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Indelible

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Ori hadn’t been able to see Dori off. After a week of futile begging, pleading, and even logical arguments against his leaving on Ori’s part, Dori had headed out in the early morning. Ori had stayed in Balin’s office the entire day, never once lifting his head from his work.

He hadn’t been able to muster much enthusiasm for his newest assignment, despite the fact that learning Tengwar had been something he’d never thought he’d get a chance to do. His hands worked mechanically, shaping the letters with uncanny precision, but all the while his hand hadn’t felt like his hand.

Balin had frowned at him, but had him working on copying pages of text, the large, elegant letters growing smaller with each page.

As he worked, Ori found himself thinking about the attack, about Dori, about Nori.

The night Nori left Ered Luin, it hadn’t felt all that different from all those other times that Nori had left home. Maybe it was because life hadn’t changed at all after that night, despite vividly remembering how it felt to listen at his bedroom door and know that Nori was gone, probably for good.

With Dori, it had been different. Of course it had been different. Dori wasn’t supposed to change. He was supposed to go through his daily routine of waking up, preparing for the day, heading for the tailor’s shop, and nagging at Ori because the cardigan he’d put on that morning had a hole in the side or something equally frivolous. Dori wasn’t supposed to be attacked at home, he wasn’t supposed to be breaking furniture and knowing about secret ways to get out of the house in case of trouble, he wasn’t supposed to need to hide out somewhere until the danger passed. With Dori so definitely outside of his regular place Ori’s life, Ori hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that his eldest brother was still in danger.

Part of him wanted to sneak out and go home, just to see that Dori was all right, and that their home wasn’t in shambles like Ori had last seen it. But when he remembered the promise he’d made to his older brother, he mentally shied away from breaking it. He’d also made it right in front of Master Balin, so there was that to contend with, too. He was fairly sure Fili and Kili would help him if he asked, but involving two natural-born troublemakers was going to invite more trouble than he wanted to deal with, he just knew it.

As much as it galled him, he had to wait the two weeks -- no, just the one week, really, since Dori had left a few days ago. Ori was sure that he wouldn’t have been able to wait at all if it hadn’t been for the fact that Dori had agreed to a guard protecting him.

Master Balin had said that Dwalin would be the one to assign a guard to protect his brother, though. While Ori didn’t doubt Dwalin’s ability to choose the best guard that he could trust with Dori’s life, he needed to know more about what was going to happen to his brother. He needed to know who was going to be assigned -- what the dwarf was like, how he (or she, really -- Ori wasn’t sure how many watch recruits were dwarrowdams) might react to someone as fussy as Dori, what kind of weapon they used, how they were planning on protecting Dori if it looked like Kollr sent more thugs after him….

Ori knew he didn’t have the patience to go back to eating lunch at the Meatgrinder on the off-chance that Dwalin would be training Fili and Kili on any particular day. That was just a waste of time, especially if Dwalin was going to insist on not speaking to him like he had before. But his brother’s safety was too important to ignore, which meant that he had to figure out some other way to talk to his soulmate.

The only trouble was, he had no idea where to start looking. There were guards and servants that made their ways through the halls throughout the day, but Ori had never really had a chance to speak to any of them outside of a polite nod or a murmured good morning as they passed each other.

Ori gritted his teeth. What am I going to have to do to find him, knock on each door in this maze and hope I find the right one?

***

As Ori walked, it felt as though his footsteps on the floors echoed like falling hammers.

It didn’t help that he felt like he’d been walking for hours. He thought he’d seen Dwalin out of the corner of his eye while he was trying to find him, but when he turned to follow the dwarf as he headed down the hallway at a brisk pace, Ori had realized that it wasn’t him. Still, the dwarf was half-dressed in the city watch uniform, carrying his helmet in one hand at his side, so it was quite possible that he was heading for where the guards were quartered at night.

Ori knew that he should’ve spoken up and asked the guard outright if he could direct him to Dwalin’s office -- it would save him a lot of guesswork -- but if he were being honest with himself, he ended up trailing behind the guard like a lost duckling out of embarrassment.

You should be better at this, he thought angrily to himself. You don’t even know where your soulmate’s office is. What kind of a soulmate can’t get him to say something? Or even get him to smile? Even if you’re the butt of a joke, you should be able to get a smile.

A voice uncomfortably similar to Dori’s told him that he needed to stand up for himself, to not stoop to being someone else’s joke. Even if you haven’t exactly mastered your craft, he reminded himself, you still soulspoke years before most dwarves do, which means you’re old enough to stop being nervous and get him to talk to you.

