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and on her head a crown (and other ficlets)

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The first time Tauriel sees Kíli after the Battle of Five Armies (not the real first time, but the first time she's seen the dwarf without blood all over her face and a gaping gut wound demanding medical attention), she almost doesn't recognize the dwarrowdam.

The still and watchful figure at Thorin's left hand, only a step down on the dais on the opposite side of her older brother, is dressed in a deep green tunic and trousers such a dark gray they blend into the still mostly unlit halls of Erebor that can be seen behind the throne, a far cry from the tattered and filthy black outfit that Kíli had worn during all of their previous encounters. The dwarrowdam even has a surcoat of dark brown over the tunic and the armor it surely conceals, but the addition of color to Kíli's wardrobe is not the most stunning part of the sight.

No, that honor goes to the intricately braided crown of hair that has replaced what might previously have been honorably termed the mop on Kíli's head. Tauriel can tell even from this distance that the braiding in Kíli's hair is intricately arranged and patterned so as to resemble the crown that now rests on Thorin's head, metallic and bejeweled beads and other ornaments cleverly woven in to further the illusion.

As the Elven company approaches and Tauriel begins to see better in the fainter light of the halls under the mountain, she can watch the expressions play out over Kíli's face as Kíli recognizes her among the sizable escort that Thranduil had brought in an attempt to prove something in his bitter and utterly impossible to understand rivalry with the King Under the Mountain. Surprise and quickly veiled joy flit across Kíli's still stubbled face before it returns to what seems to be a passable mimic of Thorin's current scowl, broken only by a quick wink that Tauriel knows is aimed at her.

She inclines her head slightly in response and ignores the curious look Legolas shoots at her, his blue eyes as piercing as his arrows are. Perhaps one day she'll explain it to him, but for now this is something she will keep between herself and Kíli.

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Kíli can't help the taunting innuendo that falls from her lips and she regrets it a moment later when the red headed elf's eyes widen in suprise before her face falls into a mask of remoteness, her contempt clear. Even worse, the arrogant blonde elf overhears and glares at her suspiciously. The female elf opens her mouth to respond but her no doubt cutting disdainful rejoinder is preempted by the arrogant one calling out something in the elven tongue they persist in using.

The redhead calls back something that is unmistakably annoyed and possibly more than a little disparaging before turning back to Kíli and scrutinizing her more carefully than before. Gray eyes swwp almost dismissively over the rather ragged clothes Kíli wears and Kíli know she wears no more weapons, that it has always bothered Fíli that she carried no knives or axes to throw if she loses her bow or sword. Regardless, an elven hand darts into the pocket of her trousers.

Kíli flinches back but the elf is already pulling back herself, the talisman Kíli's mother gave her grasped in pale fingers. Wide eyes stare at the talisman and then back at Kíli before the elf visibly regains her composure, tossing the polished stone at Kíli with a nonchalant flick of her wrist.

"Or nothing," she sneers. Comprehendable Westron is discarded immediately afterwards as she swings the door firmly shut on Kíli, walking away without a further look behind. The clanging of the metal on wood reverberates loudly but Kíli can hear the hesitation in her response to whatever the blonde elf says and she clutches the talisman closer and smiles. The muttering of the rest of the company about disrespect and ill treatment of prisoners and bloody elves does nothing to dim the sudden glow of elation that falls over her like the moon rise.

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Tauriel calls out the command for a volley again, watching the shafts fall on the roiling black mass that fills the valley between the two spurs of the Lonely Mountain with a grim sort of delight. The initial adrenaline of the battle had faded in the hours since first contact and all she had done so far was watch her arrows fall on the heads of goblins. She had not yet met an enemy blade to blade but she still made her count to be at least 32. Further up the Southern slope, Legolas calls for a volley from his command and the arrows hiss over her head, flickering with a steely light.

The mattocks and axes of the Iron Hill dwarrows are being put to good use as their contingent hacks a swathe through the goblin host from the east and Tauriel notes a number of men of the Lake among them, wielding long swords that flashed brightly under the sun. The spears of the Elves are scattered over the valley, gleaming with the chill flame of wrath as the charge is renewed. Shrill goblin screaming mixed in with the deeper cries of the dwarves and men drifts up to Tauriel and she smiles, fiercely glad for the slaughter being enacted on the goblins. They have not caused as much slaughter among her people as the orcs that killed her parents, but she had lost friends to their cruel traps.

The day draws on longer and longer, the stench growing worse as the black blood of goblins stains the valley. It is not long before Tauriel is fully involved in the battle as goblins come over the mountain from the other side, an ambush on the leaders who still rest on the side of the mountain. Thranduil is flanked all about by his guard and he wields the sword that he had taken from Thorin Oakenshield skillfully, a burning hate on his face that is frightful to look upon. But the elves are more numerous than the goblins and Tauriel is pulling a spare arrow from the skull of the goblin she has just stepped over when the cry goes up and a ringing trumpet calls out over the battlefield.

A great crash resounds through the mountain as the front gates fall open and Tauriel watches in amazement as the company of dwarrows comes rushing out. Gone are the tatters that they left the borders of Mirkwood clothed in for the company is covered in glittering mail, the like of which Tauriel has not seen in battle for years. Thorin Oakenshield leads the charge, using an axe just as destructively as Thranduil using Orcrist. He is flanked by his whole company but Tauriel cannot help but look to the figure, dark-haired and brightly mailed, immediately behind Thorin, causing just as much damage as he as they turn aside the foes he has missed in his headlong charge. Tauriel's heart almost skips a beat to see Kíli on the battlefield when not a week ago she was writhing in pain on the floor of Bard's house but Tauriel supposes the dwarrowdam is much hardier than she has given her credit for.

"To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!" The call echoes upon the side of the mountain and Tauriel watches from far above as tiny mailed figures fight their way through to the rallying point of the King Under the Mountain, forming a great wedge through the ranks of the goblins as they overrun all in their path. Her attention wavers as Legolas comes to stand by her, a look of contempt on his face.

"At last he comes out of his hiding place," he says spitefully, wiping black blood from the blade of one of his knives with a corner of his tunic. The blood on his face is not so easily gotten rid of and Legolas curses under his breath.

Tauriel merely glances over at him before returning her focus to the smaller figure behind Oakenshield, shooting what look like slivers of silver light even to elven eyes at this distance. The dwarrows are still advancing quickly but their charge is not so effective as the valley widens and they get further into the enemy lines, where the goblins have braced for the onslaught that comes upon them. A feeling of uneasiness slides up her spine and Tauriel widens her field of vision, trying to find what has triggered this unconscious uncertainty. A slithering column of black in the corner of her vision catches her focus and she inhales sharply, comprehending the inevitable outcome of the goblin force's movement.

"They are being surrounded," she says, words catching in her throat. She can feel the moment that Legolas comprehends what she means for his head snaps up from his blade and the pale face stiffens in shock and horror for as much as Legolas despises the dwarven king, what is to come will simply be an extended slaughter. Tauriel is already turning away, leather boots slipping slightly on the blood covered stone as she runs back to the rest of the elven guard. If she is to go into battle, she must have more arrows and the guard must have another commander. None of them question her orders to stay and protect the king or the appointment of her lieutenant to command; she wonders at what her face must look like when all that is flashing through her head is dark hair wet with blood and a face pale with sweat. It is not hard to see a path down the mountain but she will have to fight her way through half the goblin army to warn the dwarven king.

