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Storm Clouds

Chapter Text

There was a storm raging outside of the mountain, and while the entire city was sheltered from both the wind and the rain, the streets and tunnels were still echoing the howling. It wasn’t as dark as it was at night, with lanterns and fires burning everywhere as usual, but the reflected light from outside gave everything a gloomy touch.

All of this made Dori mildly uneasy, and from time to time he imagined that there was the war cry of Orcs and the howl of Wargs in the storm’s noise, but of course, it was all a trick of the mind.

The baby however, would not be calmed by the knowledge of safety. He was still too young to know that he was protected in the mountain, that there were tons of stone all around them, sheltering any Dwarf inside, and that he was protected by his family, too. For Ori, all that mattered was the noise and the scary sounds.

Dori looked around the house, checking whether any lights burned where they weren’t supposed to, and if the mash was warming up on the stove, before walking into the drawing room, where Ori’s cradle usually stood during the day.

As expected Nori was already there, tucked into his favourite sitting spot right below the largest window, cradling the child in his arms. He was telling stories, and singing lullabies for distraction. Ori did not know the words yet, but his father’s voice always calmed him after a while, and now all the noises he made slowly faded from crying to little more than a tiny whimper.

Dori stopped in the doorway, taking the time to look his younger brother over.

Nori was pale and looked tired, as he always did lately, his eyes were red and slightly puffy, as if he had been crying himself before hearing his son getting anxious about the storm. His voice was happy though, with not the slightest sign of distress as he sang for the baby.

This wasn’t that unusual really. Nori barely slept at night, either because he cared for Ori or because he simply couldn’t fall asleep, only to doze off in the middle of the day. He would work so much for Ori, and Dori had never seen him act as responsible as when he cared for the baby. Sometimes he would disappear for a while, only to bring back food or clothes or toys, never anything they wouldn’t need for Ori.

After his little brother had first showed up with a baby in his arms and a distraught expression on his face, asking for help and to see their Ma, Dori had suspected that this was out of guilt. He thought that Nori had gone ahead and gotten a random girl with child, and that somehow she had died or could not keep it, so now he had to deal with his mistakes.

It couldn’t be that, though. When Nori cradled little Ori in his arms, or let him play and tug at his beard like he never would have permitted to anyone, his face was filled with joy. He looked at Ori like he was the most wonderful thing in the world, like he was more precious than a mithril vein or all the gold of Erebor. Never once had he looked different from any other parent who loved their child unconditionally.

He must have loved the child’s mother, too, and perhaps he still did.

Dori had not known anyone who might be the one, had never seen Nori with any girl or grown Dam in the entire year before him showing up with the baby. And Ori did not look like anyone Dori knew either, he showed no trait common to any family other than theirs yet, with Nori’s sharp nose and light brown hair like their father used to have, and all Dori could guess was that the mother was most likely a Longbeard, too.

Nori never spoke of her. ’Gone,’ he had said when Dori asked about where she was. He refused to say anything else or even listen to anything about her, and Dori couldn’t get any other piece of information out of him.

‘Gone’ might have meant anything, that she had abandoned Nori or that she had died in childbirth as was not too unsual for very young Dwarves, if she was Nori’s age or younger.

The way Nori sometimes looked in the distance and never showed any signs of anger or resentment spoke against her breaking his heart by walking away from him. Sometimes he would look towards the East, to the gates and stop to watch the Dwarves who arrived in the mountain amongst the wounded from Thráin’s campaign, or freeze in the street with a flicker of hope on his face, followed by disgust and disappointment.

She might return, then, but from the way Nori sometimes cried when he thought nobody would see, Dori could guess that he didn’t expect it himself.

He was over trying to comfort his brother about it though. There was little Dori could do to mend a broken heart or about the loss of someone beloved. If Nori didn’t let him close to even find out what was going on, Dori couldn’t do a thing but wait and see whether that would change, and be there if Nori decided that he needed him.

Ori had fallen asleep while Dori stood and watched them, and Nori slowly stopped speaking, content to cradle the baby and wait to see if he would wake up again. When that didn’t happen he gently brushed his fingers over Ori’s cheek, and looked out of the window, his smile slipping and his expression returning to one of misery again.

Dori walked up to him, and Nori only noticed when he was just a few steps away.

His head snapped up, and he looked at Dori with the expression he had each time Dori had caught him doing something he wasn’t supposed to. He hadn’t wanted Dori to see him like this, eyes still red and holding on to his son as if it was the only comfort he had.

“Don’t sit on the floor,” Dori said, barely louder than a whisper. “It’s cold and you will just make yourself ill.”

He offered a hand and Nori took it, carefully standing up so that Ori wouldn’t be jostled from the movement.

“When was the last time you ate?”

“I…” Nori blinked tiredly. “Not sure.”

“There is mash in the kitchen, I can warm it up some more if Ori is asleep anyway,” Dori said, deciding not to chide Nori for being careless. He had enough going on already.

Nori took one last look towards the window, swallowed hard and let his brother lead him through the dim corridors.

 

*-*-*-*-*

They had a couple of weeks of marching time behind them and were far into the Misty Mountains’ valleys, only a little way from the entrances into the mines and tunnels that had connected the entire range in ages past, when Dwalin first asked to go home.

“I want ‘amad…” she whispered under her breath, so quiet that Balin wouldn’t have heard it if she hadn’t been sitting so close beside him.

His sister wouldn’t be the first to wish for her mother, many of their warriors had already talked about missing their parents and their families, no matter what age they were at. Some did it because they weren’t used to being apart from all they knew, some had wanted their mothers’ comfort after the first taste of battle and the Goblins they had already fought.

Dwalin hadn’t been one of those too anxious before or after battle. She was strong, well trained and a fierce fighter, already strong enough to keep up with her father and brother even though she was so young. She had been very sober and had shown little fear, and at night when the campfires were lit, she acted rough and unfazed as ever.

When she asked for her mother though, she didn’t look like those who had been afraid and started panicking, or had to be calmed down by healers or those who were older and more experienced. There was no fear in Dwalin’s eyes as she stared up into the sky, but they shined with tears.

Balin didn’t know what to do about that. Dwalin had rarely shown signs of distress, and rarely had she cried out of sorrow. When Balin gave comfort it was with words, but he didn’t know what had made her feel like that, or how to approach her in the first place. He didn’t even know what had brought it on, he had been writing in his journal while beside him he could hear the rhythmic sound of Dwalin cleaning her daggers.

Now she sat curled up in her furs, looking smaller and more vulnerable than a girl of her height and build was supposed to be able to do.

Balin put away his quill and scooted closer to her, watching for any signs of her being lost in memories of the battle or that she might lash out.

“Should I go search for father? He’s with the King, I think, but he can’t be too busy.”

Dwalin shook her head violently, the clasps, that held what little hair could still get in her eyes back, clicked together at the motion. She hadn’t worn anything in her hair before, content to shave the sides of her head and not style it further, but she seemed to have picked up the habit in the time Balin had been away from home.

“No, Balin, please, I need ‘amad, please let me go home I need to see her.”

There was no way she could go home anymore, not with how far they had gone into the mountains by now. She wouldn’t make it alive if she turned back on her own, so nobody was left to return, and she knew that. Dwalin rarely was unreasonable or forgot such things, and this made Balin feel uneasier than just seeing his steadfast sister in tears.

Balin gently placed his hands on Dwalin’s shoulders, and as she didn’t resist he pulled her closer, letting his little sister curl up against his side.

“Should I help you find some Dam?” he asked. “Any of the older generals or healers if you want to?”

He had barely talked about it with them, but Balin knew that there were many Dwarrowdams who preferred to only speak to other Dams about their problems, and there always was someone to help the younger ones among the soldiers.

“No! It has to be Ma, I can’t talk to…” Dwalin pressed her lips together and didn’t say a word more.

“What is it you need to talk about?” Balin asked gently, rubbing her back. Perhaps she would trust him with the problem, he could help her just as much as their mother, surely.

“I did something terrible…” Dwalin muttered. “I just left and… it was a mistake.” She didn’t say more and from her tone Balin decided that it was best not to push her against her will.

After a few more moments of letting her brother hold her close, Dwalin tensed and sat up. Her face looked as stony as if she never even had been upset.

“I’ll go and practice,” she said, her tone gruff, and she picked up her axes and walked away from the firelight.

Balin watched her disappear into the darkness, towards the spot where some of the soldiers had sparred in the evening. He did not know what had gotten into her, couldn’t even begin to guess. Perhaps their father would know, but all three of them had seen little of each other the past few years, so they wouldn’t know what had happened in Dwalin’s life to judge.

With a sigh Balin took his pipe and took a drag from it, leaning back to watch the sky above. It looked like a storm might be gathering somewhere in the West, but soon enough they would be underneath the rocks and safe from wind and rain. He hoped that everything would be resolved on its own by then.

Chapter Text

Nori hadn’t known what he expected to come out of the longest and best relationship he had ever had, if one could call it that. Living in a remote part of the blue mountains, far away from the main settlements and closer to villages of Men than to the Dwarves’ centre which was Ered Luin, so far away from home that he barely even bothered passing on messages, and having a lover of his own. It nearly was too good to be true, too unlike what he ever had imagined or really wanted when thinking about the future.

It was rebellion, of sorts. To get away from his mother’s soft long-suffering sighs and Dori’s preaching about all he did wrong with his life.

Dwalin’s situation was similar. She was young enough that none would expect her to work hard, and do it far away from her family, she was obviously of good house, though they barely talked about details, and she wanted to gain experience and kinds of work that might be beneath her, which the closeness to the Men and the trade between their people provided.

They were both children, taking the first steps into the adult world, to see whether they liked what they chose for themselves and mostly against their family’s advice. They both knew that this wasn’t permanent, that as soon as something went wrong they’d return home, that they were both too young for anything that’d make a lasting impact on their lives.

Nori missed his family at times; he hated the rules and obligations, but he always craved closeness and the bond he shared with them. And Dwalin was loyal to a fault, eager to do what she wished as long as none needed her, but in the end she would do what was best for them and come when called.

When they first met, their personalities clashed near immediately, and still they somehow managed not to be at each other’s throat. Somehow, and Nori did not even know how, the mockery and quarrelling turned to desire, and even more surprising, to actual affection.

Perhaps it wasn’t that surprising for Nori; he always was quick to like someone if he let himself, that’s why he was careful to keep anyone at a carefully calculated distance. Dwalin had gotten under his skin despite that though.