But, no, for all that he was talented, Ori was still doing something wrong. Each time he’d spoken with Dwalin -- no, it wasn’t speaking. Speaking would imply that a conversation had taken place. It was more like talking to a stone wall. One that was really good at glaring.

Well, Ori thought firmly, unconsciously squaring his shoulders, he can glare all he wants. I’m going to make sure that my brother is going to be safe, and if he doesn’t like it, he can find a furnace to jump in, for all I care.

The mental image sated his irritation, but of course, when he returned his attention to his surroundings, he groaned out loud.

“How could I possibly have gotten myself lost?” Ori rubbed his face vigorously with both hands, and then looked around again.

Even a second look, and a third, yielded no immediately recognizable landmarks to orient himself with.

“Well, this is as good a place as any to start….”

Looking around one last time in a futile attempt to guess where he was, Ori sighed and picked a direction. At first, he just walked down the hallways, staring at rows of doors, never quite sure where any of them led. He would stop in front of one, raise his hand to knock, and then lower it again awkwardly.

After the third door he came to, he told himself he was being silly, and knocked.

For a moment that lasted for a small, suffocating eternity, nothing happened. Ori wondered if he could hear footsteps on the other side of the heavy door, maybe even a voice, but when he strained his hearing, there was only more silence.

After standing at the door for too long to be comfortable, he sucked in a quick breath, ready to apologize at a moment's notice, and tried the doorknob, only to find the door locked.

His heart hammering in his ears, Ori stopped for a moment and shook his head.

"It’s just a door," he muttered to himself. "Anybody could be behind it. It's not like a goblin's going to jump out and eat you if you're not supposed to knock or something."

He snorted at his silliness, and tried another door.

A few hours and an endless number of doors later, he'd met a number of maids who were cleaning different rooms, as well as a guard or two, but Captain Dwalin of the City Watch was nowhere to be found.

"Bloody typical."

***

"Excuse me?"

Ori wanted to kick himself. His next brilliant plan had been, simply put, to cast away what little dignity he had left, and ask someone for directions to Dwalin's office. Of course, when faced with one of the recruits that Fili and Kili probably trained with at the Meatgrinder, he hadn't counted on his voice climbing a register or two out of nerves.

This is important, he reminded himself sternly. I need to know what's going on with Dori, and I can't do that if I'm being timid.

"...yes?" the guard asked tentatively. From what little Ori could see of his face, he sported a ginger sort of beard that was slow to grow in -- some peach fuzz that showed against pale skin.

"Oh, sorry," tumbled from Ori's mouth without any input from his brain. "It's just that I'm looking for Captain Dwalin." He tried not to wince at how tentative he sounded, but when he kept talking, he couldn't help it. "I need to speak to him about a very important matter."

"Oh," the guard said, his young voice sounding blankly surprised. "I can try to take you to his office, but I don't know if he's going to be there at this time of day? He's one of those officers who moves around a lot, so it can be hard to find him."

You're telling me, Ori groused to himself. He mustered a cheerful smile and said, "It's all right. If you could just direct me to his office, I'm sure he'll end up there at some point."

The guard nodded quickly. "Sure. I don't think he'd mind if you waited for him there. Just as long as you didn't disturb his papers, of course."

Ori had to stop himself from snorting, and he had no idea why. "Of course."

It didn't take too long for the guard to walk him to Dwalin's office, though the poor dwarf had apparently taken a wrong turn somewhere. When the guard showed him the door, Ori nodded and thanked him for his help.

When the guard walked away, he turned to the door and knocked. There was no answer.

Ori didn't recognize the door -- he wasn't entirely sure if he'd made it to this side of the labyrinthine halls the day before -- but he was going to have a better shot of finding Dwalin here than he was by trying to guess at his schedule.

A City Watch captain had to come back to their office at some point, didn't they? Of course they did. Master Balin stayed in his office night and day, with the rare exceptions of being summoned to a court of law, or to retire for the evening. It only made sense that, as his master's younger brother, Dwalin would have similar habits, if not the same exact ones.

Ori tried the doorknob only to discover that it was locked.

Gritting his teeth, he located the keyhole and pressed his ear to it, closing his eyes and trying to calm down the heartbeat pounding in his ears.

No need to get excited, Ori, he thought to himself firmly. You need to talk to Dwalin about the guard he's assigned to Dori, that's all.

He found himself remembering the look on Dwalin's face when he'd reached out and grabbed his arm in Balin's office.

"I swear," Ori muttered to himself, bending down just a little further to see if he could look inside the keyhole and see into the room, "if you really detest me that much, you should say so to my face instead of directing your remarks to other people just because I happen to be in the room."

