By the time Thorin showed up in the early afternoon, Fíli was reminding Dwalin of every dwarfling he'd ever put a weapon into the hands of. His eyes were bright, the blue depths sparkling with joy, and his laughter was as light as any lad's had ever been. That alone was enough to bring joy to the older warrior's heart but when the lad's abilities were added to it . . . Dwalin hadn't been so proud of a student in ages.
His own good mood was soiled a bit when Fíli's mood sobered with his uncle's arrival. In fact, the change in Fíli's demeanor was what told Dwalin that Thorin had arrived at all.
"Hello, Uncle," Fíli said pushing the bow behind him slightly. Dwalin turned to see Thorin looking at the bow in his nephew's hands as if it had personally offered him offence.
"Fíli," Thorin said nodding to him in greeting before turning and nodding to his cousin as well. "Have you had fun today, lad?"
"I have!" Fíli said before seeing his uncle's raised eyebrow. "And I've learned something, Uncle. It hasn't all been fun. Mr. Dwalin is an excelent teacher." He hoped that was what his uncle wanted to hear, but the way his uncle's lip quirked up on one side made him think he'd been wrong.
"Coaching my nephew to sing your praises already, Dwalin?" Thorin asked, his tone grave. Fíli offered Dwalin a sheepish smile and was about to deny having been coached when Dwalin laughed and threw an arm around Thorin.
"Of course!" he said. "Someone in your family has to appreciate my worth. Between you denying that I can best you and your sister threatening me . . . I had to start somewhere, didn't I. And the lad is young enough to be influenced into thinking the way I want him to, eh?"
"That he is," Thorin agreed. "Just remember that. The lad is still young and impressionable. Be careful what you teach him or I won't call his mother off."
"I'll keep that in mind," Dwalin said with a grimace. "However, so far I haven't influenced him adversely. Let him show you what I have taught him." Thorin nodded and Fíli swallowed heavily. Despite how sure he'd been of his abilities only moments before, he could feel his hands shaking even as Dwalin nodded incouragingly and lightly nudged him towards the target. Fíli went to take a step forward but stopped when he heard his name.
"No, lad," Dwalin said when he turned to his cousin in confusion. "Take the shots from there."
"B-but, I've never shot from this far back," Fíli protested softly.
"You can do it, lad," Dwalin promised. "Trust me. Calm yourself and take the shot. You can do it."
Fíli nodded and turned to face the target once more. Even though he knew it was too far, he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to calm himself, just as Mr. Dwalin had told him to, and raised the bow, feeling his uncle's eyes on him the entire time. Taking a final breath and holding it, he drew back the arrow, holding it a moment to site it in and releasing it along with his breath. He couldn't help the smile that crossed his face as it hit the outer ring.
Encouraged by that hit, he pulled another arrow from the quiver and fired it as well. Which he did until the quiver was empty and the target was peppered with arrows. A couple had missed, but not by much and the vast majority were at least on the target, even if they weren't as close to the center as they'd been at closer range.
"Did you see, Uncle?" Fíli chirped setting down the bow and turning to his uncle, knowing that this time he had done well. His uncle was sure to be pleased with his accuracy. For once there would be approval in his uncle's eyes. "Did you see? I hit the target!"
Thorin had surveyed the target with the same searching gaze he always used. When a few seconds passed and there was no sign of approval, Fíli's heart began to sink. He didn't know what he'd done wrong but something wasn't right. It must have been the missed arrows. By the time his uncle had walked to the target, Fíli was already fighting tears. He could tell by the stiffness in his uncle's gait that Thorin was not impressed.
"Barely," Thorin replied, pulling one of the arrows from the target where it clung to the edge. "There is also no pattern to your shots. They are all over the board." He gestured at the wild spackle of arrows to prove his point. "Without a cluster there is no way to improve your aim." Dwalin watched as Fíli seemed to deflate a bit more with every word out of his uncle's mouth, until by the end his throat was working convulsively and it was clear to the older dwarf that the lad was trying not to cry.
"It's not bad for a first try, Thorin," Dwalin said, placing a hand on Fíli's shoulder in an attempt to ease the overly harsh criticism. "The lad did hit the target. That's better than most." Thorin hummed in response, looking unimpressed.