They met whenever they could, whenever Nori was in the mountains and not roaming the forests where he shouldn’t, and when Dwalin wasn’t out to protect the Men, their goods and the land they owned within that forest. Usually it was in the tiny room at the top floor above a shady little inn, which Nori had rented for barely any coin as long as he caused no trouble.

It was nearly domestic even, and of the regular patrons of the inn, or just the Dwarves who spent more than a week in the area, most knew of Nori and Dwalin being together. The tall and intimidating warrior, and the sly and quick-fingered poacher, both young and good at what they did, Nori and Dwalin, always together, though few knew what the nature of their relation was exactly.

Nori didn’t dare claim that he knew either. At first it was casual, as everything was, with repeated one-night stands and pent up frustrations resulting in quick fucks in alleys or whatever room they were closest to. That was good, and Nori loved what Dwalin was like, strong and every inch of her hard apart from the softest lips Nori had ever kissed, and crushing him in her arms when she held him, or gripped his hips so hard that he could still feel the bruises days later.

The affection was gradual, and it developed along of a camaraderie and friendship, leading to them spending more and more time together without having it end in a shag. At first it was like an arrangement to have someone there if they felt like sleeping with someone they actually knew, without having to rely on the strangers that always were around; but it was way past the time either would pretend it was just that.

You didn’t spent endless hours just kissing a shag-buddy, or holding hands while watching the clouds above. They didn’t even always fuck the way Nori usually preferred with casual encounters; sometimes Dwalin would hold Nori close without crushing him, going slow and kissing him each time he cried out or moaned from her touches, sometimes Nori would push her against the blankets and take his time exploring her body and only focusing on giving her pleasure.

Sometimes they didn’t even fuck at all, despite being naked and curled together in bed, with Nori combing through Dwalin’s hair and trying out new combinations of clasps and braids that might suit her, or her gently massaging his shoulders and sore muscles. That wasn’t something he’d ever done before.

Nori even supposed that he loved her, even though he had never felt it before, not as strongly and he wasn’t sure he’d know it for what it was. He didn’t dare assume that this would last or that Dwalin was his one true love or anything. This was a summer romance, even with how it had lasted well through the winter. They would part, eventually, Dwalin would go as soon as her family needed her, and Nori knew that she wanted to join them eventually, that there were things they planed and that Dwalin wanted to be a part of it.

He didn’t particularly care for Dwalin’s family; he only knew that they would likely not approve of a scoundrel like him. Just as his own would frown at what Nori was doing and at Dwalin, if they judged her before really knowing how she was like. They were both too young for anything serious, and if Dwalin was the daughter of some noble, she might not ever be allowed to be with one like Nori, of a decent family but a crook himself, he didn’t know how things were handled in such cases. He wouldn’t argue if she wanted to leave, would only offer her friendship, should they ever meet again.

Nori tried not to think of the future, tried not to think at all and just enjoy the moment. And perhaps that was how all went wrong.

Dwalin had been gone for quite a while, always busy with new jobs or guarding assignments she managed to get, all of it frequent enough that they had barely seen one another or gotten to talk. Nori had used the free time to steal more of merchants than before and practice fighting with random objects, just in case.

That night he was in his room, a little bored but working on new sheaths for his knives instead of walking down and having a drink or two. Perhaps he’d do it later, or perhaps he’d just go and sleep at a time that wouldn’t have Dori chide him if he knew.

He heard Dwalin’s steps from the end of the corridor, but she was quick enough that Nori barely had the chance to react before his door was pushed open. Nori would have liked to believe that the old innkeeper had let her go upstairs because she knew Dwalin, but the old crone most likely just didn’t care as long as nobody was trying to break down her inn around her.

Nori smiled and got up to his feet, ready to greet her, but Dwalin crossed the room and slammed him against the wall before he could do anything, hard enough to be painful. It wasn’t like before, when they got rough or fucked while leaving scratches and bruises. Dwalin was breathing hard, but there was no lust in her expression, she nearly looked afraid, as if she had been running all the way from something, her hands gripped against Nori’s shirt hard enough that her knuckles stood out white.

She didn’t speak, and her shoulders were very nearly trembling, and Nori wasn’t sure whether it was from stress, exhaustion or from the effort to hold back her strength. He looked up at her, searching for a sign of what to do, nervous about how she was acting.

“Dwalin,” he said softly, hoping that his tone would be soothing. He reached up carefully, brushing his fingers through her beard in a way that had always calmed her, and she didn’t pull away at least. “Everything is all right, you’re here, I can help with anything that happened.”

Her breaths grew steadier, less laboured, and Dwalin let go of Nori’s shirt, straightened the creases with her palms and wrapped her fingers around his collar again. By the time she finally met his eyes, she nearly looked herself again, and Nori gave her a small reassuring smile.

“I’m pregnant,” she said, voice calm and blunt as ever.

Nori’s smile froze.

“You’re wha’?”

She gritted her teeth and tugged at his shirt briefly, but nearly hard enough to rip the fabric.

“I’m pregnant, I’m with child, knocked up, no idea for how long but I have a bloody child in me!”

She pushed against Nori briefly, before letting go and staggering towards the other end of the room and letting herself fall to sit against the wall, brief moment of composure gone.

Nori gaped at her, lost for words. Had she really just… said that? He looked her over, how she was sitting with a devastated and tired expression, her head leaning against one hand and how the other was curled around her flat stomach protectively.

He wanted to ask whether she was sure, whether it wasn’t some mistake, but she’d get angry about her words being doubted, and this was Dwalin, who never believed anything unless she had a decent amount of proof.

“How long… Do you know? Or is it just that you are… well…”

Nori walked closer slowly, unsure of whether his presence was even asked for. Then, she had come to him after all. Or maybe he was just the only one she knew who was close by?

“A couple of months? I have no idea, didn’t care to ask. But my bleeding was way too late, never as late as this, and I was feeling dizzy in the mornings and I went to the next best healer apprentice and yes, I’m bloody sure that I should have known sooner!”

She didn’t demand that he go away or not come any closer, so Nori sank to his knees before her, close enough that he could touch her but not reaching out in case it would make her feel cornered.

“I don’t know what to do,” Dwalin’s voice was trembling again. “I don’t know how one’s supposed to handle this… this situation. It’s healthy, I think, it should be, but I don’t know what to do.”

Is it mine? Nori wanted to ask, but he dismissed the thought angrily before it could even be fully formed. He had learnt to be suspicious and careful around anyone, but this was Dwalin and it didn’t matter who the father was, didn’t matter if it was him, or some other Dwarf or if it wasn’t a Dwarf at all. Dwalin was loyal, though Nori never knew if she considered him as hers, but Nori knew that he would stay and be by her side through all of this anyway. This wasn’t the priority anyway.

“Are you all right?” he asked instead. “Maybe we can send for your family, and they can help you?”

He didn’t know what to do about a child either, but Dwalin blanched at the suggestion.

“They can’t know!” she hissed. “They can’t! I can’t just return like this, I’m not even old enough for marrying to be proper and here I am, expecting and they don’t even know you at all! The first time I set out on my own and I’m pregnant! What will they say?”

I’m not even old enough to be counted as an adult or sign contracts or marry if I didn’t care for what was said about it, Nori though, but this wasn’t about him. Dwalin looked truly afraid now, and Nori wondered what nobles did to their daughters if they married someone of too low standing or got children out of wedlock. Were they strict about this?

Even Dori would turn his nose at getting children at their age; they barely were more than children themselves after all, and it wasn’t proper or wise to bear this young. He wouldn’t turn them away if they came to ask for help though, he just wouldn’t.

“Mine can help, they won’t judge us,” Nori promised and gently put a hand on Dwalin’s tense shoulder, rubbing soothingly. “My Ma will know what to do, she will help you through this.”

Dwalin’s eyes only widened more, and she looked like a cornered animal, like prey faced with a predator, and she wasn’t supposed to be like this, she was strong and nothing could shake her, nothing should be enough to leave her so afraid.

She shook her head and Nori leaned closer to her, both his hands running over her arm to give more comfort without getting too close. He glanced at her stomach, wondering whether it would get bigger soon, or no. He wasn’t sure what to feel, wasn’t sure if he was allowed to be happy and hold her in his arms and promise her that he would do all he could to protect her and make sure that the child was fine, that they would manage even without their families, that nobody needed to know and that nobody would ever tell.

“I don’t want this…” Dwalin whispered. “This wasn’t supposed to happen, I never wanted this to happen, I never even thought I’d happen when I’m over a hundred.”

She trembled against Nori’s hands and he felt a cold shiver run down his spine.

He could suggest it, but how, this was his child and he couldn’t just… But it was Dwalin, Dwalin with no way out and who didn’t dare face her family for whatever reasons, Dwalin who was so afraid when she never was supposed to be. It felt as if someone had filled Nori’s ribcage with ice but he couldn’t be selfish now, he had to let her know that he would help her no matter what.

“I-if you… if you want to, I know a place, they’ll give you a way out. A healer, she won’t talk, or tell anybody that you ever were there; she always helps those who are afraid to be found, criminals or those who have secrets. She learnt from Men, they do that sometimes, but I know she can g-get rid of it for you. It’s not too dangerous, I will get the money, I’ll go there with you if you want me around.”

It came out fast, and now Nori was trembling, too. Dwalin looked up at him.

“What do you mean? A… a healer?”

She must know what I am talking about, I don’t want to say it again, I don’t want her to but I have to.

Nori swallowed hard but went on anyway.

“I know most Dwarves would never, but some do not want a child at all, and you’re not even showing yet so it’s not too late, I know there’s way to stop this. Your family would never know, and you’d never have to think about what to do about this again.”

Dwalin growled at that, and wrapped her arms around her belly, eyes flashing in anger.

“No!”

Nori felt relief at that, and guilt for feeling it. It wasn’t him who would have to bear the brunt of it after all.

“I just wanted you to know that I can find a way out for you, if you don’t want to. You don’t have to do this.”

She sighed and leaned against him and Nori tentatively wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. Even now she was warm and solid against him, calming him down just as the tension drained from her own shoulders.

“I will though”, she muttered. “I just never thought it’d be like this. I never thought I’ll ever have a child, nobody would have minded if I didn’t want to continue our line, it isn’t needed. So I thought… Well, not like this anyway…”

Nori rubbed his cheek again the top of her head, running his hand over her chin and neck, pressing closer against her. It would be all right, they would get though this and Dwalin wouldn’t be afraid anymore. They’d have a family, maybe. He wanted to say that he loved her, but it wasn’t the time.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have taken care, but I didn’t think. I’m sorry for doing this to you.”

