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Indelible

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Ori woke up.

In the back of his mind, he knew that he shouldn’t feel this awake. He wasn’t sure why he felt like that, but he was pretty sure that he should be feeling sleepy, or groggy, or something. Instead, he had a bit of a headache, like he’d banged it against a wall or a door, but that was about it.

He opened his eyes, and then frowned when he didn’t see any difference.

He closed them, concentrating on his senses. It didn’t feel like there was anything tied around his head like a blindfold. When he took a slow breath, it didn’t smell like his head had been shoved into a bag or a sack. No, as far as he could tell, he should’ve been able to see the room around him.

He tried opening his eyes again to see if that would fix the problem.

Of course not, Ori grumbled to himself. Still frowning, he concentrated on his body, trying to figure out why he felt… off.

He could tell that he was standing, he was still dressed, and his back was pressed against a stone wall. Cool metal cuffs encased his wrists, keeping them in place against the wall above his shoulders. They felt like they were big enough to let his hands slip right through, but when he tried, he found that his hands were only just slightly too big. If he wanted to get them free, he’d probably have to do something drastic to manage it. As much as he wanted to get out of here (wherever “here” was), he shied away from the idea of trying to break the bones in his hands so he could get them loose.

Of course, the idea was stupid because when he tried to move his feet, he had the same trouble. There was the same unyielding metal just above his ankles, leaving him the tiniest bit of wiggle room, but nothing else. If he tried to push himself backwards against the restraints on his wrists and ankles, he felt how solid the wall was behind him.

Closing his eyes (even though it didn’t really make much of a difference at this point), he breathed in slowly through his nose and noticed that the air in the room was just a little colder than he was used to. Master Balin kept his office cool enough to make sure that his books weren’t in danger of being damaged, but this felt a little colder still. The air was sharp and clean, and he couldn’t hear anything aside from his own breathing and his heartbeat.

Just as he was trying to figure out what else he could do, a door swung open somewhere to his right. Two sets of footsteps -- heavy boots on a hard floor, but not a stone one -- entered the room. Ori had never really paid attention to how footsteps had sounded before, but something was muffling them.

“You didn’t blindfold him?” came a voice that sounded eerily familiar, though Ori was having trouble placing it.

“My employer wanted to verify his identity before we proceeded,” replied a low, warm voice. As Ori listened to it, part of him wanted to burrow into it like a blanket on a winter morning. His survival instinct, however, was reminding him that this was not a dwarf that he knew, nor one that sounded like he had good intentions.

“You can see for yourself,” the first voice growled, and suddenly Ori recognized it.

“Nyr?” he blurted out, turning his head in the direction of the voice.

Both voices stopped, and Ori felt like there were eyes watching him.

Ori frowned sightlessly, sighing in irritation through his nose. “It is you, isn’t it?”

The silence was charged, and then the warm voice spoke again. “I presume that you followed my instructions to the letter?”

Ori found himself wondering if someone was leaning in close to his face, looking at his eyes.

“This isn’t our fault,” Nyr snapped, and if Ori hadn’t been sure before, he was sure of it now. Only Nyr had been able to sound like Dori when he was annoyed. “You can’t pin this one on us.”

“No, of course not,” the warm voice said amiably. It was strange to find his new kidnapper sounded like someone discussing the day’s business instead of talking about a prisoner. “It appears, my young dwarf, that you’re suffering from an uncommon side effect of the drug that my… associate has given you.”

Ori felt air brush lightly against his face. As he turned to it, the voice said, “Ah. I imagine the room looks quite dark to you?”

Not sure whether he should cooperate or not, Ori admitted, “...yes.”

“I see.” For a wild moment, Ori found himself imagining Master Balin standing in front of him, his hands holding some sort of book while he was in full lecture-mode. “To be honest, I like for my guests to be able to see what I’m going to do to them, but the blindness should certainly make things interesting.”

“Look,” Nyr growled, “I don’t give a rat’s arse what you’re going to do. I want my money.”

There was a deep, faintly exasperated sigh that reminded Ori vividly of his eldest brother. “Speak with your business partner. I left all the details with him. You may go.”

With a curse, Nyr’s heavy footsteps stomped out of the room. A heavy-sounding door slammed shut.

“Well, he was quite unpleasant, wouldn’t you agree?” the voice said in a friendly tone.

Ori set his jaw, trying not to get lulled by how comforting the voice sounded. He tried to imagine that the voice was actually an orc, or a goblin -- anything to keep from letting his guard down.

“Oh, you’re going to remain silent now?” the voice asked mildly. “Can’t say that I blame you, really. Seeing as how I have a job to perform, it’s not like we can really be friends about this.”

“Who’s paying you?” Ori asked quickly before he lost his nerve.

“Ah ah ah,” the voice said, gently chiding. “I’m the one asking the questions here, not you. Best for you not to think about who hired me.”

Ori tried to swallow past the lump of fear lodged in his throat. “What did he hire you for?”

“To get information out of you, of course,” the voice purred.

Ori jumped when a warm hand patted his cheek.