"It's alright," Fíli whispered, his voice thick with unshed tears. "I didn't like the bow anyway," he continued, handing it to Dwalin, the expression on his face enough to break the older dwarf's heart. "I. . . I think I'd like to try swords tomorrow, can we?"
"Of course, laddie," Dwalin said, fighting the urge to pull the young dwarf to him, "and we can always come back and give the bow a bit more practice. If you'd like."
"No," Fíli had said, shaking his head. "Uncle's right. I'll never be good enough at it. May I go?" Dwalin nodded and watched as Fíli walked towards the changing room on the grounds.
It was everything that Fíli could do to keep his head up and his tears in until he was out of sight. Once he was within the confines of the building, he leaned against the wall and allowed himself a brief moment of disappointment with himself. Even though he wanted to, he didn't cry. Instead, he closed his eyes and fought the burning sensation in his throat. After all, his uncle was right. There had been no pattern, he never would have been an archer, despite how wonderful the bow had felt in his hands. No, it was better to find something he actually had skill at.
Thorin was nowhere to be seen when Fíli reemerged from the changing room. Instead, Dwalin was standing there waiting for him.
"Where . . ." Fíli began looking around for his uncle and not seeing him.
"Had to get back to business," Dwalin replied gruffly. "Asked me to walk you home."
"You don't have to," Fíli said. "I can get home on my own."
"I don't doubt that you can, laddie," Dwalin offered. "All the same, I'll see you home safe. Come along." Fíli nodded and trotted along beside his cousin, feeling horrible. Not only was Dwalin having to be inconvenienced to return him home, but he saw it as an inconvenience. The length of his stride was enough to tell Fíli as much. He was shocked when, rather than dropping him at the gate, Dwalin walked him to the door and knocked.
"Just a moment," he heard his mother call from inside. Seconds later the door opened, revealing Dís' confused face that quickly turned into a smile at the sight of her cousin.
"Dwalin," she greeted, opening the door wider. "What brings you here?"
"Your brother asked me to see your lad home," he replied.
"Did he, now?" Dís asked, her brown eyes narrowing dangerously.
"Aye, he did," Dwalin repeated. Dís hummed in displeasure before she forced another smile and said, "Come in. In gratitude for bringing Fíli home, you must stay for supper."
"I couldn't do that, Dís," Dwalin protested. "It wasn't any trouble and—"
"I insist," Dís replied, her tone edging towards dangerous. "Now come in and tell me about my son's wonderful achievements today and what his uncle thought of them." Realizing that he had no option but to comply, Dwalin nodded.
"Alright," he agreed walking into their home. "I suppose I can stay for a bit."
At his cousin's acceptance of his mother's invitation, Fíli's mood soured even more. Wasn't it enough that his uncle knew he was a failure? Did Dwalin really have to tell his mother as well?
"Mother?" he asked quietly as she and Dwalin made themselves comfortable in the main room.
"Yes, Darling?" she replied turning to look at him rather than Dwalin, her expression softening as she did.
"I'm rather tired, and more than a bit dirty," Fíli said softly. "If it's fine with you, I'd . . . well, I'd like to take a bath and perhaps nap before supper. Can I?"
"Of course, Dear," she replied stroking his cheek before nudging him towards the bathroom. "I'll just be out here if you need me." Fíli nodded and walked off in the direction he'd been nudged. "Kíli, darling," Dís said, drawing the attention of her youngest who was attempting to show Dwalin his latest drawing, which Dwalin was praising. "Don't you think you need a bath as well?"
Kíli looked down at himself and turned his hands over, revealing ink blots on his forearms, before shaking his head. "No," he said in response to her skeptical glance. "I'm good. I bathed a few days ago."
Despite himself Dwalin let out a bark of a laugh at Kíli's reasoning. He could remember telling his mother the same thing many years ago. He wondered if it would go over any better with Dís than it had his own mother.
"Bath," Dís replied pointing the direction Fíli had gone. "Now," she added when it looked as if he would argue. Kíli looked at her for a moment hoping she'd change her mind but turned with a grumble and headed for the bath when she raised an eyebrow at his defiance.
"Stubborn lad you've got there," Dwalin said, amusement coloring his tone, once he knew Kíli could not hear.
