Fili looks at his brother across the campfire, teeth grazing contemplatively against his pipe. He takes in the way the flicker of the fire lights his brother's cheekbones, the creases of his smile; the way the fickle light hollows out the shadows beneath his eyes, making his face a death's-skull.
Fili blinks hotly, looking away.
On this adventure, this grand adventure they were finally going on with their majestic uncle Thorin, Fili had been the reluctant one. It was such a reversal from the usual relationship between the brothers. Fili had always been the brave one, the one looking out: past their home, past the town, past the fields and crops and streams into rivers and mountains and cities. He had always been the one itching for adventure--always the one to discover things that were new. When there was a new story told by the well, Fili would learn it first, then tell it to Kili. When there was a job opening at a local toymaker's, Fili was the one who took it, eager to learn, eager to contribute. When there was work, better work, out of town, Fili went. Kili followed behind not weeks later, but it was still following. Always following in big brother's footsteps, never the first to try the waters, test the security of the ice, explore the dark cave. That was always Fili's job: to be brave, first, foremost.
But when Uncle Thorin had come to the door of the small room they shared above their shop, Fili's mouth remained shut. He heard his uncle's call, his order to take up arms, and understood what was expected of him. Of course he would go and fight by his uncle's side, to take back what was rightfully theirs. Of course he would be willing to lay down his life for family, for kith and kin.
But some secret part of his heart whispered a single name: Kili.
What would happen to Kili? What about his little brother? The one who always followed, who wasn't as brave, who wasn't as sure. But who would always, always follow Fili. No matter where it was.
Kili answered for them, affirmative words ringing loud in the hollow chambers of Fili's heart, through the caverns of bowel-clenching nervousness deep inside him. Kili wasn't leading, not even now: he was answering because he could already hear Fili's answer, loud in the silence of their room--at least, he thought he could.
And now, as Fili watches his brother make merry with the other dwarves of the company, that same inaction-inducing terror rises back up inside of him.
Kili was quick. Kili was foolish. Kili was always getting into more trouble than Fili, for all that Fili was always the braver one, the one to stick his neck out first. Fili might be the first into danger, but it was because he knew himself: knew what he could do, what he couldn't; what others could do, and what Fili could beat. But Kili. Kili had no such insight into himself, much less others. It was because he never had to look, never had to develop the skill of assessing a situation, or self-judgement. He had his big brother for that. Big brother would always be ready to snatch out an arm, to drag him back, to stop little brother Kili from underestimating the dangers and overestimating himself, and pull him back.
Fili had always assumed he'd outlive his brother, because of just those traits. He might be the elder, but by the time they were only just out of their tweens, Fili had resigned himself to this fact. Kili would die first, because he never saw ahead of him. A lifetime of following had atrophied the natural-born skill of watching where he stepped. One day, when big brother Fili wasn't there plotting a path before them, Kili would fall.
When he had first realized this, in the dark of the night, arms curled around his not-so-little-anymore brother, Fili had cried. He had cried quiet, desperate, self-pitying tears into his brother's dark silken hair. He had cried until he had spent all the grief inside of him, leaked it out of his eyes and let it disappear between them, never to be seen again. And for just a moment, for just a second in the darkest part of the night, the hour when the sun was too far gone to be a memory and too far yet to come to be a hope, Fili had prayed that when Kili stumbled and fell, it would be because Fili had done the same just a second before him. He prayed and he hoped that they would fall together, so he wouldn't have to endure the loss.
But then the moment passed, and the sky turned grey with the promise of dawn. And Fili tightened his grip on Kili, and prayed anew. This time, he prayed that Kili would go before him, as nature would have it. Because Fili was the big brother. And big brothers were always meant to look out for little brothers, to spare them whatever pain and hurt and heartache it was ever in their power to spare. And if Kili went first... then Kili would be safe. Safe from the pain of having to lose his other half.
Fili chews on his pipe, and watches his little brother fall over his own feet and nearly face-first into the fire. He laughs, big and loud, as he rights himself. Fili chews on his pipe and prays the same prayer he had since just an hour after that darkest part of night.
Let Kili go first. Let me bear that burden. Let me bear all that grief. And so borne, let Kili never know the weight of it.