The keyhole was no luck, and as Ori straightened his back and indulged in a long stretch, he found himself wondering if he should've asked someone else to speak to Dwalin on his behalf. As soon as he thought of it, he shied away from the idea -- what use was it to have a soulmate if you couldn't even manage a single conversation? And why was it that Dwalin didn't want to speak to him in the first place? Was he really that embarrassed that his soulmate wasn't a warrior? Or embarrassed that Ori was quite a bit younger than he was?

Ori stared at the door and shook his head with a heavy sigh. There was a part of him that wanted to go back to Master Balin's office, because Master Balin had wanted to talk to him about a new assignment that he actually had the option of refusing, but the more he stared at the doorway, and at the corridor he found himself in, the more he needed to stay.

He needed to make sure that Dori was safe, and he couldn't do that if he obeyed the rules. Not this time.

And so, he sat himself down with his back to the wall right next to Captain Dwalin’s office, leaned his head back, and waited.

***

“Hey, Ori.” Something hard nudged him gently in the side. “Hey. Are you dead?”

Ori blinked his eyes a few times, wincing first at the light in the corridor, and then at the screaming soreness in his neck where he’d developed a crick in it.

Because, apparently, he was silly enough to go to sleep. At least he hadn’t curled up on the floor like a dwarfling. He blinked a few more times and glared up at Fili and Kili, who were looking at him like he’d grown a second head while he slept.

“Guess not,” Kili said with a nod. “What’re you doing sleeping here? Don’t you know this is Master Dwalin’s office?”

Wincing and massaging the back of his neck, Ori grimaced at them. “Yeah, I know. I needed to talk to him.”

Fili snorted. “You’re not going to find him this time of night. He’s probably dead to the world himself. It’s nearly midnight.”

Ori groaned, feeling utterly silly for not having paid attention to what time it was. “What’re you two doing here, then?”

Fili and Kili traded aggrieved looks. “We just finished running an errand for Uncle,” Kili moaned. “And since we’re heading out to the pub, we were going to drop off some of our gear before we did.”

“You want to join us?” Fili asked in a rare moment of sympathy. “If you’re taking to sleeping in front of Master Dwalin’s office, you probably need to drown your sorrows as much as we do ours.”

Ori opened his mouth to politely refuse -- he could still catch Dwalin in the morning when he woke, after all -- but then he was suddenly on his feet with the assistance of two overly-enthusiastic brothers.

“Excellent idea!” Kili grinned at him, making a show of dusting off Ori’s cardigan and beating him just firmly enough that Ori winced a little. “A good strong drink is just what Ori needs after a long, boring day hunched over those musty old books.”

“They’re not musty,” Ori objected reflexively. “And I haven’t been working on books. I’ve gotten a new assignment from Master Balin--”

“Great!” Kili chirped.

“You can tell us all about it at the pub,” Fili added companionably, and before Ori could object again, he was being gently but firmly steered away from Dwalin’s office, down the unfamiliar corridors.

“Wait!” Ori yelped, trying to plant his feet, only to be pushed along as if he weren’t causing any sort of impediment at all. “Wait just a moment!”

Sensing an argument coming, the brothers traded another look. “It’ll be fun!” Kili pointed out.

“It’ll give you a chance to sit down, drink as much as you want--” Fili began.

“--Within reason--” Kili chimed in.

“Within reason, of course -- we’re not made of money, you know,” Fili continued, nodding a thanks to Kili as he did, and clapping a firm hand on Ori’s shoulder. “And then you can tell us all about why you needed to talk to Master Dwalin.”

“Maybe we can help!” Kili blurted out with a happy grin. “We’re good at helping! Mum said so!”

Ori started counting to ten, waiting for the inevitable bickering to start. He made it to two.

“She said that to you because you helped clean up in the kitchen, and even then, you put everything back in the wrong places,” Fili said with a grin. “And that was when you were ten.”

When Kili inevitably shoved at Fili and Fili shoved back, Ori saw his chance. Shrugging out of their grip, he took a few quick steps out of the line of fire and rounded on them, folding his arms over his chest defensively. “And did either of you bother to ask if I even wanted to go to the pub?”

That stopped the brothers dead in their tracks, both of them looking startled and guilty. “Well--” Kili started before Fili shook his head.

“We haven’t seen you in a while, Ori,” Fili said plainly. “We miss you.”

“And you really do look like you could use a drink,” Kili pointed out quickly, as though worried that he wouldn’t get a chance to speak.

