They had been outside for the better part of the morning, the children playing while the adults talked when Fíli's startled cry shocked them out of their blissful mood. Thorin was on his feet in an instant, looking desperately for his nephews and cursing himself for allowing them to play in such tall grass when Fíli's voice came again, panic clear in the sound. His blood ran cold as he recognized a word in the cry: Kíli. Something had happened to Kíli. He ran towards the sound of Fíli's voice, fighting back panic as he heard Fíli cry out in pain and reorienting slightly.
He nearly sobbed in relief when he broke through the tall grass and saw Fíli standing uninjured at the tree line. He dropped to his knees beside his nephew—Balin and Dwalin standing over the pair as protectors while Thorin checked on his eldest nephew. As soon as he was certain that Fíli was truly uninjured, he grasped him by the upper arms gently.
"Fíli," Thorin said trying to keep his voice level despite the panic still roaring in his ears, "where is your brother, lad? Where's Kíli?"
"He . . . he . . . "Fíli shifted nervously attempting to look away from his uncle in shame. He couldn't answer that question. Kíli would only be in trouble if their uncle knew where he was. Fíli couldn't bring himself to get Kíli in trouble. He sighed in defeat as he felt his uncle grasp his chin and turn his face back towards him, gently but insistently.
"We don't have time for this, lad," Thorin whispered urgently. "Now, where is your brother?" Fíli opened his mouth to reply when his words were cut off with another cry of pain as he was pegged on the shoulder just above Thorin's hand with an acorn.
"Ow!" Fíli called twisting his head around to glare at his brother, not realizing that he was revealing Kíli's position in the process. "Don't throw things at me, Kíli! Mother said not to!"
"Mother said not to throw things at you in the house," Kíli retorted climbing a bit further out on his branch to throw another acorn at his brother, hitting him again.
"Kíli, why are you throwing things at your brother," Thorin said wearily. He couldn't believe that all of his stress was because of a dwarfling who decided to climb a tree and throw things at his brother. They were going to make him grey before his time if he didn't just die outright from the anguish they caused him.
"We were playing war, Uncle," Kíli replied leaping to a different branch that held more acorns for him to throw at Fíli. "I couldn't win on the ground. He's bigger than me."
"So you climbed the tree?" Thorin asked looking up at his small nephew and wincing as Kíli leapt between branches like a squirrel. While he had to admire Kíli's strategizing, he only hoped the boy didn't fall. Dís would murder him if Kíli fell and he would never forgive himself if they boy was injured because he was lax in watching him.
"Are you sure Kíli's a dwarf?" Dwalin asked Balin with a laugh as he watched the child scurry fearlessly from branch to branch. "Looks more like a squirrel to me!"
"Of course he is," Fíli replied viciously, glaring at the large warrior at the reminder of what he had heard in the market the day before. Kíli was a dwarf, his uncle had told him so. "He just doesn't know that dwarves don't climb trees. But Uncle will explain it to him, right, Uncle?"
"Where's the harm of him climbing a tree?" Thorin said with a laugh. "He seems to be good at it. I will ask that you not," he winced as Kíli leapt once more and nearly fell only to grab a lower branch with a laugh and swing himself back up. "Kíli, please don't do that. There's no harm in you being in the tree but please be careful."
"Yes, Uncle," Kíli replied with a small smile of apology before he began scurrying along branches rather than leaping between them. Thorin smiled and shook his head indulgently as Kíli's laughter rang through the air.
"But," Fíli said slowly, not wanting to criticize his uncle but trying to make sense of the difference in the rules for him and Kíli. At his brother's age his uncle had told him that dwarves didn't climb trees. "But, Uncle," Fíli tried again quietly, hesitantly, "You . . . you told me that dwarves don't climb trees. The time I fell. Kíli's a dwarf. Dwarves don't climb trees. So Kíli shouldn't climb trees. Not if he wants to be seen as a dwarf." Thorin merely eyed Fíli as if he had grown a second head. He couldn't understand why Kíli being in a tree would make him less of a dwarf. It wasn't as if Kíli could lose his claim to being a dwarf simply because he was in a tree. The idea was ludicrous.