“No one hires me unless it’s for something quite important,” he said. “Though, between you and me, I’m going to be demanding a bigger cut when all is said and done. A barely adequate workspace, and unreasonable time constraints? I tell you, how is a dwarf supposed to earn a decent living if everything has to be rushed?”

If it weren’t for the fact that Ori was cuffed against a wall and that he couldn’t see anything, he might have been inclined to be sympathetic.

There was the sound of metal being scraped against stone in small, thin slices. “And then there was the botch-up with your friends, or so I’ve heard from my associate. I should demand an extra thousand guilders for the inconvenience, really.”

Ori’s eyebrows had lifted at the figure, but then his attention latched onto something else. “Inconvenience?”

“Yes, indeed,” the voice said sadly, sounding faintly regretful. “You see, I like to take my time.”

Ori shuddered at the way the voice caressed the words.

The voice continued as if nothing had happened. “And I can’t very well do that if we have to relocate because my dimwitted associates couldn’t be bothered to kill or kidnap the witnesses.”

Ori breathed in slowly, feeling a surge of hope rise up in him. He’d forgotten about Fili and Kili. If this voice was right, they’d somehow managed to get away from Nyr and Austri. If he could somehow manage to--

“And there you go, thinking that there’s a sliver of hope for you.” The voice sounded indulgent, as though Ori were a misbehaving puppy. “Has anyone ever told you that your face is like an open book?”

Ori frowned. “No.”

“Ah, well,” the voice said. Ori could feel it coming closer to him. “That’s not going to be something you’re going to worry about much longer.”

Ori froze. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Not right now, but if you don’t answer my questions, I might have to take certain measures.”

Ori gritted his teeth, breathing slowly through his nose to try to slow down his racing heartbeat. “What did you want to know?”

“Accommodating the interrogator now?” the voice sounded amused. “How kind of you. I have two questions. If you don’t answer me as quickly and thoroughly as I would like, the measures I take will be dreadfully painful for you.”

Ori scowled, but he didn’t think it was all that effective. Especially not with the voice chuckling at him and patting his cheek again.

“Very well,” he said. “Where is your brother Nori?"

Ori blinked. “Nori?”

“Yes,” the voice said with exaggerated patience, “your brother Nori. I did just ask you that question, you know.”

“I just--” Ori frowned, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”

“Oh?” the voice drawled. “Surely, you’ve noticed that he’s not coming home anymore?”

Ori gritted his teeth to keep from snapping at the voice. He knew better than anyone else that Nori wasn’t coming home because Nori had left Ered Luin. “Yes, I noticed,” he said evenly. “But I don’t know where he went.”

There was a long, exaggerated sigh, and then a hand slapped him.

“That was a warning,” the voice said mildly, as though he were walking along a busy street. “Perhaps I should ask my next question, then.”

“Maybe I can answer it,” Ori said, turning his head back in the direction of the voice.

There was a snort. “Very well. What information does Nori know about Kollr Longshanks?”

Ori snorted himself. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t have to be afraid of him, would I?”

“Ah, the impertinence of youth,” the voice said. “Let us return to the first question, and see if we can’t come up with a better answer, shall we?”

Something slammed into his right knee hard. The sudden agony made him shriek.

***

"I told you," Ori moaned, his head hanging limply forward. He could feel the painful bite of the metal cuffs cutting into his wrists, but it hurt more to stand up straight. "I don't know."

"Yes, you do." A hand grabbed his hair and yanked his head up. "And your lies are only inconvenient to me. Where is Nori?"

"The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, expecting different results," Ori grumbled, wincing as the grip in his hair tightened. And just as suddenly, the hand disappeared.

"You have an excellent point," the voice said cheerfully.

That's when the first punch landed in his gut.

Winded and gasping, Ori couldn't even yelp as another fist slammed into his stomach with the force of a hammer.

"Where is Nori?"

Ori gasped a few times before he could wheeze, "I don't know."

More punches landed on his stomach, just under his ribs, leaving him desperate for air. Ori found himself remembering one time when he was younger when Dori tried his hand at making bread, and how he’d punched at the dough over and over again while he was preparing it. Imagining the same thing happening to his insides made him feel queasy.

"I'm going to ask again, and if you give me the same answer, I'm going to break your nose. Do you understand?"

Ori gritted his teeth. "Yes."

"Very well. Where is Nori?"

Ori really didn't want to have his nose broken. It wasn't that great to look at, but it was still his nose. He needed it for smelling things, like the chips Dori fried up whenever he came to visit, or ink drying on parchment. Still, the metal cuffs keeping his wrists and ankles against the wall meant that he couldn't try to dodge. "How am I supposed to answer a question that I don't know the answer to?"

The voice snorted. Just as promised, a fist slammed into his left eye, hard knuckles breaking fragile bone with a sickening crack. Pain exploded inside of his head, and for a nauseating moment, it was as though he could see the bone in his nose shattering into little pieces. He felt a rush of warm blood pour of his nose, dripping into his gasping mouth and making him shudder at the coppery taste. A moment later, his head slammed against the wall behind him with such force that dizzying flashes of light danced in front of his eyes.

"Would you like for me to blacken the other eye?"