Ori checked a sigh with some difficulty. “As much as I appreciate the effort--” At the twin frowns turned on him, he shook his head. “Don’t look at me like that. I really do appreciate the effort, honest. It’s just that I have to do something that’s important for my peace of mind -- no, I don’t want help, and no, I definitely do not want to talk about it..”

Fili frowned. “Can we still take you out for a drink?”

“Fili, I’m not going to be able to calm down enough to enjoy myself at the pub,” Ori said.

“But Master Dwalin’s not going to be here until the morning,” Kili half-mumbled.

Fili nodded. “Kili’s right. What’s the point of waiting here if he’s not going to show up soon? We’re not going to get you drunk enough to start singing, but maybe you can have a drink or two?”

“We can get drunk enough for the three of us.” Kili grinned.

Ori opened his mouth to object one more time, but then both brothers did something they’d never done before: they looked serious.

“Please?” Fili asked gently. He sounded as though he’d take ‘no’ for an answer, though, which was a relief.

“Please?” Kili half-whined, his face splitting into a grin that Ori was fairly sure worked on their mother when Kili was small. “Pretty please?”

Ori eyed the corridor that they’d been dragging him down, and sighed heavily to himself. “All right, fine.”

As the two dwarfs cheered their victory and went back to wrapping their arms around Ori’s shoulders again, Ori told himself that he’d have one drink, and it would be easier to wait for morning with something to occupy his mind instead of giving himself a literal pain in the neck.

***

Two drinks (and several apiece for Fili and Kili) in, Ori discovered that Fili and Kili’s surprisingly good memories were a disastrous combination with his sleep-addled wits.

What was worse was that he didn’t discover this immediately.

After some obligatory complaining about their respective masters -- Dwalin seemed to have eased up on their training as he’d promised, while Thorin had ordered them to clean and maintain all of the already perfectly-clean and serviceable weapons in the armory -- they drank their ale and enjoyed having a night together for the first time in what felt like an age.

And then, it happened.

“Hey, we didn’t ask Ori--” Kili mentioned before turning to the dwarf in question. “Have you seen a book recently?”

Ori blinked. “How much have you had to drink?”

Fili sniggered before Kili shoved at him clumsily. “Shut up!” Kili turned back to Ori. “We think we might’ve dropped a book in Balin’s office while we were trying to get away from Uncle Thorin.”

Ori could see the moment realization dawned in Fili’s eyes. “Oh, yeah. We nearly got our hides tanned because we were a book short, and we’ve been trying to find it.” Fili turned earnest, blue eyes on Ori. “You wouldn’t happened to have seen it, would you?”

Ori gave them a blank look, suddenly remembering the book that he and his master had found in Balin’s office. “I’ve seen a lot of books recently. You’re going to have to be more specific.”

Both brothers groaned out loud, the effort clearly too taxing for young dwarves making headway into their cups. Kili grumbled before he shoved at Fili’s shoulder. “What was that one title we were trying to find? ‘Velvet and Steel’?”

Fili shuddered. “Mahal’s beard, no. We’d still be searching for that one if Uncle hadn’t gotten it back first thing.”

“What about ‘Carving the Heart’?”

Fili winced. “That sounds like some kind of Elf poetry. No.”

Ori blinked. If ‘On the Battlefield of Love’ had been a horrendous title, he wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted to hear others. Then again, he found himself wondering why Balin hadn’t returned the book to Thorin yet.

“‘His Axe, Her Whetstone’?” Kili offered weakly.

Fili looked as though hearing the words alone wounded him deeply.

Kili groaned loudly, letting his forehead land on the tabletop with an audible thump. “This is too hard! How are we supposed to remember a single, stupid title?”

Fili patted Kili’s shoulder clumsily. “It’s all right. We’ll remember it sooner or later.”

Not entirely sure what was going on, but determined to help his master cover for not having returned Thorin’s book yet, Ori stared at the two of them with something akin to horrified fascination. “Did you just quote titles of romance tales?”

He seemed to have done a good enough job with pretending to be aghast at the idea, because the brothers shot him curious looks. “Yeah,” Kili said. “What did you think we were talking about?”

Ori didn’t exactly have to fake how much he felt like something in his soul was dying slowly. “You stole romance tales from your uncle?” he demanded, remembering at the last moment to inject disbelief into his voice. It probably sounded more like a yelp than a demand for an explanation, but as long as it kept Fili and Kili distracted, he figured it was good enough.

A burst of loud, raucous laughter from a nearby table had Fili looking around to see if they were the reason for it. “Keep your voice down!” he said belatedly. Folding his arms on the table and leaning closer to Ori, he added, “There’s a reason they were Uncle’s secret stash after all.”