"Aye, laddie," Balin agreed gently. "That is true enough. Most dwarves do not climb trees but most of us can. Even your uncle spent a bit of time in trees as a dwarfling. It was the only place that he could escape Thorin and Dís. They were never very good at climbing."
"What?" Fíli asked in confusion. His uncle . . . hiding from himself? "My uncle?"
"Yes," Balin said with a fond smile as he remembered happier times."Your uncle Frerin was quite a tree-climber in his youth."
"He was?" Fíli asked excitedly. He didn't know much about his mother's second brother but he did know that Frerin had been a true dwarf and had died valiantly defending kin and honor. If he climbed trees . . . perhaps there was hope for Kíli after all.
"Aye," Dwalin added. "I remember one time in particular, he had just irritated Thorin something fierce and in attempting to flee to Dís' protection had awoken her ire as well. Only place safe from them was at the very top of a tree. Thorin was too heavy to reach him and Dís . . . well she was never much of a climber. In the end, Thráin himself had to coax his youngest son from the tree by threatening to thrash Dís and Thorin if they so much as laid a finger on him. If I remember correctly, they didn't speak to him for days."
"What did he do again, Thorin?" Balin asked. "I can't for the life of me remember. All I recall is seeing his golden hair peeking out from the crown of the tree while you yelled insults and curses at him from below and he gloated at you from above."
"It doesn't matter," Thorin snapped, the memory of his brother hurting him more deeply than he could express. How much time had they lost together due to that childish argument and so many others. Time that he could never get back. "Come, little one," he called turning his attention on Kíli. "You've been off the ground long enough for one day. I'll bet that you're beginning to grow hungry." Almost as if Thorin mentioning hunger had summoned it, Kíli gripped his stomach with a grimace and nodded adamantly.
"Then come down from that tree so that we can return to your mother," Thorin said. "I'll wager she has something delicious made just for us."
"Will there be greens?" Kíli demanded. "I won't come down if there are greens."
"Of course there will be greens, Kíli," Fíli sighed in exasperation. "There are always greens. Now get out of the tree! I'm hungry!"
"Hush, Fíli," Thorin said quickly. "You are not helping matters. Let me get him out of the tree." Fíli felt his expression fall even further. He still wasn't sure what he had done to upset his uncle but it was clear that he had done something. Usually such a statement would have come with a soft smile or a gentle pat but not this time. He tried to convince himself that it was only concern for his brother that made his uncle behave so coolly towards him but he knew the truth: he had done something. Something terrible.
He glanced up in hope as he felt a hand cup his cheek and opened his eyes expecting to see his uncle looking down at him with love and an apology but instead it was Balin's dark eyes that met his. It was his gentle smile that tried to reassure Fíli, not Thorin's.
"Don't worry overmuch, laddie," Balin whispered as he pulled his young cousin against his side. "Thorin'll get your brother out of that tree. Everything will be alright." Fíli just nodded and went back to staring at his uncle's profile as Thorin attempted to coax Kíli to the ground. He didn't have the heart to tell Balin that it was not Kíli's self-inflicted plight that had upset him. In fact, realizing that he was upset for having upset his uncle when his brother was in danger—he could still remember the pain of his fall from the tree and he had not been nearly as high as Kíli was now—made him feel incredibly selfish.
"Kíli, please come down," Thorin said. "I am hungry. Your brother is hungry. You are hungry. You can't eat if you are in that tree, so climb down, lad."
"I won't if she's going to make me eat greens!" Kíli countered. "Promise me that Mother won't make me eat them and I will come down."
"Now, lad, that is a promise that you know I cannot make," Thorin replied with a deep sigh. He hated that he could not give Kíli what he was asking for. He did not want to deny his youngest nephew anything. "There are some orders that even I cannot countermand. Your mother is the absolute authority where you boys are concerned. If she says that you have to eat greens, then I am afraid you are just going to have to eat them, little one."
"I don't want to!" Kíli argued. "They taste bad!"