"Oakenshield and his company are running straight into the trap," Legolas calls after her. "What do you think you can do against an entire army of goblins?"

"I can at least try to get them out of there," Tauriel says. Her quiver is full and her knives are where they always are, albeit a little worse for the wear from the number of goblins they have already felled today. "Do I have your aid or not?" She knows already what his answer will be but it is still satisfying to hear the sullen silence and light footsteps following her as she starts down the mountain.

She begins her descent slowly but the slope is steep and before long it takes all the coordination she has developed in the years she has raced through Mirkwood after spiders and orcs to keep her balance as she leaps from rock to rock, descending tens of feet in seconds. Behind her she hears Legolas cursing rather foully as he almost missteps and she watches her steps even more carefully after that. It does Kíli no good if Tauriel breaks her neck in an attempt to get to Kíli in time.

Fortunately, neither she nor Legolas encounter disaster on their rushed trip down the mountain and they crash into the side of the goblin army with blades ready. The thick press of goblins about them is easy enough to cut through at first but soon Tauriel gives silent thanks for Legolas' aid when the bodies become too numerous to fight off without aid. A part of her attention is ever on the gleaming spearhead of dwarrows in the middle of the goblin army and their slow progress. When they get close enough for her to see through the goblins that Kíli is stil mostly unharmed, she breathes deeper and redoubles her efforts, spurring Legolas onward in his own attacks.

Tauriel breaks through the veritable wall of goblins by knifing a particularly tall one in the back and it is a startled Kíli that brings her bow up to aim at the sudden appearance of two elves where a moment ago there was a viciously snarling goblin. The shock fades to confusion and a subtle joy but Tauriel does not have the time she wishes she had to gaze upon the apparently much recovered Kíli, stunning in what is surely the finest mail of Erebor and the red light of fierce battle in her eyes. Legolas has already put his back to hers and pulled out his bow, giving her the respite from the battle she needs to talk to Kíli.

"You need to retreat," Tauriel shouts, loud enough to be heard over the clangor of axe and sword on armor and Oakenshield's enraged war cries. "The goblins are closing in behind you and you do not have the numbers to fight your way out." The light shining in Kíli's eyes dims for a moment and she nods in comprehension before spinning to fire a shot to the right, felling a goblin that had been about to charge at them.

"I'll get Uncle if you can cover my back," Kíli yells back, not waiting for a response before she turns to forge her way through to where Oakenshield is still advancing, the blind madness of battle obviously upon him. Tauriel obliges, grabbing Legolas' mailed shoulder to pull him along as he cuts down yet another goblin attempting to interfere with their conversation. Fíli stares at them for a moment as they approach where he protects Oakenshield's back but seems to decide that there are more important things to do than comment on than his sister's elven retinue, such as hacking down goblins.

As disinclined as Oakenshield is to trust the word of an elf, Kíli at least gets some sense through to him and his powerful voice rings out, calling for a retreat to the gates of Erebor. Tauriel thanks the lady of stars that he at least listened for once as the fight back to the gates is still hard, and would have been harder had they delayed by even a second. The goblins she had spotted had almost made their way to the gates, where they had no doubt been planning to follow the path of the dwarrows' charge and take them from behind.

The fight for the gates themselves is still desperate and Tauriel curses as she fires off her last arrow, slinging her bow over her back and drawing the twin blades at her back while stepping delicately on the back of a fallen goblin who is still trying to get up. A quick stab downwards fixes that problem but before she can straighten up, an arrow sings over her head. A quick glance behind shows a goblin with crude sword still upraised, dwarven arrow lodged in his throat. Looking forward, Tauriel sees Kíli with bow upraised and has to swallow down the bubbling smile when the dwarrowdam winks at her.

"Are we even now?" Tauriel says. Her knife comes loose with a slight gurgling sound and she stands to look around. She sees the plateau before the main entrance mostly clear of live goblins and Oakenshield beckoning the dwarven stragglers up the hill impatiently.

"Not quite yet," Kíli says. "I still owe you for the healing."

"Of course," Tauriel says embarrassedly, not wishing to say that she needed no recompense for saving Kíli. She almost considers saying it but Legolas appears quickly beside her, again cleaning black blood from his own knives.

"There is a cry on the heights: the Eagles are coming! The tide turns in our favor," he exclaims, a fierce joy on his face to see the great winged forms bearing down on the valley.

 

"At last, some truly good news," Kíli sighs, leaning her weight on her bow for a moment, stubbled face still with the growing exhaustion of combat that even Tauriel can feel winding through her body. "I suppose Uncle will want to see that I am unharmed before he plunges back into battle. May Mahal keep your blades sharp!"

Tauriel does not let herself stare after Kíli and ignores the accusing glare of Legolas to pay attention to her knives. The battle is not yet over and they must stay in good condition while she must stay focused on the battle rather than uncommonly attractive dwarrowdams. She does not have much time to think after that and she is glad for it: too much time for thought means too much time to worry about Kíli's fate.

Despite the aid of the Eagles of Manwe, the final blow in the battle only comes when the shapechanger begins his vicious assault at the back of the valley, oddly coordinated with the second charge that Oakenshield leads from the gate. The final assault and subsequent slaughter of the goblin army still does not mean the end for Tauriel as she is still occupied in picking off the survivors as they flee towards Mirkwood and Laketown over flatter terrain that makes it easy for the elven archers to spot them.

As such, it is almost sunset when Tauriel finally makes her return to the veritable city of tents at the bottom of the mountain, wondering vaguely through the hazy torpor of fatigue how Kíli is faring in the aftermath of the battle. It is only when she makes her way to the tents of the healers to see if someone can give her bandages and salves enough that she can tend to her own minor wounds that she gets the answer to her bemused wonderings. It takes a moment for her to recognize Kíli but when she does, a small moan of dismay passes her lips.

The dwarven figure that the healers are laboring frantically over is without a doubt Kíli but the red colored light of the fading sun slants harshly over the gaping wound in her stomach and Tauriel can feel her own stomach protest before she turns aside and vomits. She stares at the contents of her own stomach in faint disbelief before steeling herself to move past the open tent despite the burning knot in her throat and the wetness behind her eyes and the trembling in her limbs. There is nothing she can do and it shouldn't hurt her this much to contemplate the mortality of a dwarrowdam she met just over a week ago when her life stretches before her unseeing eyes into eternity. It shouldn't hurt like her own chest is torn open.

It does.

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The dust that floats around the records room is thick and dry as it tickles in Kíli's nose and throat. The disintegrating book she drops on the discard pile is no help, sending up a great cloud of decomposed paper flakes and yet more dust motes to plague her. It's hard to resist the temptation to sneeze but Kíli much prefers an itching nose to convulsing in pain from the pulling on the ruined skin and delicate stitches in her stomach. As it turns out, there's not that much that a recuperating dwarrowdam can do to repair a ruined dwarf kingdom (or at least not much healers will agree to let her do). Other than sort through the musty and ruined books that Ori sets in stacks for her, that is.