Dís scoffed in response before smiling. "You have no idea," she said, fondness dripping from every word. "And my brother is no help at all. He makes no secret of the fact that he finds Kíli's antics amusing."
"As if you don't," Dwalin replied, a smile on his face as well.
"Now, I never said that," she corrected. "I take great joy from both my sons, however, I at least attempt to laugh at their bad behavior in private, not where they can see. Thorin, on the other hand . . ." She trailed off, her eyebrows coming together.
"Speaking of Thorin," she said suspiciously, "where is my brother? He did make it to Fíli's lesson, didn't he?" She knew that it was unfair of her to be cross with him for skipping, since Fíli had not wanted him there and she herself had hoped that he wouldn't make it, but she couldn't help it. In her heart she knew that had it been Kíli's lesson her brother would not only have made it, but would have most likely participated.
"He made it alright," Dwalin growled, his frustration with Thorin coming to the surface once more.
"What happened?" Dís sighed, taking in her cousins stormy expression and knowing that her brother had done something terrible for Dwalin to be cross with him. She was beginning to wonder if there was more to Fíli's desire to bathe than she'd thought and if sending Kíli in was such a wonderful idea after all.
At her question Dwalin let out a heavy sigh, unsure how to proceed. It was one thing to be cross with Thorin for how he reacted to his nephew's efforts, it was another thing entirely to gossip about it with his King's sister, and the mother of said-nephew. Especially in light of what had happened in the past. Dwalin knew that Thorin was still haunted by Frerin's death, but he didn't know how well Dís was coping. He didn't want to upset her unnecessarily.
"He was overly critical, wasn't he?" Dís asked, causing her cousin to jump. It almost seemed as if he'd forgotten she was there. He blinked at her a few times, his dark eyes showing confusion.
"How . . . how did you know that?" Dwalin eventually asked in shock.
"Educated guess," she replied. "He's always overly critical of Fíli. Claims he's not but . . . what happened?"
"Fíli had a bow," Dwalin began, "and Thorin . . . well you know that your brother . . . Frerin . . . well he favored the bow, and—" he cut himself off when Dís groaned and fisted her braids in her hands. "Dís," he said reaching for her, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned—"
"How'd Fíli do?" she asked, looking up with sad brown eyes. "Honestly. How did he do?"
"Remarkably," Dwalin replied. "I swear, Dís. The lad was hitting the target at fifty paces on the first day. Not the center, mind, but the target."
"And Thorin?" she asked. "Did he think it was remarkable?"
"No," Dwalin sighed. "He . . . Dís, tell me, does . . . I mean . . . Fíli is blonde, and—"
"Are you trying to ask me if my brother often attributes Frerin's characteristics and failings to my blonde son?" Dís asked, her eyes boring into her cousin. Dwalin wanted to retract his question under the pressure of that gaze, to lie and say that wasn't what he'd meant, but he couldn't do it. This was too important to ignore.
"Aye," he said. "I saw fear in his eyes, Dís. Fear for your son, because of Frerin. Thorin . . . he, he asked me why I would allow Fíli to specalize in archery. Wanted to know what the lad would do in battle once he was out of arrows and had to go to a secondary. Seemed to think that Fíli'd have no chance . . . that it was what had killed Frerin."
"At least he didn't blame himself this time," Dís sighed. "And Fíli, how did he take it?"
"It upset him," Dwalin said. "and when I confronted Thorin about upsetting the lad—"
"NO!" Dís exclaimed shooting to her feet. "You confronted him about it?"
"Course I did," Dwalin replied feeling affronted that she'd think he'd allow anyone to belittle her lad in front of him.
"No," she groaned falling back into her chain and placing her head in her hands with her elbows on her knees. "Why?" she breathed.
"Because it needed to be done," Dwalin replied. "You can't tell me you allow him to degrade everything Fíli does or that you expect anyone else to do so."
"Yes," she said looking at him levelly, her glare no less icy than her brother's despite the warmer color, "I do."
"You can't be serious, Dís!" Dwalin retorted, growing angry with her. "Have you seen what his words do to the lad?!"
"Yes I have," she snarled. "And I do what I can to fix it. Have you seen what confronting him about it does to Thorin?"