She snorted and he felt her elbow in his ribs, not too hard, but still painful.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she jeered. “’s not like I’m some blushing maiden who knows nothing of how children are made, it was my responsibility, too.”

Dwalin was nearly herself again then, mocking as usual was better than fear. She looked much calmer, too, but tired, and Nori helped her get up to her feet.

“How long have you been up?” he asked, but led her to the bed before she could reply. Dwalin shrugged and sat down, kicking of her boots and letting herself fall back against the pillows.

“I should go and find myself some room in an inn,” Dwalin muttered. She always did that after being gone for longer than it would have been worth renting a place for.

“Stay here,” Nori pleaded. “At least for a while, I’ll take care of everything.”

Dwalin made a noncommittal grunt but then she had already made herself comfortable and drifted off to sleep. She could always fall sleep whenever she wanted to, and Nori envied her for it.

He let his eyes wander over her, stared at her now calm face and at her stomach. He wasn’t sure what to do, wasn’t sure what she would even want him to do. He didn’t want to climb into bed now, with Dwalin sleeping and him not knowing whether she needed some space or closeness, and he couldn’t focus on picking up his leather-work again.

Instead Nori carefully locked the door of his room from the inside, and then climbed through the tiny window and onto the roof. He was good at climbing, never lost his footing and not afraid of height, so the window was his favourite exit route in emergencies.

It was already night outside, but there always was something going on in the markets. Nori made his way over the streets, climbing from roof to roof and trying to sort out his thoughts.

A child. He never thought that anyone would bear his child, or even want to do so. He never thought it would be with somebody like Dwalin, somebody he actually loved and not just some accident that happened on a drunken night with someone he didn’t trust or care for. It still was an accident, but he couldn’t bring himself to mind. It would be difficult, and they hadn’t wanted this to happen, but a child was always something good.

Nori made sure that his mind was clear and that he wasn’t lost in thought, before making his way down into the streets and looking for something to bring back to Dwalin. Eventually he found a vendor who wasn’t paying attention, and stole some honey cakes. They were still warm, and he knew that Dwalin loved them.

He hid them in his pockets and disappeared in the crowd, wandering aimlessly between them. He took a few hours just walking around, before he felt like he was ready to go back and be calm about whatever would happen.

Dwalin was still sleeping when Nori climbed back through the window, but she woke at the sound of his steps right next to the bed.

“I brought food,” he whispered as he sat down on the edge of the bed, and she smiled at the sight of sweets. He watched her nibble at the honey cake but his throat felt dry and he didn’t feel like eating himself.

When she was done he wrapped the remaining cakes into a handkerchief and put them on the table, before lying down next to her.

“What do you want to do now?” Nori asked and Dwalin shrugged, before shifting a little and wrapping one arm around Nori to pull him closer to her side.

“I don’t really know what we can do… Or what we should… I think I want to find a midwife or someone who can tell us, tomorrow. I never paid attention when there was a child, I was younger and thought I wouldn’t need to know…”

She stared at the ceiling at Nori leaned his head against her shoulder, suddenly feeling a little afraid. He wasn’t entirely sure either, but he knew he could manage, if she wanted him to. He wasn’t even sure if she would acknowledge him as the father, or if she would prefer to say the child was only hers.

Nori cautiously pressed his palm against Dwalin’s stomach, spreading his fingers and feeling for a change that wasn’t there yet. It would come soon enough, but now her stomach was flat and hard as ever. Dwalin shifted a little and then her rough and calloused hand covered Nori’s, holding it in place so that he couldn’t pull it away as he had started when she moved.

“We’ll manage,” she said, her tone certain.

“Whatever we do, it’d be cared for and we will do our best.

“I’m not sure if I’m really the best parent one could wish for,” Nori shook his head a little. He certainly wouldn’t be the best influence.

“You’ll be a good father,” Dwalin insisted and squeezed his hand. “We’ll figure things out tomorrow morning, but let us sleep now.”

She smiled down at Nori and then made herself comfortable to go back to sleep.

Her words hadn’t really calmed Nori, for some reason, and he clung to her harder, hiding his face against her neck.

Dwalin wouldn’t deny him his child, not without reason. Even with someone like Nori, having a father was probably better than none at all, and she liked him well enough after all. Why was he so afraid then?

It wasn’t the child he was afraid of loosing, Nori realized after counting Dwalin’s slow and steady breaths for a while. He would have a child and it would have him as a father and it would be well. They would have a child and try hard to be good parents for it, they would be a family, or as close as they could get at such an age.

And still, why did Nori suddenly feel as if he would loose Dwalin despite it all?

Chapter Text

Dwalin woke up with something warm pressing against her side and a crick in her neck, from dozing off while sitting. She groaned and tried to shift into a more comfortable position, but failed as the weight pushed her back again.

Opening her eyes Dwalin saw that she was still sitting on the bed as before she fell asleep, with her back against the wall. It was dim in the room, with dawn outside and still too early an hour to be up. There was a soft and even breathing right by her side, and when Dwalin looked down she saw Nori sleeping against her side.

His hair was unbraided and falling over his chest, onto the bundle he cradled in his arms, where their son slept tucked into every warm blanket Nori had deemed soft and good enough for him. It was cold most of the day, so he insisted on keeping the baby warm and hidden away this way, in case he shared Nori’s dislike for the cold.

Now Nori was curled around the bundle, his face resting just above the baby’s head, peaceful as he dozed, lips parted and face completely relaxed, and the baby slept with a near identical expression on his face.

It was utterly adorable. Dwalin snorted at the thought and Nori stirred a little.

“mmwhat?” he mumbled and wrinkled his nose. Which was also adorable.

“Yer cute when you sleep,” Dwalin told him and it earned her a soft whine from her lover.

“’m not…” he complained.

“Sure not…” Dwalin muttered and lifted him up, to make herself more comfortable. He was still so light and thin, even with the baby in his arms and Dwalin feeling sleepy herself, it was an easy thing to pull him closer so that he was sitting between her legs, leaning against her without her being pushed to awkward positions in an attempt to hold him.

Nori curled into the touch, muttering something under his breath but their child didn’t even stir in its sleep. Dwalin wrapped her arms around Nori easily, holding him and smiling about how small he was. Even their new-born didn’t look as tiny and fragile in his arms as in Dwalin’s hands.

Dwalin smiled and let her eyes wander over her sons face. He looked much like his father, with a shock of light brown hair and a hooked nose. So far there was little of herself that she saw in him, and somehow she hoped it wouldn’t really change for a long time, or at least not in his appearance.

She brushed her fingers over the child’s cheek, carefully; barely daring to touch him with her calloused hands, lest she hurt him or cause discomfort. He moved a little but slept on, not bothered by the disturbance at all.

The early hour showed itself though, and Dwalin barely stifled a yawn. She should probably sleep; it wouldn’t do her any good to be tired through the day. She made an attempt to pull up a blanket out of habit, to cover Nori, but she could barely stretch enough to reach it without moving him and waking him up once more.

Instead Dwalin wrapped her arms and legs around as much of him as she could, to shield him from the cool morning air and nuzzled her face against Nori’s hair. He pressed back against her in his sleep, and with the familiar smell of her Dwarves and their soft breaths close to her ear, Dwalin drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

When the first whispers reached the tiny settlement, Dwalin didn’t heed them. The King, they said, the King yearned for his lost realm and now he’s dead and shall never get the chance to see it. His only son, the prince is now the King, but his children are the ones who are not weighted down by the grief and will keep the settlements running, but the old King is dead.

Nonsense, Dwalin thought each time she heard it, each time somebody mentioned it. She remembered Thrór clearly, had known him all her life and though he always had been weighted down by grief and loss, he never was anything less than strong, and even with his high age he was healthy and barely showing signs of frailty. He just couldn’t be dead.

When the whispers turned to angry hissing, and there was talk of murder and the King’s head being all that his son had received, Dwalin started doubting her own conviction.

Orcs, they said, Orcs had killed him and defiled his body, and all that his family was sent was Thrór’s head with a name carved into the skin.

News travelled fast through the mountains, faster even than a raven carrying a message of high importance, and when the great black bird perched on their windowsill, Dwalin was already fearing for the truth of those rumours.

Her hands shook when she opened the parchment, sealed with cheap wax but the imprint in the dark blue was that of Durin’s line, and she had to focus not to break it.

It was written by Thorin, but they were tiny slips of paper from her father and brother, too, and signed by Thráin, second of his name and now the King. Her cousin’s usually neat and pretty script was sharp and had nearly torn trough the parchment at times, and Dwalin couldn’t tell whether it was from grief or anger.

The Orcs had killed his grandfather, it said, and their chief, Azog, had carved his name into Thrór’s head, before sending it to them. They couldn’t let that slide. Too long had the Orcs infested their ancient seat in the Misty Mountains, too long had the Dwarves done nothing about this. And now they had dared to kill the King, dared to add as much insult to the crime as they possibly could.

The armies would gather, and smash the enemy, as they should have done before. They would avenge the King; they would avenge their ancestors. And they would also retake one of their fallen Kingdoms, they wouldn’t have Erebor, but they would have Khazad-Dûm.

They would avenge their grandfather, it said, too, and there Thorin’s writing was smaller, nearly shaky and Dwalin could barely imagine the pain it must have caused Thorin.

When she was just a lass, her father had taken her to the meetings of their family, sometimes, when they all were in one place. She loved them all dearly, she couldn’t think of any way her family wasn’t the safest and warmest place in all of Middle Earth, even with winter and no steady home and an uncertain food supply.

She remembered first seeing the crown prince, with his tattoos and the scars, even more impressive than her own father’s, and she remembered the warm embrace they had shared and how her father joked how the prince would have run into death without him more times than he could count. And she remembered the King himself, with the longest and biggest beard she had ever seen on anyone, and piercing blue eyes, but still so warm to her, no less than to his own grandchildren.

She had loved him; she had looked up to him and had respected all he ever said. But it was nothing compared to how much Thorin loved his grandfather. If she was hurting so much at the idea of him dead, then she couldn’t even begin to imagine how Thorin must feel.

The letters from her brother and father were short, with them not wanting to waste paper or have their bird carry too much. Their ravens weren’t as clever or big as the ones of Erebor, if Balin’s tales were to be believed, but they were valuable birds nevertheless, so they were treated well and weren’t made to fulfil too difficult tasks. Even her finding Dwalin where her family only assumed her to be was nearly too much to ask of the bird.