It's not that she minds having something useful to do rather than the endless tedium of those first days laying in the healers tents or the choking feeling of the rooms she has not yet been able to sleep through the night in but books which practically fall apart in one's hands hold even less interest for Kíli than brand new books. She reaches, without much thought to the now routine action, to find a new book, pulling the cover open and holding her breath to avoid inhaling the roiling of the disturbed dust. It shows how bored and dazed by the insistent throbbing in her gut Kíli is that it takes until the third line of angular text for her to realize just what this particular book is. The next moment, the book slams shut with a gusty thud and Kíli holds her breath as well as she can, desperately attempting not to go into another coughing fit and catch Ori's attention. It's already embarrassing how he flutters around her when Kíli isn't coughing a lung up and Kíli would not like to add to her embarrassment by letting Ori find her with a book like this in her hands.

The sharpness of the urge to cough dissipates gradually and Kíli decides it's time to stop acting like she's a wee dwarrow, not allowing herself time to regret the decision before she flips open the book again. Ignoring the text with the same intense focus she feels in battle, Kíli examines the pages with an eye that has become increasingly skilled at identifying which books are either beyond redemption, possibly salvageable, or remarkably well preserved for their age. This particular book feels like it had plentiful and loving attention paid to it, the pages still smooth to the touch and its binding not even going stiff yet.

As much as she tries to stop it, Kíli's mind wanders while she continues to page through the text, fingers smoothing over the pages for signs of damp and eyes looking for any evidence of rot or decay. She exercises a studious neglect of the condition of the inked text and the blush that burns high on her stubbled cheeks fades just in time for Ori to come tottering around the corner, the top of his head visible over the pile of books he carries. The huffing and grunting in the distance gives Kíli more than enough warning to toss the book onto the pile of the books she had found were still fresh enough to keep around for a while and make an attempt to wipe her returning blush away with the sheer power of her will.

When Ori simply drops off his teetering stack of books and doesn't try to engage in conversation, Kíli sends up a silent prayer of thanks to Mahal and attempts to drown the memory of what she'd just read in the moldy pages of what looks to be a text on the methodology of creating effective alloys. She refuses to admit that it isn't an effective diversion at all or that her thoughts keep tripping back to the explicit sonnets and love declarations she had been examining before Ori's return. It doesn't matter that the poems in Khuzdul clearly spoke of "limbs as long and graceful as the blade of a sword" and "ears as pointed and shapely as the tip of an arrow," because Kíli has no interest in reading the glowing praise some ill-fated and stricken dwarrow had composed for a far off elven maiden. It really doesn't matter.

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She jolts awake in the night sometimes, sweat clinging to her skin and making their sheets a smothering enclosure, heart pushing against the fragile cage of her ribs, lungs pumping like the ever-moving bellows under the mountain, and for all her clarity of vision, eyes that refuse to see anything but dark. She did not use to sleep in the fashion of mortals, but walked the paths of reverie and dream, and on those nights she wishes she still walked those serene ways. For the dreams that come to her on nights like this are the what-ifs that still plague her and the inevitabilities that will haunt her forever.

She does not want to sleep again, to see the world of her darkest memories where the abbattoir of that final valley lies around her and nowhere does she see Kíli until with a painful start she does. It terrifies her to see the body of her beloved dwarrowdam lying on the ground of the valley, bathed in a sea of black contaminated with the red that leaks from her wounds and eyes growing glassy. It horrifies Tauriel that even as she places her hands against the punctures, the slashes, the gashes, they grow wider and wider under her fingers until there is nothing left beneath her fingers but an empty, gaping space. There is nothing left but a vacuum in her life, pulling all of her into it, taking all of the brightness and grace that resides in her and never giving back that which she desires the most.

She does not want to close her eyes, to see play out over the back of her eyelids the future of her most hopeless thoughts where the scent of death washes over her and before her is the shriveled body of the dwarrowdam she holds so close to her heart. That same heart cries out as she sees the bird-like eyes roaming over Tauriel's face and everything familiar in their long-shared chambers with no sign of recognition. The liveliness of Kíli's features has long since dulled and faded, leaving nothing behind but a relic, a sharply aching reminder of her bright spirit. The fingers that once held the finest bow Tauriel could craft and forged the lightest and straightest of arrows for their quivers tremble and shake, spotted and gnarled with age. Soon there will be no reminder of the dwarrowdam left, only a shell emptied of all the radiance as pure as starlight that seemed to almost spill through its cracks. Tauriel will be abandoned, adrift on the shores of an endless sea that has no bright lands on the other side, no gulls to call her home.

She does not sleep on those nights, nor does she attempt to travel the path of reverie. She calms herself and does not force the sorrow away. She welcomes the sadness and the grief because she cannot flee from the future and make herself blind to what will come. She holds closer the body that still nestles to hers, the spirit that still graces her life. She watches and she waits for the morning, when Kíli will open her eyes and smile up at her, for that is what Tauriel will hold close on the endless days when Kíli is gone from this world.

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The dank smell of long unused rooms, decay, and mold still pervades the halls of Erebor but it seems to Tauriel that either the weight of the population that has practically invaded Erebor for trade negotiations is at last overcoming the neglect of the citadel or her nose has finally begun to get accustomed to the strange odors beneath the mountain. Certainly the lack of breezes and sunlight is unnerving but she can always rectify that by taking a quick trip up one of the many escape tunnels leading to the exterior of the mountain that the King Under the Mountain has commanded built. The only thing she wants for now is life all around her and she doubts she can remedy that while she remains in Erebor as part of the diplomatic detachment: the mountain itself is rough exposed rock, far away from any forest that could make her feel enclosed in trees, surrounded by life that seems to go on forever, on all sides.

The sudden halt she has to make to keep from bowling over the smaller figure that also attempts to turn the corner interrupts her longing for the forests of home before it turns into homesickness rather than a want of familiarity. It takes her a moment of regaining footing left unsteady by the abrupt change in motion and the unfamiliar floor to look up and realize that the person she stopped short of colliding with is Kíli, braided coronet splendid and clothes still vibrant in the dimmer light of the corridors.

"Your highness," Tauriel says, dipping her head in the customary salute of lower rank soldiers to a ruling figure. She has not shown Kíli the proper respect that her rank deserves before now and it would be more than offensive to forgo it now that she does not have ignorance or the looser formality of battle as an excuse. She regrets it only moments later when she looks up and the stricken shock on Kíli's face make itself plain, hurt a close companion. The shock must be showing on her own face too because Kíli soon looks confused rather than a bit betrayed and surprised but even that fades to an expression as smooth as the floors beneath their feet. Tauriel wonders whether Oakenshield taught Kíli that expression and discards the idea a moment later because the King is as easy to read as a book, if more unpredictable in his moods and reasoning.

"Captain Tauriel," Kíli replies, her ornament bedecked head also dipping in a small tilt of recognition. "Might I inquire as to where you were attempting to go? These corridors are all but completely blocked off."

"The council room," Tauriel says. She fends off the embarrassment over losing her way by being lost in her homesickness by reminding herself that at least she has not managed to get as lost as the dwarrows did in Mirkwood. "Is there any possibility that you could assist me in finding my way there?" She curses the formality in her speech but it's practically elven nature to fall back on ceremony when uncertain or confused.

"Since I'm attempting to get there myself, it would be no trouble at all." Kíli's smile is charming as ever and Tauriel thinks that even if Kíli never takes the throne, she will still make an effective diplomat once she manages to curb her reckless tendencies. "If you would walk with me?" They fall into step soon enough and the echoes of their boots provide a more soothing sound to Tauriel's ears as two pairs of footsteps making a much less haunting and solitary sound.