“I know what it is now!” Kili slapped his hand down on the tabletop with a triumphant grin. “‘The Stonecutter’s Secret’!”

Fili buried his face in both hands and groaned.

Ori had taken a sip of his ale, just in time to nearly choke on it when he started laughing. “Who thinks of these titles?”

“I have no idea,” Fili moaned, shaking his head. “They all sound horrible to me.”

Ori shook his head, giggles still bubbling out of him, no matter how much Fili glared at him. “I don’t envy you two at all.”

“So, you haven’t seen anything like the titles my dim-witted brother rattled off?” Fili asked with a long-suffering sigh that said he was fairly sure what the answer was.

“Oi!”

Ori shook his head much more easily than he expected, giggling harder. “Those sorts of romance tales aren’t worth the paper they’re written on,” he said, half-believing it. “It’s a perfectly good waste of ink that could be better put to use detailing a little-known chapter of the dwarven people. The day I voluntarily touch one of those is the day my beard falls out and I’m weeping alone in a corner in shame.” He surreptitiously wiped one hand on the table as he said it.

“Oh?” Kili lifted his head from where he’d been resting it on the table and eyed Ori with a curious look. “Our Ori, not one for romances? Not holding out hope that your One is out there, waiting for you?” His expansive gesture to the world at large was ruined by a wobble that made him look like he was about to fall out of his chair any moment.

Ori glared at him, his giggles vanishing at the thought of how unsuccessful he’d been with his soulmate so far. “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

The brothers looked surprised for a moment before Ori decided discretion was the better part of not having two nosy princes of Erebor asking about his non-existent love life. “What’s going to happen if you don’t find it? The book, I mean?”

This time, both brothers groaned out loud. “We can kiss any free time we have good-bye until we’ve come of age,” Fili said.

“And we’re going to be stuck learning about statecraft and how to negotiate treaties and all kinds of boring stuff,” Kili added. “Which is absolutely not fair. It’s not like we even live in Erebor in the first place.”

Ori rolled his eyes. “Mountain or not, you’re still princes. You should learn that stuff sooner or later.”

“It’s not like we need it here,” Fili grunted. “Uncle takes care of any negotiations with the Ered Luin family, and that’s just a formality.”

Ori frowned. “Either way, you never know what’s going to happen. You might actually retake the mountain someday, and if you don’t know how to negotiate with your neighbors, how are you going to set up trade and alliances and all of that?”

Both brothers glared at him with the annoyance of dwarves who were being forced to think while heavily intoxicated.

Ori blinked. “What?”

“You sound like Uncle,” Kili mumbled. “We’re going to have long, grey beards by the time he lets us out of his sight, for sure.”

Fili clumsily patted his brother’s shoulder. “At least we’ll be suffering together.”

Ori snorted. “You two are really drunk, aren’t you?”

Fili and Kili traded a look before turning back to Ori and nodding solemnly in unison.

Ori sighed heavily. Draining his tankard, he set it down and turned back to them. “All right, so we need to get you two home, and there’s only one of me. Which of you can actually walk in a straight line? If you can’t manage a straight line, I’ll take a curved one.”

Kili raised a hand before he swayed, and landed face first on the table.

“That’ll be you then, “ Ori said to Fili.

It took some juggling to get the brothers out of their chairs and reliably mobile, but after Ori settled their tab and collected them, they were soon on their way homeward.

They hadn’t walked far from The Miner’s Drift before Ori spied a familiar figure walking ahead of them. Not entirely sure if he was correct in his assumption, he cleared his throat and asked, “Nidi?”

The young dwarf’s head jerked up tellingly, looking around quickly as his body tensed. Ori cleared his throat again, watching the boy wheel around to look at him.

When Nidi recognized him, he scowled fiercely. “What do you want?”

Ori shrugged, trying to play it casual. “Oh, not much. Just thought it was you.”

“Who’s this?” Fili asked, focusing enough on the conversation to notice they had bumped into someone.

“Somebody me and my brother know,” Ori said. He turned back to Nidi. “Are you doing all right? I remember what happened the last time we saw each other.”

If a shrug could be aggressive, Nidi managed it. “‘M all right.”

“And Dori?” Ori asked, his tone sharper than he’d intended.

Nidi rolled his eyes. “Oh, he’s definitely fine. He’s got some tosh hanging around, trying to get into his pants. He doesn’t think so, but I’ve seen that look before.”