He groaned, words slipping away from him as the pain throbbed in time with his heartbeat. His head pounded, and he wanted to throw up.

"Ah, that's right. Your brother has to be able to recognize you," the voice said amiably. "At least a good number of your injuries aren’t going to be on your face, so that’s something. Here, let’s see how these are coming along, shall we?"

A hand emerged from the darkness, almost gentle on his cheek before hands burrowed under his shirt and longjohns, undoing enough buttons to bare Ori’s skin to the air of the room. Ori’s head was swimming in a haze of pain, but he could still feel himself getting embarrassed over this voice uncovering him. For a wild moment, he thought of Dwalin, but then forced himself to focus on his interrogator.

“Ah, you’ll have some goodly bruises when these come into full bloom,” the voice said, but Ori lost track of whatever else he was going to say when fingers prodded and pressed against his stomach like knives.

Ori couldn’t stop himself from shouting, which caused the muscles in his stomach to tense further, sending a fresh wave of agony through him. His stomach churned, threatening to bring up whatever was in it. He swallowed hastily, trying to imagine forcing a lid on a churning barrel of porridge. After a few panicked moments, he felt his stomach reluctantly settle.

“You might want to be careful,” the voice purred. The fingers patted his burning skin before disappearing, setting his clothes to rights. “For now, we’ll take a little break, and when I come back, I’m sure you’ll be more amenable to answering my questions.”

Ori could barely think through the pain, let alone wonder what the voice was talking about. “...what?”

There was a low, dark chuckle, and then suddenly, a wave of ice water drenched him from head to toe, each droplet of water like needles stabbing into every inch of his skin.

If the frigid temperature of the water hadn’t stolen his breath away, he would have screamed. As it was, he jerked and twitched in his manacles, the metal cutting further into his skin, setting off the searing pain in his head. His shoulders sagged under the weight of his soaked clothing. He started shivering so hard that he almost felt like he could shake himself out of his bonds if they weren’t so well-made. Within moments, his teeth were chattering loud enough to sound like a forge full of smiths hammering against the inside of his head.

“And last but not least,” the voice said with a dramatic pause. “I’ll make sure you don’t get too hot while you’re waiting, and then bid you good night. Try to rest if you can, won’t you?”

Ori heard the door open, and then close.

And then the air turned colder.

***

The darkness shattered with a hard slap to the face, just under his left eye.

For a moment, he stood, dazed and confused, wondering where he was before the cold sliced through his wet clothes like knives against his skin. Then his face and knee started throbbing. The manacles around his wrists were searingly cold. A hand grabbed his hair, and it felt like each individual strand was being torn out of his head.

“Good morning.”

When Ori sputtered and gasped, wondering if there were icicles hanging from his eyelashes, a heavy boot slammed down on his left foot.

“I said good morning,” the warm voice said.

“G-good,” Ori wheezed, his teeth chattering loudly. “Morning.”

“That’s much better.” The hand that had slapped him patted him on the face. “Did you sleep well?”

What few thoughts he had were consumed with the pain flaring in his body. His injuries were throbbing, red and angry and hot, while the rest of his skin felt so frozen that he might snap into little pieces if he moved more than an inch or two. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was sobbing for sleep. “No.”

“Honesty is so refreshing,” the voice said. “I almost never encounter it in my line of work.”

There was a hiss of something being run across a stone, or so it sounded. Ori set his jaw and tried not to whimper too loudly. When he tried to put weight on his left leg, the foot smarted from being stepped on, but putting weight on his right leg meant that his knee screamed bloody murder.

“Now, where is your brother?”

Ori winced, feeling his swollen eye, his broken nose, the horrible chill in the air that was seeping into his bones. “I don’t know.”

“You’re still clinging to that story?” the voice sounded faintly surprised. “I would have thought you’d try something different.”

There was a fist in his side, hard and fast, that made Ori gasp for air. While Ori continued coughing, the voice asked, “What does your brother know about Kollr Longshanks?”

“You’d--” Ori coughed a few times. “--have t-to ask Nori.”

A gentle snort and a presence standing in front of him were all the warning Ori got before fists slammed into his stomach, first one, then the other. Ori lost count after five.

Ori felt himself start to throw up, and only then did the voice back away.

He had to take long, deep breaths to fight down the nausea. He even tried imagining corking a bottle and keeping it in place before his stomach finally started to calm down.

No sooner had he done so then the fists were back, punctuating words. “Where. Is. Your. Brother?”

Ori shuddered, choking for a moment before fighting it back down. “I--” He coughed a few more times, and felt a little bit of vomit rise up and splash at the back of his mouth. He grimaced and coughed a few times.

A hand returned to his hair, yanking his head until the left half of his face was pressed against the wall behind him. For a wild moment, Ori wondered what purpose it was supposed to serve until his skin started screaming from the searing ice against his cheek. “Well?”

“I don’t know,” Ori whispered.

“I’m sorry,” the warm voice said amiably, “I didn’t quite hear that.”

Ori’s face was jammed harder against the stone, his swollen skin around his eye making contact.