From this angle, Tauriel has a perfect view of the top of Kíli's head and she cannot help but marvel again at the intricacy of her hair, so far removed from the casual loose hair and clip that were her only ornaments before. It cannot help but serve as a reminder of what difference there is in their ranks, a gap she did not fully know of when they first met; if the king of her own people cannot see beyond her race, how could the niece of Oakenshield look beyond her race and her rank? But Tauriel did not become Captain of the Guard by underestimating people and she cannot forget that Legolas has been her friend since her childhood and the difference in their ranks is just as great. She also reminds herself that Kíli has already reached out to her, even tried to talk to her when Tauriel was her imprisoner in Mirkwood, doing nothing but save her life in order to imprison her (and uncover her gender).

"I apologize for my formality earlier," Tauriel says before she can let herself think better of it. She keeps her eyes forward, not daring to peek a sidelong glance at Kíli's reaction. "I did not know if you would have been offended if I did not acknowledge your rank and I have no reason to assume you would welcome my presumptions." The comforting cacophony of their footfalls halts suddenly and Tauriel looks around to see the dwarrowdam halted a few feet behind her, mouth gaping in a rather slackjawed manner. Tauriel only raises a brow in confusion, unsure of what part of her apology would merit such a reaction.

"It's me who needs to apologize if you think that," Kíli says at last, her face almost brimming with good cheer. "You are more than welcome to use my name, in fact, I insist. And leave off with the titles, Fíli and Thorin aren't likely to die and leave me King Under the Mountain anytime soon. Although once my mother gets here, I wouldn't vouch for Thorin's safety anymore. I wouldn't even bet on my safety from a good tongue lashing once mother gets hold of me. Thorin's likely to tell her all the reckless things I've done in order to save his own sorry skin." She starts walking again, brushing against Tauriel's arm almost imperceptibly as they go back to their earlier positions, side by side.

"I'm sure there have been none of those," Tauriel says, voice just as dry as the air that washes over them now, the damp feel of the abandoned areas finally fading. She looks down just in time to see the quick grin fleet over Kíli's face, flushed with joy and good health as Tauriel has never seen her before.

They end up being late to the start of the council negotiations but the look on Thranduil and Oakenshield's faces assures her she's missed nothing important. Legolas glares at her as she takes her place, no doubt grumpy that she's missed the opening fireworks while he's had to sit through them. Her eyes meet Kíli's across the table and she can't help but wink and chuckle under her breath at the delighted grin she gets from the dwarrowdam in response, quickly stifled under a more suitable somber expression when Fíli turns a questioning look on her. No doubt the negotiations will end in some unpleasant explosions until Oakenshield and Thranduil reach some mutually spiteful conclusion but while that's happening, Tauriel can at least get to know Kíli better. There's no harm in the Woodland Realm having at least one positive link to the Line of Durin.

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Kíli tosses the talisman up again, watching it flash through the air before coming down again to land in her outstretched hand. Tauriel has already left, gone to the feast of starlight or whatever the elves are celebrating. Dinner had come shortly after, green and unappealing yet again. It continues to amaze Kíli how strange the elves' notions of food were; she had heard Ori bemoaning the same earlier, somewhere above and to her left.

Her mother's talisman glints in the eerie light of the Woodland Realm, color showing through the dark surface. Kíli halts her rhythmic tossing and holds it in her hand, considering the deeply etched runes and the glossily smooth surface of the rock. Talismans are special, made from rock unhewn by dwarrows and shaped only by the use of natural means: gritty sand and water, wind and fire, any tool that had not been made. It can take decades to shape one talisman and Kíli wonders how many years it took her mother to force this mineral to her will, to smooth the roughened surface into glistening finish, to alter the shape to something perfect and oblong. Fíli has a talisman as well and Kíli ponders how her mother must have felt, to know somewhere in her deepest heart that this day was coming and to make these talismans for her children, trying her best to keep them safe even as they slipped through her outstretched fingers.

And through her long imprisonment, Kíli sometimes thinks about what kind of talisman one would give to an elf. An elf that she knows almost nothing about but knows Kíli's secrets, who talked of her love for starlight but still listened to her wax on about the fire moon. In the corners of Kíli's mind she turns it over and over, discarding mineral after mineral as too dull, too plain, too easy. At last, she settles on an opal, perfect for the changeable and beautiful elves, flashes of an ethereal and unworldly nature bleeding through the more down to earth aspects. It is only when she starts to wonder what the purpose of the talisman for the elf would be when Bilbo arrives and then all is forgotten in the roar of the river and the burn of the poisoned arrow.

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The fire is cheerful and bright but the heat it provides is negligible compared to the chill of the wind. Kíli huddles further in her fur trimmed cloak and wishes she was sitting next to the fires of her uncle's forge again, as they did every winter when they couldn't afford the fuel to keep the fires going in the house going. Even more than that, she wishes her uncle had not decided to send her on the so-called expedition to ensure that the lands surrounding the lonely mountain were free of goblins; it's not that she minds him showing his trust in her as a leader and warrior, it's that he sent her out into the wild with a rowdy bunch of men and elves in the middle of the winter months. The wide scar over her stomach twinges as the wind picks up, tugging at the edges of her cloak and tearing the tents out of the hands of the men that are trying to assemble them. A hoarse chuckle sounds behind her and Kíli tilts her head back to see Tauriel, gray-green Elvish cloak wrapped around herself like a caterpillar's cocoon.

"I wish I had had the foresight to secure my hair as you have," Tauriel says. Her face is rueful as she looks down at Kíli instead of watching the now cursing men with amusement; Tauriel's own red hair is tangling wildly in the wind despite her attempts to keep it in her large hood. Kíli reaches up to run her fingers over her braided crown with a touch of surprise. It's not a particularly intricate hairstyle, even for traveling purposes, and she hasn't added any embellishments to the braids, forgoing even the hair clips from Thorin that signify her official rank as Prince of Erebor. She glances at the ribbons of red hair teased by the freezing wind and imagines them in jeweled braids worthy of any dwarven lordling, showcasing the rank and achievements of the elven captain.

"I could do it for you," Kíli blurts out. She curses her impudent tongue a second later and averts her eyes from Tauriel's face, blushing from more than the fierce bit of the wind. "If you want, that is." She had been working on taming the impulsiveness of her speech now that Thorin had decided she was to be trusted with command and a place in negotiations. The journey had done much to calm her recklessness but Kíli was glad her mother wasn't here now to see her foolishness.

"I would be glad of the help." Kíli peeks up at Tauriel's face and is relieved to see no raised eyebrows, no reproach in her keen eyes, just curiosity and something else she can't quite pin down. "It is a kind offer but I would wait to take you up on it until the tents go up. I would rather not be sitting in the wind for that."

"Just as well," Kíli says, grin stretching her chapped lips. The skin of her lips is broken and scabbed from the cold but Kíli doesn't feel the pain through the numbness of a frozen face and euphoria. "I'd rather not freeze off my fingers trying to do your hair. I imagine you wouldn't want that either, if only to prevent the pain of trying to wash frozen blood out of your hair."