The armies would gather and their family would march, of course. They were the line of Durin, the royal family and proud warriors, none would want to miss out on such a move. They would fight for their late King, and they would cleanse the Misty Mountains, once and for all.

Dwalin was aware of her hands shaking still, of her eyes burning and of her heart hurting inside her chest. She also felt how her disbelieve turned to grief and slowly flared up into anger.

“Dwalin?”

Her head snapped up at the sound, and she saw Nori sitting at the edge of the bed, looking down at where she was sitting on the floor, the baby securely in his arms and held close, lest the raven got too curious.

She had nearly forgotten he was in the room, suggesting names for the child before pointing out the bird in front of their window. She must make a frightening picture, sitting with the paper and trying not to howl in rage.

“The King is dead, all the rumours were true,” she said, and Nori’s face hardened. He had heard of it, and he had barely cared, just muttered about how it didn’t matter who was the King, and that the Orc thing was probably just a tale.

No King had ever done anything for him, and Nori always said that it made no difference, who was ruling, as long as they kept their people from starving. To Dwalin this was family and all people she had known from birth, so she knew that the difference was all that mattered. But perhaps Nori was right, he had never met them anyway, so she never disagreed.

She looked down at the letters.

“They will march for the Mountains and fight the Orcs.”

“Really? For just the King’s body being defiled?”

“Not just that… There always was talk of reclaiming them. Now Thráin will have no trouble raising the armies of all Dwarf clans he can reach.”

Nori shrugged at that. He knew little of such matters and he barely even cared.

“Have you known the King?”

They didn’t talk of their families much, only knew little of one another’s, but Nori knew that Dwalin must have been from a very good line and close to the royal one.

“Yes,” her voice sounded nearly choked up, but the anger washed away the wave of sadness near instantly.

Nori was on his knees before her, the baby still in one arm, as he tugged at her hair and leaned his forehead against hers.

“I am sorry,” he whispered and Dwalin closed her eyes.

“It’s fine…”

It wasn’t, it wouldn’t be until Thrór was avenged, and even then there would be nothing to bring him back, or help them get over the loss.

Above them the raven flapped her wings, sitting still but reminding them of her presence. She wouldn’t leave unless Dwalin told her to, or until she had some sign, of the letter being received, to carry back.

Dwalin stood up, her limbs feeling heavy all of a sudden, and went to cut some of their breakfast remains into bits, to feed the raven with some sausage. She would have to reply, but what.

A year it said in the letter. No more than that, but perhaps they would have the Misty Mountains only few months after Durin’s Day.

“What will you do?” Nori asked.

What? She wasn’t sure. There was little she could do. She was too young to have anyone expect her to join the army, too young to have the ’you should’ linger over her, and with no word had Thorin mentioned that anyone expected her to even return.

But this was her family.

“I will leave with the dawn,” Dwalin told him. “There is not much I need to pack, and if I march quickly I can make it in two days time.”

Nori looked at her, brow furrowed with worry.

“Is that wise?”

“I can take care of myself.”

She would take her weapons and maybe some food; if she walked quickly and with the shortest way she wouldn’t even encounter anyone but Dwarves, and be there in two days. Not the most comfortable way, but she just had to be home quickly.

She would see her parents again, and her cousins. Balin had been wandering for so much, Dwalin had barely seen him over the last decade and even through the occasion was such a terrible one, she was glad that she’s see him again.

“I will join my family, and see if they are fine. They are probably all grieving now… And if they raise the army I will go.”

Nori had nodded along, his expression sympathetic, but as she got to the last part his eyes widened in terror.

“No!”

She looked at him, saw how his shoulders had tensed up and how he seemed indecisive whether to cling to the babe for comfort and to protect it, or whether to put it on the bed and wrap his arms around Dwalin instead.

“You can’t just go and leave for a war! You can’t leave… you can’t leave.”

“I’m not leaving, I will return soon enough!”

To the end of the year, at most, she wouldn’t be gone longer than that. For a few seconds she contemplated taking Nori with her, and introducing him and the child to her family, but they couldn’t know and not like this, not at such a time. And what would Nori even do, if she went to war? Be alone amongst strangers in an unfamiliar place?

“Just stay here and wait, I will come back,” she said but Nori shook his head.

“What if you don’t? I can’t take care of our child alone, I can’t have him be without his Ma.”

“Others leave their babies for longer than I will be gone,” Dwalin insisted. She had seen it, when families separated for a better chance at making money, and the mothers were better at things that would make it hard to have a child by their side while traveling.

“It won’t be more than a year, my family needs me.”

I need you, too!”

Dwalin shook her head and turned away. She understood that Nori was scared, but it was her duty to be at her family’s side, she was supposed to help them, she owned them, she would feel like she had betrayed them if she didn’t go to be there, and once she was there she wouldn’t want to leave them to go to war alone, trained warrior that she was. They were family, and she needed to fight and be there for her family.

But aren’t they family, too? a nasty voice inside her head asked her. Wasn’t the child of her own blood, and didn’t she love Nori more than she was sure she’d ever be able to do with anyone but him?

She swallowed down the lump in her throat, and tried to brush off that thought.

Her family needed her, and nothing would happen to Nori that she couldn’t shield him of. And the baby couldn’t be safer as with his father protecting and caring for him, better than Dwalin could ever hope to.

She walked up to Nori and buried her hand in his braid, leaning down to kiss the baby. The baby had started to squirm and whimper at the sudden noise, but he calmed when Dwalin’s beard brushed over his cheeks.

“You’re safe,” she told Nori. “You’re safe and me not being here for a little while won’t change that. Please, I must protect them; I must be by their side. I will return as soon as I can, and everything will be good, I promise that.”

Nori’s breath grew a little calmer and he nodded.

“I don’t want you to go,” he started. “But I think I would run, too, if my family needed me…”

He looked at the baby and there was doubt in his voice as he said that.

“I know you will keep him safe,” Dwalin said.

“I will. I will be right here when you are back.”

Nori’s voice was firmer, and he nearly looked confident again. Dwalin smiled grimly, and went to find something to write a reply with.

Will be there was all she scribbled on a torn piece of cloth, using coal, but it would be enough to get the message to Thorin.

She tied the scrap to the raven’s foot, and watched it fly away, wishing that she could be with her family as quickly as that bird.

Nori didn’t say anything as Dwalin spent the rest of the day checking her weapons and prepared all she would take with her the next morning. She knew that he wasn’t happy about her leaving, that he was afraid of being alone or that the child would need Dwalin around, but Dwalin trusted him to keep him safe.

“It won’t be for long,” she said. “I promise all will be good,” “I promise I will be back sooner than you can miss me.”

It wouldn’t be for long, her family needed her more than the child or Nori, and she would return sooner than so many other parents who had had to leave before.

She wouldn’t even be the only one to leave a young child behind, Dwalin knew that most of her cousins felt like additional parents to princess’ Dís’ own young boy, and they would be fine with going after all.

“I won’t abandon you,” she whispered into Nori’s hair, when they lay curled up together at night, and she knew that he couldn’t sleep. “I’d take you with me, if I could, but I will return to you.”

I love you, I want you to be mine, I would wish you to be part of my family if I dared, I’d marry you once you are old enough and we would not have to bear the stares and the disapproval of anyone we know.

When the morning came, Dwalin was up and dressed quickly, still used to that from her training and from wandering with her family.

Nori watched her dress, held their still sleeping boy in his arms, and sat still as the sun slowly started to rise and the first early rays hit him and made his hair look like it was on fire.

He didn’t say anything, didn’t plead Dwalin to stay, but he looked so afraid that it nearly made her feel guilty enough to stay for a little while longer. But she had to go, and soon. When Dwalin was ready she gently brushed her hands through his hair and kissed him, feeling him shudder against her lips and melt into her touch.

She wished she had made him a bead, then. Her own hair was held back by clasps he had made for her, but Dwalin had nothing of her own to gift him, and never had been good at carving beads herself. Once she was back she would gift him one of mithril and the prettiest gems of Khazad-Dûm, and one carved all by herself, even if it cost her all her fingers and a wagon load of wood to get one right.

“Take care,” she told him and “Please be safe,” he whispered.

Dwalin leaned down to kiss the boy’s cheek, and then Nori’s, too, before she took her axes and walked out of the room, leaving them on the bed.

The morning air was cool and made her feel strangely happy, as it so often did when she was alone and marching somewhere. She felt a grim determination in her heart, and she could barely wait to see her kin again, and to avenge her King and great-uncle.

Less than a year, she promised herself, and I will have done my duty and will be back with Nori and my child.

Chapter Text

Nori had always known that everything good could easily disappear again, could easily stop being good or would have to be fought hard for. Some good things remained, some were just temporarily, and he knew that one had to recognize that and not grow too bitter about loss. Other good things would happen, or old ones would still be there after all.

Nori had always known that relationships, good as they were, might break apart or turn to dislike or fade into nothing, and he knew that this was part of life. He knew that what he had with Dwalin was the best thing he had, but that it still might end some day.

Nori had always known that what he and Dwalin had wouldn’t be considered a proper and stable relationship by anyone. He had always known that it was more of a fling; even if they were close and it had lasted longer than anything anyone would call a mere fling either.

He had known that they would part ways, that on the long run their plans for the future and their background would have them go in different directions eventually. There had been nothing specific they wanted that would have them part, but Nori just knew that something would come up eventually, that he would not care for, or that he would want to go somewhere Dwalin wouldn’t bother to follow.

And that was all right, they would part as friends, he had always known that, there was nothing bad about this.

He never even thought about how much he would miss her if they truly parted, if there was nothing remaining between them at all.

Only when Dwalin came to tell him that she was pregnant did the fear start.

It wasn’t even reasonable to start being afraid of the day Dwalin would finally leave, right when she told him of something that would mean the best reason to stay for most. Not when he went to find a second chair for the tiny table in his room, not when he started looking for places he could easily get all they would need from, not with Dwalin carrying all her weapons and belongings into his room and stashing them under the bed and with both of them living together and ignoring the unamused looks of the landlady.

They moved together like most of their age and in their situation wouldn’t have done, perhaps, and they both tried to do their best. Nori told Dwalin of the healers and midwives who were used to criminals and thieves and those who just didn’t want to find respectable ones for whatever reasons, and who kept their mouth shut about anything that their patients did.

Dwalin wasn’t pleased about that information, but that way they wouldn’t risk having some self important Dwarf scoff at them and try to talk them into ‘getting help’ from adults, as if they were really just clueless children who knew nothing of the world. As if they weren’t Dwarves who already had made a name for themselves and weren’t just driven by fear and uncertainty and had only met a few weeks ago.