He wasn’t quite sure if it was the mental image of his nose being broken again, or the pain in his knee, or the pain in his gut, or his clothes hanging like sheets of ice against his skin, or maybe the feeling that he would never be warm again creeping deeper and deeper into his body. Maybe it was all of it at once.

Whatever it was, it was the tipping point. Ori started crying.

“I don’t know!” he sobbed.

A finger reached out and brushed a tear away from his uninjured cheek. “It seems to me that you had better figure it out soon.”

The fists returned, slamming into his stomach in a steady one-two-three-four before it turned into more-more-more-more.

Ori remembered throwing up at some point, drowning in pain.

After an endless amount of fists, there was a bucket of ice water that felt like he was being embraced again by a kitchen full of knives.

His body finally quit, and he passed out.

***

Time stretched into an endless black.

It was as though Ori could feel each drop of water slowly freeze, solidifying in his sweater and absorbing into his braids.

After a few eternities, the pain went from a roaring inferno to a vengeful throb. His belly, his knee, his foot, his hands, and his face took turns pulsing and throbbing, alternating between freezing heat and searing cold.

Somewhere between his limbs stiffening and the blood drying on his lips, the door opened.

Ori breathed in slowly through his mouth, the sharp chill in the air a minor burn in his throat and lungs. He set his jaw to keep from sobbing.

He wanted to say something, anything. That he wasn’t afraid. That he was sure that rescue was coming for him. As soon as he thought of it, he mentally groaned at his own stupidity. This wasn’t a romance, where the hero came in and rescued their kidnapped love and killed invading armies for the crime of keeping them apart.

If he weren’t shivering so much from the cold, he would’ve gagged at the direction his thoughts had turned. As it was, he could hear the sound of heavy bootsteps hesitate.

And then he couldn’t stop himself.

“I already t-told you,” he stuttered, his teeth chattering hard enough to make talking difficult. “I don’t know where Nori is, or what he knows about Kollr Longshanks.”

He winced, waiting for a fist to land in his stomach again. When nothing happened, he set his jaw as firmly as he could manage without causing more pain. The long silence that stretched in the darkness felt more ominous than before, somehow. It was probably because the air itself felt tense with possibilities.

“You’re usually m-more talkative than this,” Ori managed, swallowing and shivering. A small eternity ago, he’d hadn’t been able to keep standing under the weight of his soaked clothes. As a result, he was dangling from his cuffs and trying not to aggravate his injured wrists further. “If you’re going to kill me, just kill me, because I’m getting sick of--”

A warm hand gently touched his cheek, just under his injured eye. He flinched and whimpered.

“I’m not going to kill you.”

Ori’s good eye widened sightlessly. That voice. He’d only heard it once, growling at him, but it was easier to identify than Nyr’s had been, an endless stretch of darkness ago. Despite the warmth against his face, he felt his heartbeat speeding up and his aching stomach twisting with tension.

“M-Mister Dwalin?”

There was a long pause before he heard a firm, sharp voice, quite unlike the voice from before. “Aye.”

Ori shivered with relief, wincing as the metal cuffs dug into the skin of his hands again. “Thank Mahal, I thought you were him,” he said without thinking. “What’s going on?”

“I’m here to rescue you,” Dwalin growled, as if Ori was deliberately trying to be an idiot.

Ori gritted his teeth, setting off a new wave of pain inside of his head. He could feel his cheeks flushing because it was obvious that Dwalin himself wouldn’t have been involved in the kidnapping scheme himself. He’d been about to reflexively thank him for rescuing him, but now he just wanted to glare at his soulmate.

The too-warm hand that had touched his cheek now took his jaw in a firm but gentle grip, turning his face so that Ori was looking towards his right. He could almost imagine Dwalin staring at his swollen eye and broken nose.

Ori closed his eyes, trying not to feel sick. “Now we have a matching set,” he grumbled, licking his lips and shuddering at the roughness of dried blood against his tongue.

The warm skin disappeared from his jaw, forcing Ori to bite his lip to keep from whimpering at the loss of heat. The sound of metal scraping against metal near his left hand made him turn his head out of habit. Without warning, there was the sound of a key turning, and his hand was freed. His other hand and both of his feet were freed in short order, and before he knew it, he heard Dwalin’s voice.

“Can you walk?” Dwalin demanded.

Ori gritted his teeth, trying to move his right leg forward and gasping as he felt the muscles in his leg locking up. “Give me a minute,” he said, trying to sound like he wasn’t concerned. When he wriggled his toes in his boots, he was relieved to discover he could still feel them, even if they were screaming in pain at the moment.

“We don’t have a minute,” Dwalin said firmly. “We need to get out of here.”

Ori breathed slowly before frowning uselessly up at him. “Why?”

“The guards we didn’t kill are going to be showing up soon,” Dwalin half-growled.

Ori started to roll his eyes before wincing and reaching up a hand to gingerly cradle his head. His hair felt like it was decorated with icicles. “‘We’? Who’s ‘we’?”

“I said there’s no time, we need to move--”

Large hands grabbed his shoulders in a punishing grip.

Maybe it was a result of having been punched and slapped and drenched and nearly frozen. Maybe it was having to answer two stupid questions he didn’t know the answer to, and his interrogator not believing him when he gave them the only answer he could.