"That does sound less than appealing," Tauriel agrees, her miraculously unmarred lips curving up. Kíli wonders how she keeps them so perfect when they've been camping in the wilderness for longer than two weeks now, encountering goblins every other day or so. It's been bloody and exhausting to skirmish so often without a proper rest from the weather but they haven't lost more than a handful of people, all of them men from Laketown and therefore not really Kíli's concern.

"Tents are up!" A hoarse cheer goes up from the rest of the group huddled around the blazing fire and there is a mass movement to where the horses are picketed as the troop hurry to unpack their supplies and get their mounts inside the windbreak of the tents. Kíli stays where she is, gesturing Tauriel to join her on her comfortable seat of rock. The furor dies down once everyone has situated their things to their satisfaction in their tents and the horses are no longer in danger of freezing to death in the night. With a sigh and a barely audible curse, Kíli levers herself to her feet.

"Hey!" The excited murmurs die down faster now than they did at the beginning of the journey; the men and elves, plus a significant number of the dwarrows, had not been particularly keen on listening to the niece of Thorin Oakenshield, despite the fact that most of them stil thought her his nephew, but weeks of fighting side by side and sometimes saving each others' lives have dulled the edges of their animosity towards each other and her. Tauriel's silent and unwavering support doesn't hurt either (except maybe with the dwarves).

"Fourth shift, tonight's your night for first watch. Fifth shift, you're on second watch, and sixth shift, you're stuck on third. First shift, it's your night to cook dinner again, please make it edible. Any questions?" There is some resentful shifting and murmuring but no one pipes up with any rude aspersions on her heritage like the first night, so Kíli counts it a success. The meetings at the beginning of the journey had left Kíli channeling the sharp tongue of her mother and trying to imitate the majestic and commanding manner that came so naturally to her uncle, to less effect than she had hoped for. The knife that had stuck in the sod by the foot of the last person who complained about a stripling being put in charge of them had silenced the protests that night and the threatening look she had graced them all with the next night had been more useful, if less diplomatic. She had vowed then to make Fíli a new knife for his next namesday in thanks for the one he had lent her and the advice that had made it so useful.

The group disperses to huddle in their tents to escape the chill or go about their various duties and Kíli herself follows the example of the former, thanking Mahal for the sturdiness of their tents when she brushes the flap aside and steps into a welcoming warmth, made better by the complete absence of the wind outside that rages as if it were the breath of Mahal himself's bellows. The clever brazier that Bofur had made for her rests in the center of the tent, right between the pile of her supplies and the neater pile of Tauriel's things. It burns coal like any other brazier but manages to be completely spillproof, ensuring that even if Kíli's nightmare induced thrashing knocks it over, she is not likely to burn down the camp in a flash fire. She hunkers down by the brazier after discarding her heavier weapons with a grateful sigh, intending to thaw her fingers before she attempts to undo the traveling knots that hold her bags together.

It doesn't take long for the quiet of the camp to become filled with the sounds of rowdy laughter and raucous jokes; Kíli doesn't mind the noise at all but finds it more comforting. In exile, any worries that the dwarrows of Erebor might have had about propriety were disregarded for the purpose of making the best that they could of their survival and the Company's journey had been much the same. Whatever Men may think about their female children, dwarrows raise them just the same as their male children. Dwarrowdams are too few and precious to be sheltered and helpless should the worst happen; it makes Kíli laugh to think about anyone trying to make her mother conform to any of the ridiculous ideas Men hold for their women or worse, trying to prevent her from learning how to fight alongside her brothers. She remembers other winter nights huddled around the forge as her uncle told story after story of his siblings sneaking in to watch his weapons training or causing mischief when they tried to emulate him and her mother retaliating with endless tales of Thorin and Frerin's ridiculous attempts to make their beards grow faster when it became clear that despite being youngest, hers was going to come in first.

"Dinner's ready." Kíli nearly falls over face first from startlement when Tauriel's voice comes from behind her yet again, spinning around to glare at the elf who has somehow figured out how to open the tent flap without causing any noise whatsoever. Grumbling underneath her breath about elves who sneak up on unwary dwarrowdams, Kíli reluctantly emerges from her tent to join the joyful congregation around a happily simmering stewpot, bowl and spoon in hand. Breakfast is cold porridge by the time she wakes up and lunch is frozen cram on the ride, making dinner her favorite meal of the day as well as making her long for the sumptuous dinner of their night at Bag End.

The comfortable chatter that the troop has struck up fades into the back of Kíli's head as she goes over the supply totals in her head and tries to figure how many more miles they can range before they have to turn back to avoid running out of food. She blows on her spoonfuls of stew without much thought and grimaces a moment later when the stew is chilled rather than warm, cursing the wind. Winter is much less comfortable in the middle of the wild and she thinks longingly of the great dining hall of Erebor, fires blazing up and down its length to drive away the chill and damp of the mountain.

"I'm telling you, it's not right!" There is nothing that draws attention so much as a hastily hushed voice and this one breaks Kíli out of her preoccupation. The voice is easily identifiable as Stein, one of the men of Laketown who had objected more strenuously to being led by a dwarrow on what he described as a 'foolish hunt for nothing that will get us all killed'. Kíli grits her teeth and tries to block out his voice entirely, sure it will be nothing but another criticism of her leadership skills. "A female with a beard! Not even a real one, nothing but stubble! She must be some kind of unnatural changeling!" His words echo awkwardly in the sudden silence that falls from the dwarrows gathered around the fire. Kíli is used to mumblings hidden behind beards and perhaps an occasional double edged comment from a more traditional dwarrow but this blatant disrespect for her entire race is not unsurprising.

"Did I think you knew what you said rather than being only a gimizhâl, Stein of Laketown, I would challenge you to combat," Kíli spits, the anger in her voice almost too harsh for her tongue, burning her throat on the way to her lips. She does not remember dropping her stew or getting to her feet but she finds herself drawing herself up into the formal posture that Balin drilled into her as a wee dwarrowdam. "You cast aspersions on things you have no understanding of and you insult not only me but my mother, sister of the King Under the Mountain, and the King himself. Consider it mercy that I do not demand the trial of combat for you are more ignorant than I believed possible if you think you could best me. Instead, you will be given a weeks' worth of supplies and left here. Should I find you attempting to follow us, your corpse will be left for the Ravens of Erebor or the goblins to pick clean, whichever find you first." Her voice almost cracks on the last sentence and she turns with muscles stiffened by cold, overuse, and the trembling rage that almost overpowers her to return to her tent.

It takes a long time after the tent flap closes behind her for the conversation to resume and it remains hushed and nervous. It gives Kíli a sense of vicious satisfaction to hear the light clipping of horses' hooves fade into the night not five minutes after she enters her tent and she wishes Stein good luck with covering over two weeks of frozen wasteland on his own with only a week of provisions. The sound of the tent flap opening behind her is not unexpected but she doesn't turn to look at Tauriel, tears still drying on her face in the heat that radiates from her brazier. Kíli can't really attribute the numbness in her limbs to the cold anymore but she sits in the same position that she all but fell into once the tension singing in her joints dissipated.