He made sure that there was always food at hand, and learned more of what Dwalin really liked and what she only put up with because it was there, and he made sure she always got it, even if the efforts earned him a raised eyebrow.

“’amad sometimes makes stew with all the spices she can get,” Dwalin told him one day when Nori had made her the best he could. “It’s too spicy for most of my cousins, but I loved it and just was pleased to have more for myself.”

She sounded wistful at that, remembering her own childhood, and Nori felt his throat tighten. Dwalin would surely like to have her mother by her side in their situation. Any Dam would want that when expecting a child. Nori wanted his Ma here with them, and he wasn’t even the one bearing.

Dwalin always said how she didn’t want her family to know, or at least not right away, but Nori worried if it wouldn’t get too much anyway.

He did his best to make her comfortable, found her the best food he could find, he loosened her tunics and re-sewed her clothes when her belly started to grow bigger and her things would no longer fit. He found her pillows and blankets for comfort and that made her laugh and complain about how she wasn’t delicate, and hit him with the pillows until he fell from the bed, laughing and accusing her of being too hard on anyone around her.

Though they both were nervous, it had been nice to just try and find clothes for the child, and talk about what else they would need, and have Dwalin sleep in his bed every single night, with her arms wrapped around him and her warmth lulling him to sleep. It was terrifying but beautiful to feel the baby kick for the first time, or just sit and realize that, yes, they would really have a child and this wasn’t some dream or elaborate joke.

It should have been perfect and the best part of their relationship.

It should have meant even more reasons for Dwalin to not just go and leave.

It should have meant that they would get through this and take care of their child together.

Still Nori felt like this was pushing Dwalin out of his reach in ways he couldn’t understand or prevent, like the child, that should just have been one of the many things they shared, was actually the reason everything would break apart.

He couldn’t pinpoint why he had that sense of foreboding, and there was nothing Dwalin actually did to show that she didn’t want him.

Only sometimes he would catch her looking down at herself, eyes strangely distant, or stare at her weapons with her fingers moving slightly. Each time it was like a sign of Dwalin not wanting this, not wanting to be here and with a child.

She wasn’t meant for this. She was of good house, and here she was, with a thief, who was only a few steps above being homeless; she was loyal to her family and belonged by their side, yet she stayed where none of them could find her and feared for what they would have to say about her condition.

Nori sometimes lay awake, his head resting against her chest, listening for her heartbeat, and he wondered when Dwalin would leave him and how.

When their son was born, he started getting nightmares about it, too.

What if Dwalin decided that she did not want him after all, what if she decided she wanted to go and confess to her family, or just be with them again? What if she took her son and just went to them, but asked Nori to leave her be, as she didn’t want him casting a bad light on her and the child, and because her family would accept her but never him?

And she could do that, too, she was the mother and could take her child away if she wished, could deny Nori any rights to ever see him again, and there was nothing he could do, barely anything he would do if that was what she wanted.

Holding his son helped, and having Dwalin wrap her arms around him or kiss him or smile at him helped, but Nori couldn’t stop worrying that the time she would leave was nearing.

Maybe it was irrational, but most doubts and fears were.

Nori had always known that eventually Dwalin might leave, or he might go somewhere she wouldn’t care to follow. Then the child came along and the knowledge turned to fear.

When the rumours started, about how the King had died, Nori had thought nothing of it.

When Dwalin received her letter and looked as if someone had shattered her world, Nori had worried and tried to comfort her.

When she said she had to go, he understood; this was family and he would have run if somebody died, too.

But when Dwalin said she would go to war…

This was the kind of thing that suited her, loyalty, and glory of battle. This was the kind of thing Nori had always thought she might turn to instead of him.

She promised to return, she wanted to return, she might leave him, but she would not do so while leaving her son behind as well, she just couldn’t.

She loved him just as he loved her. She was a warrior and a warrior would go if the call for war came, she wouldn’t be the first and she wouldn’t be the last to go while leaving a child and a lover behind to wait.

It was indefinitely better than all Nori had feared would happen. She would not abandon him, she just asked to wait and he could do that, waiting was easier than wondering if their paths might cross again, or knowing that she didn’t want him to be part of her family after all.

It was better, so much better than all of that.

It was the worst thing that might have happened. It was stupid to be afraid, he knew no one as capable of fighting and staying alive as Dwalin, she was strong and good and she said that the war wouldn’t last long, there were little chances for anything to happen if it was over quickly.

Dwalin wanted him and wanted the child, she wanted to return and for everything to be good, but what if she couldn’t return?

Nori could push these thoughts aside though, it was more important to have their child be happy and healthy than worry about things he could do nothing about.

He knew she would do her best to come back, he knew that her back, as she left the tiny room, couldn’t be the last he saw of her and he knew that it would be fine, he would do all right on his own before Dwalin came back, and he would make sure their son was all right.

“Your ‘amad will be a veteran and a hero,” Nori told his son when he started waking up and mumbling sleepily. “And then you can tell everyone that your ‘amad is the best and the strongest and the most beautiful ‘amad of all.”

He cradled the boy in his arms as the sun slowly started to rise higher in the sky, thinking about how he might have to buy a goat from the farmer who had always sold them milk when they needed more. Just in a bit, when it was a little warmer; he would have to take the boy along, he couldn’t leave him in the rom hungry and awake.

“Wonder if you’ll grow even more by the time she’s back. Would you like that, to surprise your ‘amad with how big and strong you’ll gonna get?”

The child gave him a toothless smile and tugged at his loose hair with soft and tiny fingers. Nori returned the smile and felt his cheeks hurt as he did so.

Nori had always known that Dwalin might leave, and he hadn’t hoped that he would have a promise of her wanting to return. This was supposed to be a relief, she promised and she never broke a promise.

And still the tears fell unbidden, and he couldn’t stop them. Dwalin would come back, their son was fine, he wasn’t alone.

Soon he would get up and take their child for a walk, soon he would calm down and just be glad that Dwalin wanted him and trusted him to do well for their child. But for now, he would take just one moment of crying in his relief and sorrow, and cling to the baby until he could trust himself to carry it steadily and make sure that all would be fine.

Chapter Text

Nori’s jaw was throbbing in pain and the strain of keeping still in such an awkward position was starting to make his legs tremble. He couldn’t climb down from behind the chimney though, not yet, not when he wasn’t sure where his pursuers were.

He hated this; he hated how things like that kept happening.

Gerir and Lyk were scum, as far as Nori was concerned, and he never really wanted to have anything to do with them. The sort of jobs they took just weren’t to his liking, and their preference to mug rather than just discreetly taking what they wanted, downright bothered Nori. He was a good fighter but why run into a confrontation if it was avoidable? Why get somebody hurt and cause both them and the guard to be especially angry?

He had always been polite to Gerir and Lyk though, had never tried to get in their way and never been rude about it if an offer for cooperation was implied. There really was no reason for them to hate him.

Still, it hadn’t kept them from jumping on him in the street and trying to beat him up. He’d stolen their things, or at least in their territory apparently. What thief had territories he’d defend like that?

Gerir had a strong arm and good punch, and Lyk had a vicelike grip but thankfully loosened the hold when Nori flashed a knife. They were strong but Nori was quicker, and it was an easy thing to outrun them and hide, to wait for the moment it would be safe again, and they wouldn’t find him anymore.

It wouldn’t be a problem if the time was peaceful and if there wasn’t a war going on.

If it weren’t for the war, there’d be more honest Dwarves around, and more guards. There’d be more to steal and those dishonest few wouldn’t even have the need to ‘share’. There was a shortage of everything, and no proper work to be had, at least not something Nori could do without leaving for too long.

If it weren’t for the war, Dwarves like Gerir and Lyk wouldn’t sense an opportunity to try and get rich without any regard for fellow criminals and the honest folk.

If it weren’t for the war, there’d be more guards around, even in such a miserable settlement as this one. Gerir and Lyk wouldn’t have dared to attack him in broad daylight, and they wouldn’t have spent this much time looking for him.

If it weren’t for the war Dwalin would be here, and Nori would just go and find her, and none would want to pick a fight anymore. If Dwalin were here Nori wouldn’t need to go out and try to steal and cross the path of people who wanted to beat him up or decided he owed them.

Nori peeked down into the street, trying to stay calm and judge the situation as best as he could without overreacting. It was hard to breathe, and he had already been out for too long, he couldn’t stay away, but he had to be careful. It was better to stay until he was safe than to run too early and be caught.

He prayed that the boy would be all right, that nothing would happen while Nori was hiding and unable to move. He had been asleep when Nori left; safely tucked away in blankets and between pillows so that he wouldn’t roll away, but anything could happen.

Nori cursed softly under his breath and checked whether what he had stolen was still in his pockets. It was nothing much, just small turnips and a roll of rough but warm cloth. The child was growing quickly, and he needed more food and new clothes, and for that Nori could only steal, and risk being caught by the few guards, and lately other thieves, too.

Nobody had been anywhere near Nori’s hiding place, and he needed to go back, but he also needed to be sure that nothing would happen. If it weren’t for his son, he’d taken the risk nearly right away, but now he couldn’t be seen under any circumstances, and he couldn’t lead his pursuers back home either. He couldn’t be sure that they’d leave his son be after all.

It really wasn’t safe staying here, the war had gone on too long already, and Nori kept struggling more and more with trying to keep his son healthy, and himself out of trouble. They should just go away and…

Nori pushed that thought away. He had known that it would soon come to this, didn’t even feel like he was suffocating each time it crossed his mind anymore.

I have to stay, Dwalin will return soon, he kept thinking, but while she was good, Dwalin could not end a war all by herself and with sheer willpower. Soon he’d really have no other choice. It was either leaving or risking to die and have something happen to their child…

Nori decided to ignore the thought for now, he had enough to worry about already. He stood up, waiting for the feeling to return to his legs, and then slowly made his way over the rooftops and towards the inn. He had to be cautious, couldn’t just run and leap towards his son as quick as he could, it would do him no good if his father broke his neck or ran into anyone who wished him harm.

He had been away so long, the boy surely must have woken up by now, and it hurt Nori to think that he was scared and alone, but the thought of what else might have happened to him was worse, enough to nearly choke on it.

Somehow he managed to get to the window to his room without loosing self-control or freaking out, and Nori was glad that his fingers were only barely shaking when he set to work on opening the window.

The first thing Nori saw when he climbed into the room was that the bed was empty and that the baby was nowhere to be seen. The second thing was a mug of cold tea on the table, which he hadn’t placed there.