Ori blinked, wondering who in the world would be courting Dori, especially when Dori himself hadn’t mentioned any suitors recently, when he suddenly figured out who this new dwarf might be. For a moment, he was flabbergasted by the idea of a city watch guard hanging around, trying (and most likely failing) to court his fussy, older brother, but after thinking about it for a moment or two, he realized it was the perfect cover.

“You’re going to catch flies with that mouth.” Nidi snickered.

Ori startled, jostling Kili in his arms and making him moan in protest. “Oh, sorry! I just-- wow.”

Nidi snorted. “You’re telling me.” He eyed Kili in Ori’s arms, and Fili wobbling on his feet. “You gonna roll these two?”

“Roll…?” It took a minute to figure out what he was talking about, but when Ori figured it out (or thought he did at least), he gaped at the younger dwarf. “Wh--no! I’m not going to roll them! There will be no rolling of any kind!”

The look Nidi gave him was halfway between amusement and a careless shrug. “Fine, no rolling.” He eyed Fili and Kili curiously. “So, who’re they?”

“Friends of mine,” Ori said as firmly as he could while trying to correct Kili’s drunken listing. “And I’m taking them home. No, I don’t need any help -- I know the way back, I know which streets to avoid, and even while drunk, my friends can take care of themselves.”

Nidi eyed Fili pointedly, who was leaning heavily against a nearby wall, and then Kili, who was now leaning heavily against Ori himself. “Uh huh. Sure.” He looked like he was going to say something else when he stopped himself and shrugged. “You got things covered here, so I’ll be on my merry way.”

“Wait, before you go,” Ori said quickly, shoving at Kili until he was more or less upright. “There’s a book I left behind at Dori’s place, and I haven’t had a chance to pick it up. Can you fetch it and bring it to me at the halls of Thorin Oakenshield?”

Nidi was about to roll his eyes again when the name registered. “Oakenshield? What’re you doing with a tosh like him?” He eyed Ori up and down with a look of disbelief. “You getting extra work on the side? With how skinny you are?”

If Ori was outraged before at the idea of mugging his friends (if that’s what Nidi had been suggesting with the word “roll”), his face exploded into a blush that made him worry his beard had caught fire. “Absolutely not.”

Nidi blinked, holding up both hands in surrender. “All right, keep your beard on. If you’re gonna be that prissy about it, why don’t you get it back yourself?”

Ori ground his teeth, trying to resist the urge to pick up the smaller dwarf and strangle him until he started turning colors he shouldn’t. “I haven’t had time. My master’s been assigning more work since I got back. And if I have to wait until it’s all finished--”

Nidi scowled. “Fine, fine. Get a book from Mister Dori, bring it to Oakenshield’s place. Anymore requests, your Royal Worshipness?”

“I don’t have a title, and no,” Ori said a little too loudly, earning drunken scowls from Fili and Kili. “No, just-- just bring the book.”

***

“Four minutes have passed since last you checked, lad.”

Ori gave a guilty start. "Sorry, Master," He turned back to his desk and stared at the page of Tengwar script that he'd been given to copy over after he’d brought the tea service from the kitchens at the top of the hour. Even while distracted by the thought of how he was supposed to catch Dwalin and talk to him, his Tengwar had evolved from “barely legible” to “passable”.

Balin pointedly cleared his throat. “I certainly hope that the Tengwar isn’t boring you, lad,” he said mildly, the reproach in his voice clear enough to cause Ori to flinch. “I’m sure I can think of something else for you to occupy your time with if that’s the case.”

“No, no,” Ori mumbled quickly. “It’s not boring, Master, I promise--”

“Then I’m sure you have an explanation for why you can’t keep from looking at the clock for more than five minutes at a time?”

Ori turned to see that while Balin’s question wasn’t going to tolerate anything less than an honest answer, Balin himself looked more curious than annoyed with him. “I’m sorry, Master,” he said reflexively. Knowing that he had to explain himself, he admitted, “I’m a little... distracted this morning.”

Balin sighed. "You've been distracted for longer than just this morning."

Ori's shoulders slumped. It was bad if Balin had noticed, seeing as how Balin tended to leave him be as long as he got his work done. "It's nothing, Master, really."

“I see.” Balin arched an eyebrow at him in polite disbelief. "I'm sure that you'll finish that page within the hour, then?"

Ori looked back at the page on his desk and winced. That left leave him only twenty minutes to finish it, and he still had more than half the page left to do. "Yes, Master."

Balin nodded approvingly before turning his attention back to the contract in his hands. "Good."

When Ori’s eyes slid over to the clock again, Balin arched his eyebrows at him pointedly.

"Sorry, Master."

"Stop apologizing." Balin removed the loupe from his eye and folded his arms over the desk. "What's going on, lad?"