"I really do need to work on dealing with my temper," she says, working as hard as she can to make her voice light and airy, not bogged down with the murky mess that still boils in her chest. A rustling prompts her to raise her gaze from the cheerful glow in the brazier to see Tauriel moving in front of her, settling down into a cross legged pose that places her not only below Kíli but her back to Kíli. Tauriel pushes back her hair in an obvious invitation and the measured breaths Kíli had been taking rush out of her chest with a pang. She concentrates on stilling the trembles of her hands and reaches out, hesitating for only a moment before pulling the already present clasps out of Tauriel's hair, hissing for a moment at the cold metal on her fingers.

Tauriel's hair is chilly beneath Kíli's callused fingers but it warms in the heat of their tent as she combs through it gently with her fingers, ignoring the comparisons that spring to mind: the red hot color of steel in the forge and the sparks that fly when one strikes it, a fire moon in a starry sky. Tauriel must have stayed to make sure no one else tried anything in Kíli's sudden absence and a rush of grateful warmth floods Kíli's limbs as she keeps stroking through the elf's hair, gently pulling apart the tangles that she finds. It's easy to section off the long hair and begin to braid it, steadily pulling in more and more of the strands until Kíli feels like she is working with molten copper, tendrils spilling over and around her hands in a silken fall. The raging storm in her chest begins to calm and she pulls a single jeweled hairpin from the pockets of her tunic after rifling through them one-handed, fingers brushing against both her hair ornaments and a rough stone that would reflect the light in a riot of colors if she pulled it out. As she secures the end of the spiraling braid in place with a the hairpin, a single emerald in the center of a spiraling mass of hair on the back of Tauriel's head, Tauriel speaks.

"The other dwarrows would not explain to me what the combat was, or what you called Stein, but I heard enough to know your actions were more than justified." Kíli's arms sag with unexpected weakness as the unexpected reprieve sinks in. She had not thought that Tauriel would approve, would even think to ask why Stein had offended, would understand how the honor of one's line and family was so important to dwarrows. That she had done, that she did, was too much to bear, a comfort that was almost smothering in its significance.

"Âkminrûk zu," Kíli whispers. "Thank you for your kind words." Traditional responses are all she can summon now, too deep in emotion to truly form any thoughts. Tauriel whirls in an abrupt motion, seizing Kíli's hands before she can move back in startlement. The elf holds Kíli's hands in hers as if Kíli's hands are something precious instead of calloused and work worn and roughened by the work of a warrior and Kíli swallows, anxiety clogging her throat.

"I did not say it just to console, mellon nin. Your hands hold both justice and mercy, no matter what you think. You are a gifted archer and a true warrior, a protector, and you did not deserve the disrespect that he showed you. The sacrifice of your vanity for your calling is something that is truly sacred, no matter which Valar looks upon your people with favor," Tauriel says, voice low and vehement. It is almost too intimate for Kíli to bear and she cannot keep her eyes on Tauriel's, instead casting them down to stare at the fine-boned fingers that are just as much those of a warrior at hers but look as if they are meant for finer things, to be graced with intricately tooled and finely designed rings as they pluck over the strings of a harp or some equally beautiful and refined elven pursuit. "You should sleep tonight."

"I could say the same to you," Kíli says. She chokes down the joy and relief and worry in her chest that are rising as fast as the water in a mine shaft that has hit the aquifers that run beneath the mountains. "You never sleep at all." She musters up a teasing smile but when she glances up, Tauriel's face only grows more worried, so it must not be as convincing as she had hope it would be.

"Then tonight I shall keep you company in true dream," Tauriel says, letting go of Kíli's hands to rest her own hands on the dwarrowdam's shoulders before shoving Kíli with a feather-light touch towards her bedroll. She doesn't remember having set it up but it is laid out before, complete with all her furs on top. It is not too unusual for them to sleep in their armor but Kíli still feels overdressed, as if she is wearing too many clothes for what just transpired, when she lays herself down on the surprisingly comfortable ground and tugs her covers over herself. Tauriel dims the brazier by use of a clever screen on the inside and lies down in her own bed roll, whispering across the short distance between them, what she has whispered every night they have shared the tent, "Abarad, losto vae." The familiarity of the Sindarin phrase is reassuring to Kíli and she relaxes into the deeper warmth of her bedroll with no more compunctions. She glances over at Tauriel from over her furs and sighs with sudden and regretful realization.

"I'll have to redo your hair in the morning," she whispers, not willing to break the quiet peace that lies between them with anything louder. Tauriel's eyes meet hers and crinkle at the corners with the rest of her face in a barely visible smile.

"I look forward to it then, mellon," Tauriel says in the same fashion. In the dim light, Kíli almost misses the hand snaking out the other's bed roll and reaching across the space towards her. It takes a moment to extricate her own limb from the thick blankets but she returns the gesture, their fingers meeting a little closer to Kíli than the exact middle of the space by dint of their respective arm lengths. Tauriel's smile appears again and Kíli can feel her own lips responding, the pain of the cracking scabs a distant thing. A smile is still painted across her stubbled cheeks when she slips into the depths of dreaming. Kíli does not know it but Tauriel watches her expression, fingers still laced together in the middle of the tent, until she also falls over the edge of sleep. The wind howls around the tent but the howls of wolves are far away and their sleep that night is untroubled.

Chapter Text

The party's return to Erebor is not quite a valiant and victorious thing, being closer to a scrambling retreat from the oncoming snowstorm that they had been running from all night. They don't even stop to dismount, riding straight through the open and now repaired gates of Erebor to gather in the first entrance hall. Kíli slumps over the neck of her pony as she watches for the last stragglers to come streaming through the gate before calling for it to be shut. She looks on the laborious struggle of those closing the gate against the gale force wind with the bemusement of the chilled and exhausted, rubbing her hands together in a somewhat futile attempt to warm them with the friction. Dwarrows are hardy enough creatures but the party has ridden since yesterday morning, when they first caught sight of the menacing clouds, and it had only gotten colder and windier since then, icy fingers slipping under everyone's cloaks and tickling at the gaps between garments, sending shivers up and down their spines.

Kíli glances up at an approaching noise to see Tauriel brings her horse closer to Kíli, hoofbeats on stone echoing oddly in the expanse of the entrance hall. Kíli looks up at her from the back of her more diminutive pony and musters up a grin even though her face still feels like it is half made of ice. Tauriel's hair is still in Kíli's braids, redone every morning with mostly thawed fingers before they had to leave the warmth of the tent to break camp. Kíli flushes every time she catches sight of them and Tauriel doesn't help at all, reaching up to touch her hair often, still unable to see what it truly looks like because of the complete lack of any mirrored surfaces and trying to figure it out through touch alone. It isn't quite a platonic thing to braid another's hair, especially if you're not family or even close friends, but Kíli hopes that Tauriel doesn't get illuminated about this part of dwarf culture for a while yet.

"Kíli!" Her name resounds around the enclosed space and the force of the call still bounces off the sheer stone when the caller comes to a halt next to her pony. Kíli lets out a cry of sheer, uncontrollable joy and throws herself off her pony, cracking her skull against her mother's in a rough greeting as they go down in a pile of limbs. Kíli hardly feels the impact of the floor through the comforting bulk of Dís' body, instead focusing on the muscled arms that are tight around her midsection and chest in a hug that is every bit as fierce as her uncle's.