Nori took a moment to lean against the wall to recover from the initial shock, then he put down his loot and went to go downstairs and into the tavern.

There were no patrons there, not that early in the afternoon, and the only one sitting behind the counter, was the owner, with a wriggling bundle in her arms. She looked up when Nori approached, her expression unreadable and seemingly emotionless as always, but Nori felt like there was judgement in her eyes.

He ignored it and concentrated on taking his son back from her, trying not to show his relief to see that the boy was fine and unharmed, if unhappy.

“Was crying his eyes out”, the crone told him, calmly as if it was nothing unusual to have a crying baby in her attic. “I went to see, and I think he was just hungry and bored. Gave him some goat milk and he got nicer.”

Nori curled his arms around the boy, holding him closer, and soon enough the soft whimpering stopped and the boy started tugging at the short braids in Nori’s beard. It occupied him at least, and Nori felt calmer like that, too, and his hands stopped trembling.

The innkeeper was staring at him now.

“You can’t go on like this, lad,” she told him softly.

Nori knew that, but what could he do? There was no work he could find that would allow him to carry the boy with him, and he couldn’t leave him behind for too long either. Soon he’d start crawling and it was dangerous to leave him alone like this. He needed help, but he didn’t know whom he could ask and whom he could trust. Most people he had known had moved on to somewhere else anyway.

He should have gone, too, when they had first started talking about how the war would go longer than anyone had thought. He had hoped Dwalin would come back before the problems started, but she wouldn’t, and he could risk putting their child in danger.

Nori took a deep shuddering breath and rubbed his cheek against the child’s face, causing him to giggle. There was no other choice, really, not unless the situation got miraculously better within a few days.

“Say…” Nori whispered to the boy, closing his eyes and trying not to think of the consequences. This was what he had to do for both their sakes after all. “What do you think about having a new home, little one? Would you want to meet your uncle?”

Chapter Text

Dwalin had never been afraid of battle, she has never feared wounds or even death, she had always been brave and let her rage and the heat of the battle overcome her when she felt unease before one. Never had she shied away from a fight, and never had she doubted her own skills, and how she would only get better with each victory. Already she could keep up with her father, and he always commented on that when they wandered together.

She had been foolish, not to fear the war.

They had all been naive in a way, to think that the war was nothing to fear. Only little time passed before everyone started to realize that it wouldn’t be as easy as they had thought, with the Goblins and Orcs that infested the Misty Mountains, being more in numbers and stronger than anyone had anticipated. It would take longer to track them all down, to fight them and to emerge victorious.

It was wearing Dwalin down, the time in between the battles, the constant fighting, then the waiting and the scouting, looking for a path through the old tunnels and caverns, camping, waiting for assaults from all sides, planning the next fight and the waiting, the never-ending waiting.

The waiting was worse than the fighting. That was war, Dwalin supposed, and what made it different from battles and attacks on caravans or scouts.

At first it was all right, and everyone was still hopeful, the mood was grim but there still was some humour in the camps. Perhaps it wouldn’t even leave until the very end, it seemed to be the thing that made everything bearable after all.

Dwalin was quieter than usual. She had never been one for long speeches really, but now she spoke less than before. Neither Balin nor her father noticed that much, she hadn’t seen them in a while and had gotten older; perhaps that was why they thought her behaviour was normal.

Thorin, Frerin and Víli would sometimes glance at her, and attempt to talk to her, or see whether the war was getting too much for her. Even then Dwalin managed to convince her friends that all was fine.

She tried not to show it, but she worried about more than just her own situation. Every night, before sleeping, she would think of Nori, about how she missed him and how she hoped he was fine and that she would meet him soon. The child, too, Dwalin knew that she would see him very soon.

Despite trying to push these thoughts away and focus on things she could actually change or influence, it was impossible not to think of them all the time.

Dwalin wasn’t the only one who had left a child behind, though she was the only one to keep it a secret. There were many Dwarves who kept talking about their babes, and their children and their wives or husbands back at home. The older Dams would talk about it among themselves, and tell each other stories and Dwalin tried not to be near them when that happened.

Víli was not so easy to escape. He would sometimes sit with Thorin and Frerin and talk, sigh about Dís and his little Fíli, and how he wondered about the new babe. Dís had been pregnant when they left the Blue Mountains, and even with the most optimistic predictions it was unlikely that Víli would be back by the time she’d give birth.

Dwalin had to stay and listen, of course. She was a younger cousin of Dís, and a good friend of Víli, and everyone in their family had an interest in that, looking forward to have a new cousin, or nephew or grandchild, and Dwalin was happy, too, of course.

It was hard to listen to that though. She wanted to speak about her own son, unnamed yet, something they’d have to deal with as soon as she was back, and about Nori. Every day the doubts about leaving them behind became greater, and it became harder to push them away, harder to keep silent as if they didn’t exist at all.

She wasn’t the only one, she wasn’t the first and she wasn’t the last mother to go to war, there were enough Dams who had done the same around her. There were enough fathers who had left behind their children, too, and it was not wrong, they would return, they talked of their families, and the children would be fine, even with the temporary absence of their parents.

She was younger than most, but also stronger and better at fighting, so why did she feel like this? Why couldn’t she just be confident about what she had done like all the others? Why couldn’t she just smile and admit that she missed Nori and their child, and then go on for as long as she couldn’t see them anyway?

Perhaps she was too young to do this, or maybe her babe was, though Dís was nearly on her own, too, and her child would be much younger than Dwalin’s. Maybe Nori was too young to handle everything?

The war would be short, it would be all right, Dwalin wasn’t the only one, she wasn’t the worst mother, she would return, her great-uncle would be avenged and they would have Khazad-Dûm and all would be good. She’d see them again, and the Dwarves would have a new home.

Once the battles started getting worse, and it was obvious that they’d be stuck for much longer than just a year, Dwalin started to feel truly afraid.

It became harder to not feel guilty and worry about how this was to end.

I abandoned my child, she would think, and then try and reason that she wasn’t the only one. She hadn’t done that anyway, she would come back.

One day, or night, after chasing Goblins out of a cavern, that might have been a mine once, Dwalin was sitting near where the healers were busy with their work.

Dwalin had a few cuts on her arm, which would need cleaning and perhaps stitching, and she was so tired after the battle. There was dirt and blood sticking to her everywhere, but she hadn’t managed to go and find some water and a place to sit while washing it away.

She sat a little aside, waiting until one of the healers would find the time to tend to her, and she could see most of what was going on around them. There were people who were unconscious, others who moaned in pain, holding whatever place they had managed to get injured at and all of it was really dreary.

There were those who had fallen, too, and those who might not survive, though thankfully it was only few of them.

Dwalin wasn’t really paying attention to them; she already knew that all of her family and friends were all right, yet somehow one of the still bodies drew her eye.

It was one of the older and more experienced warriors, a Dam from the Iron Hills. Dwalin hadn’t talked to her, but she had seen her around campfires and wielding a hammer like it was nothing. She had avoided her, mostly because this one had often talked about Dwarflings with others.

A child, she was talking about her child, Dwalin remembered. A sweet little toddler who was learning how to walk when she left with Náin’s army.

She had laughed and described all of it, had seemed so happy about seeing her child soon, and now she was lying amongst the dead and those who only barely were alive, pale and her face too still.

The sight made Dwalin’s insides feel like they had frozen over, and she barely noticed the healer who had finally reached her, or how he tended to her wounds and sent her off again. She barely heard how Frerin was trying to talk to her, or how her father gave her a bowl of food.

Only when Dwalin was tucked away under her blankets, with a distant conversation about how she was probably just too tired and how they all needed rest, did it really hit her.

She might die any moment.

She was one of the best fighters, but she was young and inexperienced, and already the war had gone on for longer than anyone had anticipated. She might just… not return.

This was a war, what had she been thinking? Anyone could die, a brief moment of weakness or carelessness and she would be dead, too, and would never make it back to the Blue Moutnains. She hadn’t thought of it before, but now the awareness of how uncertain everything was hit her.

Before, Dwalin had already felt guilt weighting her down, as she wondered whether leaving Nori and the child behind was such a good idea but now it truly hit her that she might never see them again. What if Nori waited for her, and she’d never come? What if he never really found out what happened to her? What if the child would have to grow up with only one parent? What if something happened to Nori, what would happen to the child then?

Dwalin might have screamed if it weren’t for half her family surrounding her, so instead she just clutched her blanket so hard that her knuckles stood out white and her entire body started to tremble.

She couldn’t allow herself to be overcome by the sudden fear. Fear meant paralysis and too much worry during a fight; it meant that she would more likely get hurt. But she had to stay alive.

There was nothing Dwalin could do about this, but push the thoughts of Nori and their child aside completely when the next battle came, she couldn’t let herself think of anything but the weapons in her hands and the foes around her.

She would have to stop thinking about anything other that how to live, she had to not show her fear, and not feel it at all, and keep it from overwhelming her in quiet moments.

It was nearly impossible, but at least Dwalin had a clear head when she fought. When they were marching it was easy to only concentrate on her steps, when she was helping to set up camp or to cook or with the weapons, it was easy to forget and only focus on her hands, though it made everyone worry about her getting quieter.

None of that really mattered though. She only needed to stay alive, and it was working, even if every moment she spent lying curled into her bedroll was one she spent trying not to cry and breathe through the pressure on her chest and the very real possibility of having left her little family for good.

Chapter Text

The evenings were quiet, with just the two of them at home, and Dori couldn’t say that he minded it that much. Sometimes it was strange to only have his Ma live in the house with him; after all, it had always been lively in his childhood.

He missed the chaos of having a little brother run around and knock things over on accident, or his uncle play a tune on his flute while their Ma sang as she worked. Sometimes Dori even missed his father, though he had been quieter, and only present in his earliest memories.

Dori would never say it out loud, not with how often he had complained about Nori when he was younger, and not with their Ma always worrying when things seemed bad.

It was all right, though. Their house sometimes seemed a little empty, but Dori knew that Nori would eventually wander back, whether because of missing his family or because he’d have enough of whatever adventure and mischief he was seeking out in the world.

Dori only hoped that he was right with what he knew of his brother, and that Nori had stayed away from the armies or hadn’t joined or gotten in trouble with them. But Nori was young and cautious; he’d never shown interest in the crown’s honour or loyalty to the King. If even Dori had decided that it was not worth going to War, then surely his brother would do the same.

The War had already dragged on longer than expected, with the army not only not turning back to march home, but delving deeper while encountering more foes. It was hard to get information about it though, with how little messages reached the Blue Mountains, and troops of wounded soldiers returning being rare.