Ori shook his head, feeling his face flushing. “I’m…”

Balin kept staring at him, as patient as stone.

There was nothing else for it, then. As much as Ori wanted to walk out of his lessons for the day and search high and low for Dwalin, he knew deep down that he couldn’t. Dori had instilled too much respect for learning into him for him to blatantly abandon his lessons, even for the day.

And what, he thought to himself with no small amount of irritation, do you really think is going to happen? Even if you found Dwalin and demanded to know everything he was doing to make sure Dori’s safe, there’s no guarantee that he’d even answer you.

Breathing in deeply, Ori got up from his chair and moved to stand in front of Balin’s desk. “Master?”

Balin’s gaze had followed him as he’d stood, still patient. His eyebrows lifted into his ‘aye, laddie?’ expression.

Ori knew he was blushing, and it was getting worse at the idea of having to ask his master in order to talk to his soulmate. He could feel a wave of bitter thoughts crashing down on him all at once, reminding him just how pathetic he was for trailing behind a dwarf who wouldn’t even answer a direct question from him, let alone tell him that his brother was safe. He’d needed an orphan who was hanging around Dori for free food to tell him that his brother was all right, and Ori still didn’t know what the guard was planning, what with pretending to court his older brother.

After the silence stretched too long, Balin set down his quill, looking concerned. “Lad? Are you all right?”

Ori couldn’t stop himself from shaking his head. As much as he wanted to copy over an entire library shelf of books written in Tengwar rather than explain what was happening to his master, he reminded himself that Dori’s safety was more important than feeling ashamed that he had to run to his master to fix his problems because he couldn’t handle it himself.

“Could you arrange a meeting for me?” he asked softly. “With Mister Dwalin?”

He gritted his teeth, telling himself that this was the fastest way to find out what was happening with Dori. He was going to have to deal with the fact that Dwalin was avoiding him at some point, but until he could find him and demand to know what was going on between them--

Balin blinked at him. “Arrange a meeting?”

Ori frowned, not sure what he thought that his master was surprised by the request. “Yes, Master. I understand if he’s busy, but I was hoping--”

“No-- well, he is busy, but not nearly that much--” Balin shook his head, still looking bewildered. “But why would you need to arrange a meeting? Haven’t you spoken with him?”

Ori‘s stomach twisted. “Not... exactly,” he managed weakly. As he watched Balin’s look sharpen into something like disapproval, he quickly added, “Actually-- Master, please, forget I said anything, it’s not important.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wanted to scream that, no, he didn’t mean it, it was important. The trouble was, after having lived with Dori for so long, he’d gotten into the habit of agreeing with him immediately whenever an argument threatened to break out between them. The words had tumbled from his lips as quickly as they had when he was a dwarfling. He wanted to kick himself for opening his mouth in the first place. He should’ve stayed quiet, sat in front of Dwalin’s office until the dwarf had no choice but to talk to him--

Balin’s left eyebrow rose slowly. “Oh, aye, I can see it’s ‘not important’,” he said dryly. “I thought you’d said you’d spoken to him before?”

Just as Ori’s annoyance at himself was rising in leaps and bounds, he felt a fresh wave of embarrassment. “Twice,” he half-mumbled, his gaze shying away from Balin’s. “The one time before, and again a few days ago, when he was injured and he came here. I think he’d been looking for you, though.”

A minute or two stretched into an uncomfortable eternity as Balin leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk and watching him steadily. “What did he say the first time you spoke to him?”

“He didn’t.” When Balin’s eyebrows rose in a silent question, Ori added awkwardly, “Say anything, I mean.”

Balin nodded slowly. As Ori watched, he could see something shift in his eyes, turning inward. “I see.”

Ori shook his head, feeling his guts twisting into uncomfortable knots. “Master, I--” He stopped himself from apologizing, but it had been a near thing. Shaking his head, he tried again. “This is between me and Mister Dwalin-- I shouldn’t have said anything-- I’ll figure this out--”

Balin looked at him for another long moment before he leaned back in his chair. “Why is it that you need to speak to him?”

Ori gritted his teeth, looking away when he couldn’t take looking his master in the eye anymore. “I’m worried about Dori,” he half-mumbled. “You said that Mister Dwalin was going to decide who was assigned to protect him. And since I can’t go see that Dori’s safe for myself, I wanted to…” He swallowed around the hard lump that had lodged in his throat. “Like I said, Master, I’ll figure out how to find Mister Dwalin, I’m sorry to have--”

“Ori.”

Ori turned to look at his master reluctantly.