"Amad, amad, amad, amad," Kíli murmurs, voice low and hoarse as she repeats a chant as familiar and reassuring as her mother's embrace. Her mother loosens her hug to stroke back the hair that escapes Kíli's braids and falls over both of them and Kíli is embarrassed to feel tears roll down her face and drip into her mother's beard. She stifles a sudden sob and hugs her mother harder for a long moment before roughly wiping her face with a still chilled hand and getting up, offering a hand to her mother that is disregarded, Dís getting to her feet with all the grace of a warrior. Her mother's hair is now as streaked with silver as Thorin's, single head braid running down the length of her back and still decorated only with the mourning beads that she placed there after the death of Kíli and Fíli's father. Her beard is far more impressive and elaborate than Thorin's, twisted and braided into an delicate latticed pattern that makes Kíli think of the doilies that Bilbo had been so protective of at their first meeting, but beside that, they look so similar in face that they could be the same person rather than siblings, if one ignored the entirely un-Thorinlike glint of mischief in Dís' eyes.

"You go away for not even a year and already you are as tall as me!" Dís says, her hands coming to rest on Kíli's shoulders, warmth and comfort seeping from the broad palms. "Ach, your poor brother will be so disappointed that he still remains as short as he has always been!" Kíli laughs, suprising herself with the force of it; being the younger and yet the taller has always been a point of contention between her and Fíli.

"He should have learned to live with it by now," Kíli says, dashing the last of the tears from her face and feeling her thawing cheeks. Her pony has been standing faithfully behind her despite her sudden jump from his back and she turns around to start unloading the baggage before she can start crying again with relief. Against her better judgement, Kíli glances up at Tauriel, still seated atop her horse as she watches the proceedings unfold, and finds her cheeks now flooded with warmth as the elf looks over at her at the same time, their eyes meeting. Tauriel's hands are at her hair again and Kíli can feel her mother's hard stare on her back because there is no way that Dís ever could or would mistake traditional Dwarrow braiding for any elf made braid and unlike Tauriel, she knows exactly what they mean. Kíli looks back at her hands as she struggles against the numbness to undo the buckles of her pack and sends up an unverbalized prayer to Mahal that she can avoid the sure to be painful discussion of this with her mother and uncle for as long as possible. And that Tauriel doesn't figure out what the braids mean before Kíli gets a chance to tell her.

Chapter Text

Tauriel staggers back a few paces, keeping her balance by some small miracle; dwarrows are not particularly tall but they are compact missiles of muscle and bone when you run into them unexpectedly. She looks up, recognizes the person she ran into, and bows, crossing her arm over her chest and dipping her torso. The scoffing noise that the dwarrowdam makes at her gesture is unexpected but Tauriel straightens up, spine stiff with awkward discomfort.

"So you're the elf captain." It's not a question but a statement and Tauriel gulps. She's had opportunity to talk to her elven kindred since last she saw the Lady Dís and has now heard at least three different versions of how the first thing she did on her arrival was yell at the King Under the Mountain for his stupidity and recklessness and idiocy for however long it took for the rest of the caravan to arrive. Tauriel isn't expecting a much better reception for the elf who detained her kin on their quest and braces herself for whatever the dwarrowdam wants to say to her. "Thank you for saving my idiotic brother and my even more idiotic children." There is a rueful smile on the lady's face and she laughs at Tauriel's more than obvious confusion.

"My lady, I did only my duty," Tauriel starts, trying not to let her confusion become more and more apparent.

"Call me Dís, my brother is the one who insists on titles," the lady says, waving away Tauriel's explanation like an annoying branch in her face. "And it surely was not your duty to heal Kíli from the poison of a goblin arrow or to get my moronic brother out of the center of the battle before he got himself killed, unless the Elvenking has gone soft since I saw him last. So you have my thanks and if you refuse them, I will be quite upset."

Tauriel can feel the blush moving upward through her cheeks and she bows hastily, concealing her awkward bewilderment in the stiffness of formality and duty. Killing things and formal ceremonies are easy to navigate, but heartfelt thanks and other things involving emotions are foreign and puzzling. She thanks the Valar silently when the lady, Dís, seems to take that as acknowledgement enough and simply moves past her, continuing wherever she was headed before Tauriel ran into her. Tauriel takes a moment to breathe and regain her composure before setting off to try and find the Elven courier that's still stationed in Erebor so she can make her report to the Elvenking.

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"You know, for an elf, she's not too bad. You could have done much worse."
Kíli drops the arrow she'd been examining and whirls to gawp at her mother, standing in the doorway of Kíli's quarters, which had not been open just a moment ago. Then what her mother had said sinks through her skull and Kíli just stands there, mouth hanging open a bit like a fish and red flooding across her cheeks.

"Don't give me that look, nathith. Unlike your illustrious uncle, I can admit that the elves can be tolerable and more than a little pleasing to look on," Dís continues, blithely ignoring the strange noises that Kíli makes in response. "I'm certainly not about to jump in bed with one of them myself though."

"Amad!" Kíli's strangled cry of embarrassment and horror only brings a grin to Dís's face but she stops nevertheless. Kíli buries her face in her hands, trying not to think about her mother's words at all.

"Still so young, nathith, no matter how tall you are," Dís says, stroking Kíli's back in a soothing manner. "Your uncle is not likely to be as sanguine about your choice as I am but I'm sure I can beat some sort of sense into his skull eventually. Even he can acknowledge that a political union with Mirkwood is advantageous and he never has been able to deny you the things that brought you joy."

"Thank you, amad," Kíli murmurs, turning to hug her mother tightly. If a few tears make their way into Dís's hair or her beard becomes a little disarrayed, she's not complaining.

"Don't thank me, you still have to explain to the elf what those braids mean and then deal with your brother and uncle's reactions," Dís says, extracting herself from the embrace. She smirks at the look of sudden misgiving on Kíli's face and bestowing a kiss on Kíli's forehead, turns to leave.

"Amad? Really, thank you."

"You're my only nathith, what else was I going to do, fly into a fit like Thorin always does? I like to think I'm a bit more mature than that." The sound of Kíli's laughter follows her down the hall and Dís smiles.

 

Chapter Text

The tunnels of Erebor have reached some approximate of familiar to Tauriel's eyes and as much as she longs for trees about her and the crunch of leaves beneath her feet, she can appreciate the beauty of Erebor's halls, ores and gems glinting from the least likely of passages, great hewn gates and arches, and the gargantuan caverns of the central city. That she can now at least find her way most places without having to stop and ask a resigned-looking dwarf for directions has had no small part in this realization of beauty.

She walks with more confidence the closer she gets to the training rooms; she's spent more time in there than her rooms over the time that the elves have been stranded in Erebor. As skilled as elves can be on walking over the surface of the snow, there's no similarly convenient way for them to bring the trading wagons back with them through the snow drifts that still remain from the storm that arrived on the heels of the hunting party and so the Mirkwood elves remain in the mountain. There have been more fights to break up than Tauriel cares to think about over the past few days as the dwarrows are not sanguine about the continued elven presence and her fellow warriors are chafing at not being able to set out on their long-awaited return journey to the Woodland halls. Tauriel prefers to stay out of the way of both groups as they try to get her to resolve their issues for them and relieve her frustration in the elaborate training rooms that the lady Dís had mentioned to her when Tauriel first brought up the issue.