Whatever the reason was, Ori was finished with feeling small and useless and unable to stand up for himself.

“Let go,” he rasped. He concentrated on trying to stay on his feet, but his legs felt like cracked granite that could go at any moment. He tried to take a moment and just breathe, but it aggravated his throbbing headache and his throbbing gut, and made him grit his teeth in a vain attempt to keep the pain down to a dull roar, only for it to rage harder. “You’re going to break my shoulders if you squeeze any harder. Let go.”

The large hands disappeared instantly, and Ori found himself wondering why. There was a long silence. When Dwalin spoke, he was gruff. “Here.”

Hands were on him again, taking his left arm and slowly, carefully, gently, wrapping it around broad shoulders. There was something that smelled like well-oiled leather that filled his nose, and under that, a scent that promised long, warm nights in front of a fire.

Ori tensed, trying to reclaim his arm. He shook his head. “I can walk.”

Ori wasn’t surprised that he could almost feel Dwalin’s glare on his skin like a physical touch. He tried not to blush, but he knew it was a losing battle. “I can.”

“Aye,” Dwalin said dryly, his voice like the low rumble of settling stone near Ori’s left ear. “And you look like a newborn pony who can’t find his arse from his elbow.”

Ori wished he didn’t feel so weak, because what he wanted most at that moment was to be able to punch Dwalin in his stupid face. “I’m not a child,” he said, pulling harder on his left arm to free it from around Dwalin’s grip. For a wild moment, he felt himself wobbling in place, the air freezing against his wet clothes. The moment he put weight on his right leg -- and the knee that had been kicked a darkness or two ago -- he gasped as pain raced up his leg and joined the chorus resounding in his head.

Gritting his teeth and determined not to show how much he wanted to pass out from the pain, he forced himself to lean against the wall in order to catch his breath. It was a bad move. The wall was colder than he was, but if he was going to be this dwarf’s soulmate, he was going to have to suck up the pain. Dwalin didn’t seem the type to coddle the weak or suffer fools lightly.

“Mahal’s hammer, stop fighting me!” Dwalin slammed his hand against the wall, punctuating his curse.

Ori flinched back, curling into the freezing wall behind him further.

“Master Dwalin, did you find--” a new voice said.

Ori startled before he realized who’d spoken. “Fili?”

“Fili, what’s wrong?” Kili shouted from further away, on the other side of the open door. The sound of boot steps echoed hurriedly before Kili shouted from much closer, “Ori! Are you all right?”

Ori turned towards their voices, trying not to feel Dwalin’s presence in front of him. “I’m fine.”

“What are we waiting for? We need to get out of here,” Fili said urgently.

“He’s blind,” Dwalin snapped. “We’re going to be a dwarf down while we’re getting out of here because someone needs to carry him.”

Ori flushed, embarrassment and anger rising up. “I told you that I can walk,” he said between gritted teeth. “You can leave me in a room somewhere until you clear the way--”

“If you don’t shut up and let someone help you--” Dwalin growled, dangerously close to Ori and sending a chill down his spine.

“You’ll what?”

Ori’s head snapped up, his uninjured eye wide. “Dori?”

“I’m here, Ori. We’ll get you home, safe and sound.” Heavier bootsteps hurried across the floor. Two warm hands cupped his cheeks before yanking away with a hiss. “Your skin’s like ice! Why haven’t any of you bothered to get him out of these wet clothes?”

“We only just found him,” Kili mumbled.

Ori breathed in deeply as Dwalin and Fili’s voices started talking over each other. “Dori--”

“It’s all right, Ori,” Dori murmured. “I’m here now. Let me take care of things.”

Ori nodded, and as he did so, it felt as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Tension had been building in his back ever since Dwalin had entered the room, but he didn’t feel it until Dori had given him permission to let go. Now that he was aware of it, he was having trouble keeping his feet as a wave of exhaustion swept over him. “Dori--”

Strong arms that had carried Ori countless times when he was a dwarfling wrapped around him, pulling him away from the freezing wall and enveloping him in steady, comforting warmth. “It’s okay. I’m here, and I’m not leaving your side again. I promise.”

The darkness didn’t change, but he felt himself drifting away into it, the voices getting further and further away as he passed out.

***

When he surfaced, he opened his one good eye to find that he still couldn’t see. Checking a sigh, he closed his eye again and concentrated on breathing.

He was in a bed -- warm, dry, and as comfortable as he could be, given the circumstances. Ori heaved in a breath and immediately recognized where we was. He was in his little room that he’d been given when he began his apprenticeship. There was no mistaking the sheets, or the smell in the air from the books and clothes he’d brought with him months ago.

He felt a bit woozy. He knew he was laying in bed with one of the quilts his mother had made before she died draped over him. He also knew that his body felt disconnected, like the joints were made of knitted yarn that had been stretched out too often. His head felt like it could float away at a moment’s notice, making him itch to reach up his hand and touch his face, just to make sure it was still there.

Voices began to intrude, and Ori had a feeling that was what had woken him up in the first place. At first, they melted together in a babbling brook of vowels and consonants before some syllables leaped out of the brook before landing in the water again.