Balin’s usually genial face was grave. “Don’t be ashamed for being worried about your family.”

Ori shook his head. “It’s not that…”

Balin held up a hand. “That may be the case, but it’s something that you should remember for the future. Now, how about we make a deal?”

Ori frowned. “A deal?”

Balin nodded. “Remember the copying job I mentioned yesterday?”

Ori nodded slowly, his confusion growing. “You said it was one that I had the option of refusing, if I wanted to.”

Balin huffed a quiet chuckle. “I also said that you might want to think twice before you turned it down,” he said, gentle reproof in his tone. “See the book on the corner there?”

Ori frowned, following his master’s gaze to a familiar book on the corner of the desk closest to him. “Master? Is that what I think it is?”

Balin grinned, the gap between his front teeth showing. “Oh, aye, the book the boys dropped during their merry chase through the halls.” The look he gave Ori was gentler than usual. “I expect they’ll be wanting this back.”

“Or possibly Master Thorin,” Ori offered, remembering how angry Thorin had looked while half-dressed and carrying a sword.

Balin snorted, his shoulders shaking in silent laughter. “Oh, aye, him too. But I think I have a better idea.” His brown eyes cut to meet Ori’s, mischief twinkling in them.

Ori blinked, a bit startled by the idea that Fili and Kili weren’t the only ones of the Durin lineage capable of mischief on a grand enough scale to cause exiled kings dressed only in bedsheets to give chase. “...Master?” he squeaked, a sinking feeling in his gut.

Balin smirked, picking up the book and leafing through the pages. “How would you like your first paying job?”

If there was something Ori was expecting, it wasn’t that. “You want me to copy that entire book?” he blurted out.

Balin looked entirely too innocent for a dwarf his age. “Why, of course. What did you think you would be doing, hiding it?”

Ori stared at the book as if it had masterminded a bizarre prank that Fili and Kili could only aspire to dream of. Instead, all he saw was a plain, red leather cover with an intricate knotwork design stamped on the front.

Balin nodded firmly, unable to stop smiling. “Aye. I’ll give you the going rate for each page, and we can negotiate the price if you work faster.” He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “Of course, I’ll be willing to pay more for fewer mistakes.”

“Master, what if someone comes looking for that book?” Ori asked incredulously, remembering Fili and Kili from the night before. “I don’t think I’ll be able to stand up to Master Thorin if he wanted his property back.”

“Especially if he takes to wearing a bedsheet when he comes looking for it, I suppose?” Balin asked with a grin. At Ori’s blush, he chuckled. “I think you’re safe there, lad. Thorin knows that Fili and Kili were the culprits. If anyone is going to get him a replacement, it’ll be those two.”

“I don’t want them to get into trouble,” Ori protested, remembering how much the two of them complained the night before in between downing rounds of ale.

Balin looked at him with raised eyebrows.

Ori rolled his eyes. “Any more than they already are, I mean.”

“While your loyalty does you credit, there are some lessons the boys should learn for themselves,” Balin said.

“Don’t steal from a dwarf willing to chase you half-naked through the halls?” Ori asked curiously.

Balin chuckled. “Don’t get caught.”

Despite how bad he felt for how much Fili and Kili had already suffered -- if their accounts of Master Thorin’s punishments were true -- Ori couldn’t stop himself from laughing.

“So, lad,” Balin said, nodding to the book in his hands. “What do you say?”

Ori frowned. “But what about Dori?”

“While you’re busy copying the first few chapters, I’ll talk to my brother and get all the details straight from him,” Balin said.

Ori frowned, something unpleasant curling in his belly as he asked, “And if I didn’t want to take the copying job?”

Balin’s expression lost all traces of humor. “Lad, listen to me. I will never use your family’s safety to force you to take a job that pays in coin. It’s bad business, and only bad luck could ever come of it. I’m going to speak to him either way, and let you know what I find out.”

Ori found he could breathe easier. “Thank you, Master.”

Balin nodded firmly. “Now, were you thinking of taking the job or not?”

Ori knew he needed to refuse. It was going to be just his luck if Fili or Kili found out that he had the book after all, no matter how much he’d protested about the uselessness of romances. It would also be just his luck if Master Thorin himself asked, and he knew he was a terrible liar when asked a direct question. It was also going to be one of those terrible romance novels that the apprentices at the tailoring shop had giggled over when Ori was younger, where the main character was strong and his nose had only been broken once, and there were all sorts of things about forging or gem cutting, and the love interest was a musician who wrote sappy love songs about how amazing the hero was.

So, of course, the first words out of Ori’s mouth were, “How much is the going rate?”

Balin grinned.