Even if the fights were being won, it was difficult to send back smaller portions of the wounded, as they might be attacked easily on the way back.

Dori didn’t try speak to them, tried to close his ears to their talk or any rumours that were spreading, with nobody being certain which were just tales and which actual news, it would affect his life in Ered Luin anyway. There was nobody Dori really wanted to hear of, and he took solace in the thought of Nori staying out of it, bothering some merchant or guard in one of the smaller villages or towns at the outskirts of the Blue Mountains.

He didn’t know what he expected, he hadn’t heard of Nori for so long now, but that didn’t mean that all was bad, their uncle was just like that, too, and Nori was old enough to start traveling far and for long. There was no use worrying, and no use overthinking anything.

Dori rarely wondered about what his brother was doing, with no basis for speculations, it would only have led to worrying, and with nothing he could do about it, Dori preferred not to think of it at all.

He hadn’t expected Nori to return any time soon, hadn’t thought about him staying away much longer either. Dori just didn’t expect anything; this situation was too new for him after all, with the War going on and Nori being away for the first time and for so long.

Their mother had retired to her room already, though it was still early evening, and Dori was cutting leftovers to throw into a stew, when someone knocked at their door.

There were many things Dori couldn’t have helped but imagine when thinking about Nori returning home.

Some of it seemed to come true.

Nori’s clothes were old and well worn, but of a good quality and not threadbare, he had good boots and he didn’t look unhealthy, though he was slimmer and with his skin both sickly pale and darkened from the sun.

Last time Dori had seen his brother, Nori’s beard had been short but even and soft, now it was long enough to be braided at his chin, and there were new clasps in his hair.

Nori looked to be a little leaner, but his shoulders had broadened and he seemed to have gained muscle, growing out of his youthful lankiness.

That was all something Dori might have expected, but nothing in the world would have prepared him to the devastated and sad look on Nori’s face, or the sleeping baby in his arms.

“Nori,” he had only managed to breathe, all words of gladness or welcome, and his joy to have his baby brother back at home dying in his throat at the sight of it. “What have you done?”

*-*-*-*-*

Nori didn’t talk much after entering the house and carefully putting all he was carrying down. His pack was shoved into a corner, and the bundle with the baby was placed on the kitchen table. It was too large for just Dori and Kori, so more than half of it was usually the place to deposit baskets of wool or cloth, and now a little Dwarfling, too, apparently.

Nori looked tired and hungry, in a way as if he had been having a hard time for way longer than his little trip to the main settlements of Ered Luin could have taken him. Yet the first thing he did was to dig out a little pot filled with some sort of green mash, and heat it up on the stove.

Food for the baby, he explained, and Dori still wasn’t sure how to react, so he just nodded along, staring at Nori in disbelieve. The noise and their voices brought their Ma coming out, though she liked to have her quiet this late, and she was overjoyed to see her son.

Kori didn’t seem to mind that her son had brought a baby with him, choosing to cradle him instead and hold Nori close, and smiling softly as she asked Nori to tell them where the child had come from, as if it was nothing.

She didn’t say anything, didn’t seem to have any objections to what Nori told them, after he had fed the baby and accepted a bowl of stew Dori pushed towards him.

Nori seemed uncomfortable talking about it, and Kori didn’t push it, just accepted the short explanation of living in a little village and now having to take care of his son.

Dori stood there, quietly, and Nori didn’t meet his eyes though he had never flinched away before. Dori wanted to scream, wanted to shake Nori and ask him whether he was out of his mind, whether he understood what he had done. He was grown up, maybe, but by law he was still too young to be truly considered an adult, and way too young to have a child of his own.

Couldn’t he have taken care? He knew how a child was made, and the mother must have, too, must have known to keep Nori away or take whatever herbs were needed to prevent a pregnancy.

Where was that mother anyway, why was Nori alone, why did he look like he hadn’t slept or eaten enough in months, why was his brother so tired and why did he have to take care of a babe alone, where was the mother, where was her family, how could she do that to Nori? Was she dead perhaps? The child looked much too old for it to have happened during the birth, or maybe Nori was foolish enough to wait before returning.

Dori wanted to voice the doubts, wanted to hiss at Nori and remind him of his age, but he couldn’t. He didn’t want this to be their first interaction in years; Nori was his little brother after all, and their mother was in no state to have her sons yell at one another, she wasn’t the youngest or healthiest anymore, and she was a gentle Dam, this would just agitate her needlessly.

Kori smiled and cooed down at the baby, and the child seemed to like his grandmother, too.

“He is a beautiful child,” Kori said happily, “Reminds me of you, when you were that age, Nori, look, he’s just like his ‘adad.”

Nori smiled tiredly, and Dori bit his lip. Their mother was supposed to ask questions, but she didn’t, and Nori wouldn’t speak himself.

“How much of his mother does the boy have?” he asked instead, trying to keep his voice neutral so that Kori didn’t notice the suspicion. “Where is she? Or who?”

Nori tensed and he looked away.

“She wandered like me,” he said, avoiding everyone’s eyes. “Just a few years older and… I had to take care of our son.”

Kori handed the bundle with the baby over to Dori, then scooted her chair closer to her youngest to take him in her arm. It gave Dori the opportunity to really look at the baby.

He would have asked whether Nori was sure that the child was his. Whores didn’t have only one client after all, if that was who the mother was, and not every Dam was faithful in their affairs, if Nori and her had actually been lovers. It might be that Nori had to take care of a babe who wasn’t his at all.

They boy did look like his brother though, with brown hair just like Nori’s and their father’s had been, and a crooked nose and freckles on his cheeks, like their uncle had.

“Why couldn’t she do it then?” Dori asked, watching Nori’s face carefully.

There was a tension around Nori’s eyes, and he seemed to make an effort to remain relaxed in their mother’s presence. He didn’t look angry, but not sad enough to have Dori suspect that she had died. Or maybe it was long ago, and he hadn’t loved her so much to still grieve.

“What’s my grandchild’s name then, my little magpie? Don’t you think I’d want to know?” Kori asked then, cheerful and as if she hadn’t noticed the brief moment. Perhaps she really hadn’t.

Nori perked up at that, glad to avoid speaking about anything relating to his son’s parentage, though he’d not be able to avoid it entirely.

“We hadn’t decided on an outer name, we weren’t even sure which of our family’s he should be named after. Or whether it’d be best to have her claim him, or me, seeing as we’re… we were both so young and I’m just a…”

He tensed up again and Kori wrapped her arms around Nori to press her to her chest.

“Oh my sweet boy. You’re never just something. Your son will be proud to have you.”

“Hasn’t it been too long for the child to not have a name?” Dori asked instead of offering comfort. This wasn’t the right moment for him to do anything, not with their mother doing it already and being so distracted.

“We couldn’t decide and it seemed not right to pick on my own when she…”

Nori tensed again and Dori nearly felt guilty to force Nori to think of it. He did not know how Nori handled loss such as this; maybe he was in more pain than it seemed. He had to know though, would have to press and find out all he could, all that was necessary maybe. Time for comfort would come later, and Dori could not force Nori to grieve openly either.

“What do you expect to do with the child?”

Something about the words seemed to rattle Nori, and his eyes widened. He nearly made a move to slip away from their mother, too.

“I will keep him, and take care of him, even if you… I just need a little help, if you don’t want the shame of it in our family, I’ll leave soon enough.”

He must have worried about that a lot.

“I couldn’t care less about what everyone thinks of our family,” Kori said lightly. “Not if it’s about a baby.”

Dori wasn’t so sure.

“It’d be no good for the child maybe. I’d not want people to talk too much.”

Nori looked devastated but nodded.

“It wouldn’t be good for him to have the likes of me as his father.”

It broke Dori’s heart, to have his little brother speak like this, but there was some truth in his words. He was already known for being a thief and a good for nothing boy, though he was so much more than this, and now he was also half a child with a son of his own. If Dori had trouble keeping the doubts of his nephew’s mother being a whore away, then the others surely would jump to that conclusion, too. He had to protect both the child and Nori from this. If he had loved her, he’d not want to hear it.

“You will stay, and we shall take care of this,” Dori promised. “I would never send you away, Nori, you’re my brother and this child is kin, too.”

Nori relaxed back against their mother, and Kori glanced at Dori, realization in her eyes.

“I barely leave the house, and few of our neighbours are still here,” she said. “I am often in poor health, nobody would question me if I just say that I didn’t want to tell anyone… Let us say that he is mine.”

Nori stared back at her, mouth open.

“You would…?”

“If that would make it easier for you, and for my grandchild, yes of course, my magpie.”

Nori glanced at Dori, too, but he only nodded. Whatever else was wrong about this, making sure that the child was safe was more important.

“Can I have him back…” Nori asked then, suddenly looking like he could barely stay awake any longer. He reached for his son.

Dori cradled the baby, thinking, but not yet returning it to his brother.

“He still needs a name,” he insisted, and Nori nodded while their mother smiled encouragingly.

Dori looked down thoughtfully, letting his eyes wander over the baby’s face.

“You’ll be our little Ori,” he said. “Ori, son of Nori.”

Dori looked up, saw their mother smiling, and Nori looking at him in wonder, mouthing the word, getting used to the name. He looked so happy for a moment.

“Ori, son of Kori,” Dori said then, as he gave the boy back to his father. “Say hello to your mother and brother.”

It was cruel, and Nori’s happiness crumbed into defeat, but if they wanted to go through with their plan it was best to get used to saying it now.

Nori cradled Ori in his arms, and it looked so right, his baby brother, the little boy who had always laughed and tugged at the hem of Dori’s tunic, though now he wasn’t so small anymore, and his smile was too sad and he had a son of his own.

Dori didn’t know what to say, couldn’t approve of what had happened, and could shake the thought of the mother only using his brother, but this moment he could see that no matter what, Nori was already a father, and whatever else might have happened, this much was the truth at least.

Chapter Text

They sat on the narrow bed of Nori’s old room, with Nori leaning against the cushions and Ori sitting between his legs. There were soft cords, ribbons and wooden beads scattered on the blankets around them, though Ori was too young to really wear the latter.

The boy was fussing slight, chewing at the limbs of his favourite doll, and squirmed and giggled each time Nori tried to brush a comb through his short brown hair. It wasn’t as easy as his Ma made it look, and Dori usually managed to put braids into Ori’s hair before anyone even noticed he was doing it.

Nori might have been quicker about it than this, but he wanted to have Ori’s hair look nice and neat. It being time he could be close to his son was just an added bonus.