"They do," Thorin agreed. "No dwarf likes them but they are still necessary occasionally. Even we cannot live on meat alone."
"I can try," Dwalin muttered grimacing at the fact that Dís made her sons eat greens. He held his hands up in surrender when Thorin turned to glare at him, his expression clearly stating 'you had best hope that he did not hear you' before a smirk crossed his face and he turned back to Kíli with mischief in his eyes.
"Earlier today you asked Dwalin why he has no hair, do you remember?" Thorin called. Kíli nodded and Balin snorted in laughter that the dwarfling had called his brother out on his baldness. "Ask him about his eating habits. Ask him if he eats his greens."
"Do you?" Kíli asked moving down the trunk of the tree to sit on the one of the lowest branches of the tree. "Do you eat your greens Mister Dwalin?" He wondered why Dwalin glared at his uncle before he answered. Was that a rude question?
"I . . . I do not," Dwalin said, shooting Thorin a look that clearly displayed his displeasure at being used as a tool to convince the lad to do something so undwarvish as eat his greens. That was quite uncalled for.
"Do you see, little one," Thorin said, triumph clear in his tone. "Dwalin does not eat his greens and he is bald. It is possible that the two things are related. Is this a risk you are willing to take?" Kíli gave a little squeak of fright and began to rapidly make his way back to the ground. Kíli was only sure of one thing: he would eat his greens without argument. They thought that he was unaware of what people thought of him, but Kíli knew. He didn't know what they thought exactly, but he did know that Mister Dwalin was not the first dwarf to express doubts on him being a dwarf. He also knew that dwarves were defined by their hair and if eating his greens would ensure that he had enough hair that none would doubt that he was a dwarf, he would eat them all.
He never made it to the ground. When he was little more than six feet in the air, he lost his grip and felt himself begin to fall. He heard the panic in Fíli's voice as he called his name and braced himself for the feeling of hitting the ground. It never came. Instead, he was caught in mid-air, the impact knocking the air from his lungs. Before he could catch his breath, he was pressed against his uncle's chest in a tight hug. He could feel his uncle's beard on his neck as Thorin held him close.
"Don't ever do that again," Thorin breathed, relishing in the feel of a solid, warm body in his grasp.
"Climb?" Kíli asked quietly, his brown eyes sad as he saw just how much he had scared his uncle just then.
"Fall," Thorin clarified. "If you wish to climb and you are good at it, there is no reason you should not. But if you do climb, do so carefully. I cannot bear to lose you or your brother and. . . I may not always be here to catch you if you fall."
"Yes you will," Kíli replied with all the trust and innocence of a child as he snuggled sleepily into his uncle's chest. "You'll always be there when I need you. You won't let me fall."
"I wish that were true, little one," Thorin whispered before pressing a kiss to the top of Kíli's head and shifting him to a more comfortable position in his arms and gesturing with his head to encourage the others to return home. They had only gone a few steps before Fíli stumbled, the excitement of the day beginning to take its toll on the young heir. The second time this happened, Fíli's eyes flew open in shock as the sensation of moving through the air hit him only to stop with him pulled securely against Dwalin's chest as Kíli was pulled against their uncle's.
"I've got you, lad," Dwalin said with a small smile. "Sleep. It's been a long day." Fíli wanted to protest that he was old enough to walk home on his own but when he opened his mouth all that emerged was a wide yawn. Dwalin chuckled and ran a large hand through the unbraided hair at the back of Fíli's head as the dwarfling's blue eyes drifted shut and his head began to lull. He shook his head sadly as he looked between his king and the sleeping dwarflings they both carried. Neither of them was ready for the responsibilities Thorin wanted to give them. Fíli was not even old enough to last through a day of play. There was no way that he was ready for lessons. But he could not challenge Thorin, not about this. He could only hope that Dís could convince him it was a bad idea or that Balin would plan light lessons. He would hate to see Fíli's smile disappear as all of theirs had, weighed down as they had been by war, famine and death. There would be time enough later for Fíli to learn of the evils of the world.