With a slight grimace, Ori forced himself to concentrate and promptly got dizzy as he imagined the voices he was hearing as words that floated in his mind before melting into ink and splashing every which way. He nearly groaned.

“He held up through more than I’d expected.”

Ori felt his soulmate’s voice almost like a bone-deep hum. For a moment, he thought that Dwalin was standing right next to him, but the hand on his forehead smelled of chamomile tea and scented fabric.

“Aye, he kept arguing with me right up until he finally passed out,” Dwalin said with a snort.

Ori breathed slowly, trying not to let his embarrassment show. Of course Dwalin didn’t think much of him. His soulmate had expected him to cave under pressure because he was too young and stupid to take care of himself.

“I thought I’d have to fight Dori off, just to carry him out of there.”

Somehow, the mental image of Dwalin carrying him as though he were a ragdoll was even more humiliating than being thought of as a dwarfling who needed protecting. There was a faint voice in the back of Ori’s mind, wondering why it was Dwalin that had carried him out when Dori had had hold of him last, but it drifted away when he thought about Dwalin again.

It didn’t help that Dwalin probably fell unconscious on the battlefield at least once in his career, what with being a warrior. Although, going by how few scars he’d seen before, Ori thought sourly to himself that it was possible that Dwalin was so good at being a warrior that he never got injured in the first place, so of course he wouldn’t need anyone to take care of him.

Fingers ran themselves through his hair with the kind of gentleness that reminded Ori of when he was a dwarfling who couldn’t sleep, and Dori would stroke his hair.

“When’s Oin going to get here?”

The name sounded familiar, but Ori’s head was starting to lazily spin away from him. With a groan, he realized he couldn’t keep faking. He reached up for his head, only for the strong hand to catch his and lay it down on the quilt gently.

“It’s all right, Ori,” Dori murmured. “You’re all right now.”

Ori groaned again, feeling a tension in the air that he was fairly sure was coming from Dwalin. It was bad enough that Dwalin thought he was pathetic. He didn’t need it confirmed by his older brother cosseting him. He weakly turned his head away from Dori, groaning again. “M’fine, Dori.”

“Ah, yes, because you laying in bed in the middle of the day is exactly what you’d be doing right now if it hadn’t been for… unforeseen circumstances.”

“Not so unforeseen,” Ori slurred. He made a show of opening his good eye before groaning again and sinking back onto his pillow. “I can’t see.”

“It’ll be all right,” Dori said quickly. “We’ll have you right as rain in a little bit. Those two friends of yours ran off to find Oin. How are you feeling?”

“Float-y,” Ori said, his eyebrows twitching into a vague frown. “Like all my bones aren’t connected anymore.”

“Oh, good, it sounds like the medicine we gave you is taking effect,” Dori said. “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly fine. We thought that with your injuries, you would need a pain-killer for when you woke up.”

“Injuries…?” Ori suddenly remembered the punches to the gut, the one punch to his face, his knee, his foot, the ice water. “What…?”

“We won’t know entirely what’s wrong without Oin examining you, lad,” Balin spoke up from a little further away, causing Ori to jolt weakly in surprise. “Hello, lad. I’m sorry for not making my presence known sooner.”

Ori swiveled his head in a gentle negative. “S’fine. Where’s Fili and Kili? I haven’t heard anything break in the last ten minutes.”

One throat snorted as if Ori had told a joke that wasn’t quite funny enough. “They’re the ones getting Oin for you,” he said. “And here he is!”

“All right, all of you,” Oin barked. “Out, now. I need to be able to concentrate on the patient without tripping over dwarves every time I turn around.”

It sounded like a fading roll of thunder as dwarves left the room. Soon, Ori could hear lowered voices near where he was guessing was the door to his bedroom.

When a large, slightly sweaty hand touched just above his left eye, he jumped a little.

“Hold still,” Oin said, sounding like he was trying to keep his voice down to a dull roar.

Ori winced. “Sorry. I didn’t hear you coming.”

"That's the first time anyone's accused me of ever being too quiet," Oin said with a chuckle. "Here. Stay still and let me look at your eyes."

Hands braced his head, one on top, the other under his chin, and firmly but gently turned his head to face his right. When the hands had positioned him where they wanted him, thick fingers poked gingerly around his left eyebrow and cheekbone.

"Quite a shiner you've got there. And it looks like your nose got broken into the bargain," Oin said, his voice surprisingly soft. A finger brushed the bone just under his eye, making Ori jerk back in surprise.

Oin didn't seem to need a response. "That should heal up in a few days, though the nose is going to need straightening. It'll make you popular with the ladies, though, so no harm done there."

"I've got a soulmate," Ori grumbled.

"Even better," Oin chuckled. "Now, turn your head this way-- well, no, you can't see where I'm pointing, can you?"

The fingers turned his head with more care than Ori was expecting so that his right eye was closer to where Oin's voice was coming from. More prodding happened around his eye, a bit more firmly than before, and fingers carefully pried his eyelids further apart, making Ori’s eyes water.