Tauriel slows her steps as she approaches the first of the training rooms which sounds occupied already, judging by the distinctive twang of arrow leaving bow and the thud of arrows into targets. She pushes on the door, left just a bit ajar, heart speeding up at the prospect of someone else in the practice room, intruding on the small space that Tauriel has gradually become comfortable in. The first thing she sees though is a broad back and a distinctive hair clip and Tauriel relaxes, fears put to rest. She has missed Kíli in the days since their hunting expedition ended and the dwarrowdam was swept up by her mother to help organize the housing and feeding of the influx of former refugees.

She lets the great door close behind her, slowing the heavy swing in order to muffle the sound as much as possible. It doesn't seem like Kíli heard her come in and Tauriel leans against the back wall for a moment, admiring both the accuracy and rapidity of Kíli's shots. Kíli has an entire basket of arrows resting by her right foot which Kíli steadily depletes as she fires at the opposite wall, covered in targets of varying height, size, and angle that can even be triggered to move by the levers set in the wall next to Tauriel. The training rooms are a great feat of engineering and Tauriel marvels every time at the intricacy and durability of the mechanisms for the system works as well as if the attack of the dragon was only yesterday.

The rhythm of the dwarrowdam's bow is steady and the thrumming of the bowstring vibrates off the smoothed walls and shudders its way into Tauriel's bones. The moment stretches on and Tauriel belatedly realizes that the dwarrowdam has fired her last arrow when she turns around, bow arm hanging limp and exhausted at her side.

"That was beautiful shooting," Tauriel blurts out. Kíli's eyebrows shoot up into her fringe, whether from surprise or confusion Tauriel cannot tell, and Tauriel curses her treacherous tongue as silence falls between them, awkward and uncertain. Compliments and delicate conversation have never been her area of expertise and Kíli makes her feel like she is less than a century old again, stuttering and fumbling in the high company of the Elvenking and his son.

"Only because I've finally worked the stiffness out of my side," Kíli says, grinning up at her. Tauriel smiles back, still unsure around the tentative boundaries of their relationship. "You should have seen me the first time I tried to pick up a bow after the Battle of Five Armies. I moped around uselessly for a week until Fíli threw a boot at my head and told me to get back to practicing." Tauriel is startled into a laugh, high and short, joined by Kíli's rougher chuckle.

"Nevertheless, it was impressive," Tauriel says, heat in her cheeks and a smile lingering on her lips. The dwarrowdam ducks her head in response and the glow of the lamps studded along the walls glints on the clip in the back of Kíli's hair, the hair beside her face pulled back in the same loose style that she wore during the quest.

"From you, a fine compliment indeed," Kíli says, shaking her unbound hair back from her face and walking towards the back of the room. She sets her bow against the wall and angles herself towards Tauriel, barely a few feet away now. "Were you looking for me or have I gotten in the way of practice of your own?"

"I had been planning to practice, but there is no need to stop on my account. I simply wished to avoid being called upon to break up another brawl," Tauriel says. "My kin are impatient to be gone and it makes them more quick to resolve a dispute with violence."

"Are you?" Kíli asks. "Impatient to be gone?" Her voice is harsher now and the depth of emotion in her eyes is too chaotic for Tauriel to understand, even guess at. She does not know what Kíli wants her to say, does not know how to say what lies in her heart. She feels the hum of the bowstring between them again, with Kíli even closer than before, some undefinable tension that she does not understand how to resolve.

"I have missed the forest halls dearly," Tauriel admits and she can see the dismay in Kíli's face now, the dimming of her features. Tauriel's own heart falls and she curses herself again, searching for the words to tell her mind and make this right. "But I have found that mountain halls have their own kind of beauty that I had not known to look for." Kíli looks down now and Tauriel cannot speak anymore, her heart has curled up in her chest and the tightness constricts her throat. Words are not her tools but her body always has been and she uses it now, reaching down to cradle Kíli's rough face in her archer's hands, callused but delicate in comparison to the dwarrowdam's, tilting Kíli's face up and leaning down to knock their foreheads together, as precise as the nock and release of an arrow, gentle as the touch of healing hands on a wound. She closes her eyes and does not watch Kíli, does not allow herself to regret her actions. Only when the twinging of her back becomes urgent rather than ignorable does Tauriel move away, eyelashes damp from welling tears sliding open for her to look at the dwarrowdam.

Eyes full of wonder look up at her and Tauriel opens her mouth to apologize, to ask forgiveness, to explain, to question, but Kíli has already dragged her back down and pressed her lips to Tauriel's, stubble scratching along the side of her face. It's overwhelming and not enough at the same time and Kíli's wide palms cradle her jaw as delicately as if she were the Arkenstone itself and Tauriel's hands slip beneath the heavy surcoat, feeling the radiating heat of exertion. Somehow they end up like this, Tauriel slumped against the wall and Kíli sprawled over her legs and arms pulling closer and lips touching and hands carding through disheveled hair. Words are for later.

Chapter Text

The departure of the elves is a tense affair. They are more than impatient to be on their way, not bothering to hide their joy at leaving the mountain, and the dwarrows who have gathered to watch them go are obviously rejoicing at the departure of the intrusive elven contingent. Tauriel stands near the great gate, still in the last phases of repair, and tacks her horse, refusing to look around for the source of the burning glares directed at her back. She turns to pick up the first of her saddlebags and refuses to startle when she finds it being held out to her by Dís.

"My lady Dís," Tauriel says, inclining her head and taking the bag. She hefts it in her arms and secures it to one of the straps on the back of the horse's saddle. Dís hands the next one to her without another word and they finish packing Tauriel's horse in the same silence.

"That idiot brother of mine has apparently decided the best way to deal with my stubborn daughter is to set a guard on her door. Since it's easier to let him think he's getting his way, at least at first, I've become a courier," Dís says, holding out a small parcel. Tauriel takes it hesitantly; it's heavier than it looks and the weight is comforting in her palm. The King Under the Mountain had not cared to find out that his sister-daughter was involving herself with an elven warrior and while the shouting had echoed down the halls for hours that morning, Tauriel has not seen Kíli since last night.

"My thanks," Tauriel says, crossing her arm over her chest. Dís just sighs instead of asking her not to this time; she knows when to pick her battles. Tauriel hesitates for a moment before continuing, "If I'm not presuming too much, would you give Kíli my thanks? And tell her that I'll write?" She knows her face is too open and happy as her fingers clutch at the hard lump of the parcel but Dís only smiles and nods.

A cough behind Tauriel draws their attention and a quick look around shows that the rest of the elves have finished their preparations. Dís has already gone, moving quickly to one side of the open gate to clear the path for the horses and wagons. Tauriel swings into the saddle, hand still clenched around the parcel, and calls the command to move out.

It's not until the elves are approaching Laketown, pace comfortable as they relax under the open sky, that Tauriel feels steady enough to open the package. Paper wrapped around a stone falls into her hand and she tucks the cloth and twine into her belt to open the paper. There's not much on it, just a smeared scribble that she thinks might be "sorry." But what it holds is more than astounding enough to make up for it: an opal in a plain setting of silver wire, flashing in the early morning light. The chain it hangs on is long enough to slip it over her head and tuck it into the front of her tunic and she does so, shivering as the gemstone and metal quickly warm to her skin. Tauriel does not know when she will see Kíli again but she does not know many things, and she can live with this, a little piece of the dwarrowdam resting against her hopeful heart.