are working again. It was just a twinge."

"Don't be thick," he said. "That sounded like it really hurt. Where do you feel pain?"

"Nowhere. I told you, I'm fine—"

"Alison—"

"I'm fine—"

She made to move past him, but he blocked her way, and before she could open her mouth to insist she was truly okay, he placed a hand on her abdomen, lightly, carefully, and her breath hitched in surprise at his unexpected touch.

Alison looked up from where his hand was resting on her stomach and locked gazes with him, her lips parted in a silent oh. His dark eyes gleamed, still mischievously, still cheeky, but there was a deep light in them as well, along with a flicker of surprise, as if he didn't know what had just made him do that, either.

"Where do you feel pain?" he repeated in a low voice, and Alison's heart began to beat fast, nervousness pinging around inside her like a pin-ball. She couldn't speak for several moments, still looking into his eyes.

"I—" she whispered. "Um…higher."

He moved his hand upward, until it was resting gently on the bottom of her rib cage, and there was a pool of heat where his palm connected with the gauzy material of her dress. Every nerve in her body seemed to scream and pinpoint to the location of his large hand, solid and warm on her abdomen, and she gulped as his eyes burned into hers. "Here?" he asked softly, and she nodded, unsure of what exactly was transpiring at that moment and feeling her composure fraying at his prolonged contact and nearness.

"Does it still hurt?" he asked, in that same low voice, and she shook her head. They stared at each other for a few minutes more, until suddenly there was the noise of a throat being cleared from behind them.

"Um, am I…uh, interrupting something?" They leaped apart as if they had been burned, and Alison turned to see Bilbo standing in the entryway to the veranda, looking very red in the face and extremely awkward.

"Bilbo!" Alison exclaimed hastily, positive that her face was burning as red as Bilbo's, if not even redder. "We were—he was—I—checking my injury," she said lamely, as Kili stared at the Hobbit as if he were a ghost.

There was a tense and horribly uncomfortable silence, until Alison coughed, seeming to break the spell as Bilbo shook his head and Kili blinked as if he had been stuck in a dark cave and was seeing the sun again for the first time.

"Well, I'm just—uh, I should…bye," she all but squeaked, and without another look at either of them, she hurried out of the veranda, practically running as she passed through the Elven halls, her mind whirling like a tornado.

By some unseen force of nature, she somehow ended up outside of her rooms and ducked inside, slamming the door behind her and leaning against it, her face still hot and her heart beating rapidly.

"What. The. Fuck." She said out loud, grabbing her face in her hands. "What the hell just happened?"

Her—Kili—what—

No, she thought firmly. No, no, no, no, no, NO. That was definitely not what I think it was. He's your friend, he's like the annoying best guy friend you've never had. He's like your brother. And he's a Dwarf, and you're a human, not even from the same world as him. It could never work, and it won't ever work because you have no interest in him. At all. So don't freak out. It was just a curious moment, nothing more.

Alison breathed in deeply, and exhaled slowly. She was beginning to calm down, but her nerves still pulsed from where he had touched her. As if in a daze, she crossed over to her bed and clambered onto it, wrapping herself up in her sheets and groaning.

She didn't like Kili in that way, and she knew it. He was just a friend, and no doubt he viewed her in the same way. He had merely been trying to locate her pain and alleviate it, nothing more. And besides, what would he see in her anyway? It was obvious he was drawn to more glamorous things than her, after remembering his flirting with the Elf-maid at dinner the night before. And what did she care? She didn't like him. Being honest, he was pretty handsome, but she wasn't interested in him like that. No, she wasn't.

But as she lay there thinking about it, an image of Fili popped into her head, and she felt a surge of guilt as she pictured his face, so fair compared to the darkness of his brother. And then she felt confusion for feeling guilty. Why was thinking about Kili making her feel guilty about Fili?

Okay, fine, she thought. Fili's handsome too. Both brothers are good-looking. Now get yourself together, because you have no interest in either of them. They're just friends. All of you are just friends. That's it. Now that we have that established, stop thinking about it. You're freaking out over nothing.

But no matter how hard she tried to not think about it, her mind would just drift right back to their faces; Kili, his dark eyes burning as he met her gaze; Fili, as his stormy eyes softened after pulling her out of the river, and the way his face had shined so perfectly in the moonlight that one night she had laid next to him…

The thoughts kept coming, one after another, and as the moonlight crept into her room, she still lay awake, her mind buzzing round and round. Finally, she grabbed a pillow and buried her face into it, screaming in frustration into the soft downy feathers and thinking one thing as she screamed:

I am so screwed.

Who likes awkward sexual tension? I do! Who likes finding out really cryptic stuff that changes a character's perspective on what they're doing? I mean, I guess...

So now we have some layers adding up oooh. And maybe I dropped a hint in this chapter? Or several? Who knows. I like mystery:)

Anyway, a big thank you again to all of my reviewers, I love you all! So, as usual, keep them coming, and thank you for reading and just being awesome readers!:) Thank you, lovelies! Until next chapter...

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