"Dís," he began, trying to calm the enraged female.
"Have you?" she demanded.
"I have," Dwalin replied. "I saw today. He was fine, distant but fine, but then I mentioned that Fíli is not Frerin and . . . he deflated, Dís. Looked as wounded as if I'd stabbed him. I haven't seen him like that in decades."
"I have," Dís replied. "Every time he's confronted with the Fíli-Frerin issue. He falls into . . . just like he did after Frerin's death. He won't eat, won't leave his room. All he does is sit there and mope. He won't even speak to me sometimes. I can't bear to see him like that, Dwalin. It . . . if the people found out . . . he'd lose his throne and that would kill him just as surely as any knife."
"But, Dís . . . allowing him to continue as his is," Dwalin said, "It's destroying Fíli."
"Don't you think I know that?!" she spat. "I live with him, Dwalin. I gave life to him. I know my son. I see what Thorin's coolness does to him. And I do everything in my power to attempt to fix it. Didn't Balin tell you?"
"He told me to be gentle with the lad," Dwalin said, thinking back, his brother had made it seem like he meant more than he was saying but he hadn't understood at the time. "This is what he meant, wasn't it? He meant for me to offer him the praises that Thorin refuses to offer, didn't he?"
"Yes," Dís replied. "That's exactly what he meant. We can't confront Thorin about this, not if we want him to continue to remain sane. Instead, we can only offer Fíli all the praises and love that Thorin denies him. It is all that we can do, do you understand me?"
"Dís," he sighed.
"Promise me," she said taking his hands in her own and staring into his eyes. "Swear to me that you won't challenge Thorin on this again. That you will dote on Fíli when he deserves it instead and be gentle with your criticism when necessary. Swear it."
Dwalin stared at her for a moment, weighing the costs and benefits, before he nodded. "I swear," he whispered, holding her eyes for a moment before looking away. She hummed before moving away and grabbing her cloak off the hook by the door.
"I'm going to go look for my brother," she said. "Stay with the lads, will you?" He nodded, still staring into the fire until he heard the door close behind her. Only then did he allow his eyes to move towards the ceiling. Wishing that he was deeper under the earth to help strengthen the prayer, he prayed to the Maker that he hadn't just doomed one soul to save the sanity of another.
When Dís returned a short time later leading her brother by his shoulders, Dwalin knew that even if it was the wrong choice, it was the only one they could make. Even when he'd agreed to it, he'd halfway believed that Dís had been over-reacting when she told him of the effect challenging Thorin's misconceptions about Fíli had on him. He saw now that she hadn't been. The only time Dwalin had seen his cousin so lost had been right after the Battle, when they found the body of his brother, and then it had only been until the pyres were lit. After that, though Thorin was distant, he seemed more like himself . . . mostly.
This time, there was no life in Thorin's eyes, no recognition. He was a meek shell of himself. It was then that Dwalin knew that even if what they were doing was wrong, there was no alternative. It was almost as if Thorin was gone. She seemed sure that she could return him to them, but even if Dís managed to pull him back this time, what would happen the next or the time after that? Dwalin knew that eventually even Dís would not be able to bring her brother back from wherever it was he went. When Dís returned from Thorin's room, Dwalin looked at her, seeing the lines of weariness on her face.
"How is he?' Dwalin asked, genuinely concerned.
"He'll be fine," she replied, ignoring his actual question. "Give him a few days and he'll be fine. Are you going to stay for supper? I need to go wake the lads. I don't mind if you stay, but if you do, I must insist you say nothing about Thorin. They don't know about his slips and I don't intend to tell them."
"No," he said, rising and heading for the door. "Thank you, but I have plans with Balin." She nodded and followed him to the door.
"Send him my love," Dís said. "Thank you for watching the lads."
"It was no problem, Dís," he assured her before turning to leave, more than a bit disturbed by what had transpired under that roof that evening.
"Dwalin," Dís called when he'd only gone a few paces. He turned to look at her and saw a sheepish smile on her face, one that he was unable to return. "Try not to worry too much over Thorin. I swear he'll be fine." He didn't reply. After all, how could he agree with her when he knew that Thorin hadn't been fine for eighty-five years?