"Oh!" Oin said. "I thought it was something serious from the way the lads were carrying on! You'll get your sight back in a day or so. I should box their ears for making me drag out my surgery kit."

Ori forced himself to breathe in slowly and try to calm down. Just because Oin wasn't concerned didn't mean that he liked being blind. "The... dwarf who was asking me questions said that it was some kind of side effect?"

"Aye," Oin said cheerfully. "The drug is supposed to make a full-grown dwarf sluggish and answer true to any question put to them, but sometimes the compulsion to tell the truth will imbalance the humors in the body and render them blind instead. A goodly amount of sleep, some lean meats to counteract the imbalance in your blood, and you'll be fine in a few days."

A sudden thought struck. "What happened to Fili and Kili? They drank as much as I did."

Ori couldn't say he was surprised when Oin started laughing. "They're likely answering to Thorin about all the pranks they've pulled in the last few decades or so.”

While Ori was relieved that their reaction to the drug hadn’t been as severe as his, he found himself annoyed that all they had to worry about was not being able to lie until the drug wore off. Still, it was nice to be able to lie in bed. Of course, his relief vanished all too soon, as Oin was lifting the quilt. “All right, time to take your shirt off.”

“Is that really necessary?” Ori groaned, the lovely cocoon of warmth disrupted by a slight chill in the air that brushed against his skin. He had been changed into warm, dry clothes while he was passed out, and Oin was shifting his shirt aside with surprising gentleness.

“How is your chest feeling?”

“Sore,” Ori said after a moment of thinking about it. It was more like a steady throb instead of a sharp pain, but Dori had said that they’d given him something while he’d been passed out.

The last of the fabric was pulled away, baring his chest. Oin had been about to say something when he stopped.

Fingertips touched his skin, and everywhere they touched, it felt like claws were gouging into his skin.

Ori hissed, sucking in his stomach to try to get away from the source of the pain, only to aggravate the pain further.

Oin’s large, warm hand pressed carefully at certain points. Each time he pressed down, Ori gritted his teeth and whimpered.

After a long moment, Ori’s shirt was carefully closed. From the way the fabric was laid on his chest, Oin was taking a great deal of care not to just let it drop into place.

“Master Oin?” Ori asked tentatively.

“I’ll be right back, lad.”

“But--”

“Never you mind,” Oin said firmly. “I’ll not go far. I need to let Balin know about your injuries.”

“But isn’t Master Balin nearby?” Ori frowned. He’d heard Dwalin’s voice not that long ago, along with his master’s and Dori’s.

“Of course,” Oin said brusquely. A heavy hand landed on Ori’s shoulder, making Ori jump a little in surprise. “Lay back and stay there.”

Frowning, Ori did as he was told while straining his ears. The door opened, and just beyond, he could hear Oin speaking with his master.

“It doesn’t look good,” Oin had a deep frown in his voice.

“What do you mean?” Dori demanded. “He’s just got some bruises, hasn’t he?”

A snort. “If they get any worse, you’ll need to make arrangements for where to bury him.”

Ori felt as though his blood had turned to ice.

There was a deafening silence before Dori said with a numb voice, “What do you mean ‘bury him’? We brought him here. You were supposed to make sure he was all right--”

“Now, I’m not saying that the boy’s going to drop off at any moment--” Oin began.

“Too right you’re not,” Dori snapped. “What was the point of bringing him here if you’re just going to wash your hands of the whole thing?”

“Dori, I realize--” Ori was surprised at how clearly he could hear Balin’s voice.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen!” Dori shouted, his voice climbing into a higher register. That, more than hearing just how bad his injuries were, scared Ori the most. “He was supposed to be safe here! Nothing was supposed to touch him! What bloody use is Thorin Oakenshield if he can’t be bothered to protect someone who isn’t his own kin?!”

There was a dark growl, and then Dwalin’s voice, “How dare you imply--”

“And, you,” Dori voice suddenly grew softer, raw and angrier. Ori’s heart was pounding in his chest. “You’re his soulmate, for Mahal’s sake! Does the other half of your soul mean so little to you that you would just--”

A heavy fist slammed down on a table hard enough that Ori heard something crack.

“Do you feel better now, brother?” Balin asked mildly. “I’ll thank you to not damage the furniture beyond repair.”

Ori closed his eyes and breathed slowly, trying to calm down. He didn’t want to know what Dwalin thought right now, especially with his older brother fighting his battles for him. Anything that dealt with this soulmate business was his business, not anything that Dori should stick his nose in.

“Excuse me,” he said, raising his voice so that he could be heard. “I’d hate to interrupt, but I’ve learned it’s rude to talk about someone who can still hear you.”

Ori took a small amount of satisfaction from the embarrassed silence that followed, along with Oin’s grunted, “Dwarflings, the lot of you.”

As he settled back on his bed and closed his eyes, he heard Oin speak up. “All right, now. You, I’m going to need the nose splints, along with the brandy I keep in my desk.”

“Do I look like your errand boy?” Dwalin growled.

“No, but you’re not doing anything useful here other than keeping my patient awake with your caterwauling. Go fetch what I told you, and be quick about it.”

Ori heard a door open and slam shut.

“You,” Oin said, “go back to your office and work on something, or go update Thorin. Whatever. I don’t care what you do, just get out of here.”

“You’ll keep me informed if something happens?” Balin asked, sounding chastised.

“Aye, sure thing,” Oin said impatiently. “Off with you now. Shoo.”

The door opened and closed again, this time quieter than before. Balin didn’t seem to be angry, though he didn’t sound like he liked being sent away.

“You, go sit with your brother. If those injuries are any indication of what happened to him, he’s going to need a calm, soothing presence nearby. Can you manage that?”

Ori could almost hear Dori’s shoulders square from where he lay. “Of course,” he said tersely. He paused for a moment before adding with audibly gritted teeth, “I’m sorry for my rudeness earlier. You’re doing the best you can to give my brother the best care possible.”

Oin snorted. "I’ve heard a lot worse, trust me. Either way, apology accepted.” He cleared his throat before raising his voice. “And you, Ori, had better get some rest. Tomorrow, we’re going to see about setting your nose and checking to see if there’s anything else wrong with you, and it’s not going to be pleasant.”

Ori’s eyes opened, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anything. With a swallow, he replied, “Yes, sir.”

“Good,” Oin said. “You get some rest too. Fili and Kili told me about how you all were searching high and low.”

“I will,” Dori said.

With the sound of the door opening and closing, Ori could hear Dori’s bootsteps enter his room and approach his bed. A chair moved, and then Dori was sitting next to him, reaching out and carefully taking his left hand between both of his.

“Are you all right?” Dori asked softly.

“I still feel like bits of me are going to float away, but I’m all right,” Ori answered honestly. “Though I’m annoyed at you for making my decisions for me.”

“Oh?” Dori sounded a bit annoyed himself.

“You meeting with my master and my soulmate in order to arrange protection for me?” Ori said as pointedly as he could manage. “Seeing as how I’m the one who was being protected, I’d like to think that I could’ve been trusted to know my own mind. Instead, my master piled on the work so that I didn’t have a chance to relax let alone risk leaving these halls, and I had two guards who sold me straight to Kollr’s men.”

“Yes, I’m going to have a little something to say to Mister Dwalin when I get the chance,” Dori muttered. “How could he have possibly risked your safety with two dwarves who obviously couldn’t have been trusted?”

“You’re missing the point,” Ori groaned, sinking back onto his pillow with a sigh, but keeping his hand where it was. Dori’s hand felt warm, and after being in that cold room for so long, he’d rather be too hot than too cold.

“I hardly think so,” Dori said. “Dwalin’s your soulmate, and he didn’t bother protecting you. I’m about to take back everything I said about him, because that was just--”

“Dori.”

“--shabby treatment. You deserve better than having some hulking brute who can’t be bothered to pay attention to his own men and--”

Dori.”

“... I’m sorry. What is it?”

Ori stopped himself from gritting his teeth. “Whatever relationship that Mister Dwalin and I have or don’t have, is between us. If I need your help, I’ll ask for it. But I really don’t appreciate that you treated me like a child when it was something that affected me.”

“Ori, you don’t understand,” Dori said firmly. “Because of Mister Dwalin’s laxness, you were kidnapped and tortured.”

Ori breathed slowly through his nose, staring at the ceiling with sightless eyes. “Yes, I know. I was there for it, if you’ll recall.”

“Ori--”

“No, now it’s time for you to listen to me,” Ori said. “I was kidnapped and tortured. It was… pretty bad.” He forced down a shudder. “Part of the reason it happened was because I didn’t have all of the facts. I could have protected myself better if I’d been in on the planning from the beginning.”

“Confusing you with so many details wouldn’t have helped matters--”

“You can't keep shutting me in and making all my decisions for me anymore,” Ori snapped. “Look at what just happened."

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Ori wanted to take them back. After a moment of stunned silence from his brother, he found that no, he didn’t want to take them back after all, because this was something he’d needed to say.

He squeezed Dori’s hand gently. “Dori--” When Dori didn’t interrupt him immediately, he licked his lips and collected his thought. “I’m not of age yet, I know that. But I’m old enough to get myself into trouble because I know that there’s danger, but I wasn’t ready for it. If I’d known to be more suspicious of Nyr and Austri, I could’ve been able to protect myself better. I could’ve done any number of things differently. But it’s happened, and the best I can do right now is concentrate on getting better. And making sure that my soulmate, my master, and my brother don’t kill each other.”

When Dori didn’t answer, Ori sighed and tried to look in his brother’s direction with his undamaged eye. “I don’t even have to be able to see to know that you’re all puffed up like an offended cat.” He squeezed his brother’s hand gently. “Say something? Please?”

Dori’s hands squeezed back just as gently. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to make sure you were safe.”

“It’s all right,” Ori murmured. “But next time, don’t try to shut me out, okay? Even if it’s scary?”

“I’ll try.” Ori felt a hand let go and fingers brush his hair away from his face before Dori kissed his forehead. “Though I can’t promise I’ll remember to do so.”

“Don’t worry.” Ori smiled. “I’ll make sure to remind you.”