“No, Nooo-!” Ori giggled and dodged away from where Nori had tried to gather strands of hair. He couldn’t pronounce anyone’s name yet, so Nori never was sure whether he was complaining or communicating.

“Hold still, Ori, you don’t want to have your braids be all crooked when Ma takes you to the market?”

Ori shook his head, and turned back to look up over his shoulder.

“No.”

“Then hold still please.”

Braiding Ori’s hair was hard, and not just because the boy would always turn his head and fidget, but also because it was short and coarse, sticking up in whatever direction in wanted, escaping the braids unless they were especially neat.

Nori remembered similar evenings, when it wasn’t a small child sitting before him, but Dwalin, when she did allow him to touch her hair. It had been longer and very soft, but the strands that weren’t weighted down by their length had been just as Ori’s. Always sticking up at odd angles, not giving in to even the longest attempts to brush it down.

Nori finally managed to make the first braid on top of Ori’s head, wondering how Dori did it so effordlessly.

“Why,” he sighed fondly as he patted Ori’s head. “Why is it the first trait of your mother, you actually develop, such an inconvenient one?”

Ori babbled something in reply, incomprehensible but sounding very serious, and Nori just chuckled, before setting to work on the rest of his hair.

Chapter Text

It was warm in the entire house, with fires burning in the kitchen and the drawing room, and lamps in the hallways giving everything more warmth, with both their fire and the red light that painted everything in their colour. Dwalin had barely thought of this place in the past years, but now that she was here she realized just how much she had missed it and how afraid she had been to never return, in those moments when she doubted she’d live.

It was silent everywhere, with Balin gone, to help Thorin settle matters most likely. She really didn’t wish to be in either of their positions, and with a pang of guilt she wondered whether she should be there with them now. Thorin had always been her favourite cousin, and she should be there to support him. But the guilt was gone as soon as the thought crossed her mind, swallowed by all she already blamed herself for anyway.

Dwalin found her mother in her favourite armchair, wrapped in scarves and blankets and staring at the fire. She had been there in the streets, when the army first marched back towards the palace, but Dwalin only could meet her now.

She wanted to say something to her, but her throat felt tight and she felt her eyes burn. Lawara looked up as her daughter stopped a few feet before her.

“Dwalin,” it was barely above a whisper, she never spoke loudly and somehow everybody still listened. Now her tone was gentle as ever, but shaky, and Dwalin sobbed and threw herself at her mother.

She sank to the floor before the chair, her head resting against her mother’s knees and arms wrapping around her waist. She sobbed, and tried not to cry too much, but tears streamed down her cheeks and soaked her mother’s old blanket.

“My jewel,” Lawara sighed and her soothing hands ran though Dwalin’s hair, combed out the knots with her fingers and petted her head.

Dwalin pressed into the touch, felt how her mother’s fingers trembled slightly as she brushed over the skin that now was scarred, over her torn ear and her shoulders. She had lost weight, in the past years, had grown a little more and gained muscle, and some of her wounds still had to be wrapped up in bandages and she had scars in her face and on her arms.

At least she was home now, she could rest, if only for a little while. Just forget and sleep and have her mother cradle her as if nothing bad had happened in the past eight years.

“’amad,” she sobbed and looked up. Lawara’s cheeks shone wet with tears but she smiled down at her daughter and didn’t make a sound. Always so quiet. Dwalin wished she knew how to be quiet like this, to never let anyone hear if she was in distress.

The sight of it was nearly worse than anything else.

“I’m sorry-“ Dwalin rasped and clung tighter to her mother. “I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t protect anyone…”

“Shh, don’t say that, don’t think that way!”

Her mother’s hands were soft as they wiped away Dwalin’s tears, though her own were falling into her beard already.

“But ‘adad, he’s… He isn’t.”

Her father had died and she hadn’t even seen it, had only known after finding her brother weeping by his fallen and bloodied body after the battle was done. She wished she had been there to safe him, or to at least be by his side and maybe… maybe to just have one minute, one measly minute to hold him and talk to him, and tell him all she wished she didn’t have to keep a secret.

It was just one more regret, one more thing to feel guilty about and one more Dwarf to miss. By know the constant loss felt as if someone had torn the flesh from her stomach, and wrapped it all in too narrow metal braces. Sometimes she could barely breathe or eat from all of it.

Lawara closed her eyes, more tears falling from her long lashes, and her fingers curled around the back of Dwalin’s head.

“I know.”

She looked so broken as she said it, that Dwalin suddenly felt afraid for her mother, of what would become of her.

“Will you be all right?”

She would have hated how small her voice sounded, just like a little girl’s, if anyone but her mother had heard it.

“Of course,” Lawara opened her eyes and smiled down at her, holding Dwalin close as well as she could in their position. “You and Balin are safe, are you not? I feared for all three of you, but you have returned to me.”

She turned her head to look at the fire, and her expression was mournful but also full of sad gratitude. Dwalin felt sleepy all of a sudden, safe and warm and with her mother’s hands in her hair.

She looked up to watch the bead on the end of her mother’s braid, the only ornament she ever wore in her hair. It had been Fundin’s present at their wedding, and it had always been in Lawara’s hair, as long as Dwalin could remember. It was red and pretty against the dark strands, but in the firelight its colour reminded Dwalin of blood on battered armour.

She leaned her cheek against the blanket on her mother’s knees and closed her eyes, thinking back to other things that had been red and painful in her memory.

Dwalin remembered how it had looked like, when the early morning sun shone through the window and left Nori’s hair look bright and red, remembered how he looked at her, wide-eyed and with their tiny son held securely in his arms, as she got dressed to leave.

She had thought she’d be back by the end of the year, at most, had told him as much when he had pleaded her to stay. He had promised that he would be all right, though, that he would take care of everything until she returned, but he had barely said a word when Dwalin was leaving.

Now Dwalin had been gone for six years, didn’t know whether she would still find Nori if she went to look, didn’t know if he had stayed in the room above the inn. By now their son would have an outer name, and had learnt how to walk perhaps. Maybe he could already speak? Did he know what was going on around him, would he remember some of it later in his life?

Dwalin had wanted nothing more than to see them, and to have her mother comfort her, and tell her that all was going to be all right, that she would manage. And now she was here, and her mother could listen and hold her like she couldn’t have when Dwalin was away and deep inside the Misty Mountains, fighting the Orcs.

“’amad?” Dwalin turned her head to look up at he mother. She would tell it what had happened, then maybe tell of Nori and that she loved him, and how she had a son, and that though Lawara had lost her husband she also had gained a grandchild. She wouldn’t get angry with Dwalin for that, would maybe only be saddened that her daughter was still so young. But Dwalin was alive after all, had both managed to bear a child and go through the War, without being harmed.

Lawara looked down at Dwalin, absently stroking her hair. Dwalin took a deep breath and closed her eyes, readying herself for her confession, when her mother spoke again.

“I would never wish this upon anyone, loosing a loved one. I loved your father, and I will always carry this with me.” She leaned down to kiss her daughter’s brow. “But there is one thing I truly could never bear. You and your brother are the mithril of my heart, I couldn’t stand the thought of any harm coming to you.”

She curled her arms around Dwalin’s shoulders and hugged her close.

“A child… a child is the most precious thing one could ever wish for, my gem. As long as my children are whole and healthy, all is well, and as long as I can be there for you and protect you as well as I can… It is all that matters, really.”

Dwalin froze at the words, her arms reaching up on their own accord to cling to her mother.

No she thought, how could I be so stupid and think that ‘amad would be fine with this?

Her mother, who loved her children more than anything in the world, who always was content to just be there for them, and who valued family above all else - not the line of Durin or loyalty and duty as such, but what she had with Fundin, her children and loyalty among the four of them.

How could Dwalin expect her to forgive what she had done, to approve of Dwalin abandoning her child and her lover to go and play at war and revenge for a great-uncle, even if she had thought it’d be for a just few months? How, if Dwalin could barely forgive herself?

She had done the worst thing she could do in her mother’s eyes, and with the anger and the disappointment about this, her mother would also not turn a blind eye on all she had done before, on how Dwalin had lived with a scoundrel and a thief, on how she had only barely been old enough to be considered an adult and how she had gotten herself pregnant, without even thinking to return to her family when she had.

She couldn’t say this, she couldn’t risk her mother’s wrath just as she couldn’t risk breaking her heart and forever ruining the image she had of her only daughter.

The guilt had seemed too much before, but for a few seconds Dwalin thought that she would get smothered by it, and she could not breath at all.

Then the moment had passed and a choked sob escaped her throat. That was all it took to have her weep again, and shake in her mother’s arms and cling to her as if this could be chases away like wargs under the bed and dragons under her window when she had been a little girl.

Her mother must think that she was crying for her father, and for the sorrow the last great battle had brought with it, and she was right, partially. But Dwalin also wept for her son and for Nori, and how she wasn’t sure where or how to find them, and how she could never ask her family for help. She wept for the guilt and the secrets and how she would have to keep them.

She would get herself together soon enough, would stop the weeping and would act like nothing happened, would learn to keep quiet and not show a sign of it, despite how she had hoped to let go of it. For now, she would just cry and let out all tears she hadn’t shed the last six years.

Chapter Text

It was dark in the city, as dark as it had never really been before the War had started. Of course, night always meant no reflected sunlight and only that of the moon, and that there were much less lamps burning anywhere. Now that there were so much less Dwarves left in Ered Luin, and less workers in the forges, down in the lower districts, there were even less lamps, and the entire city seemed to have turned black.

These were darker times, and not only because of the lack of actual light within the city. Dori had never been afraid to walk alone, no matter where he was; he was strong enough to deal with anything. But he’d still rather be left alone and not deal with fools who actually thought it clever to attack him, so that meant that he preferred to not leave the house after the sun set outside. It was not that much of a bother, compared to what else might happen, but it was oddly unnerving nevertheless.

There were fewer Dwarfs, and fewer guards, of course. Most of them had joined the army, with being experienced fighters, mostly, or just because there was less to guard. It had made the scum of the mountains bolder, even if they limited themselves to fights among themselves most of the time.

Which unfortunately did not mean that Dori would be left unaffected, even if he never encountered any ruffians and nothing of his was stolen.

His brother was part of that side of Ered Luin, he was a thief, if he needed to be, he knew his way through the unsavourily groups and shady Dwarves of the mountains, and to anyone else Nori was no different from the scum of Ered Luin.

He tried to never get into trouble, he didn’t really have anything to do with most of these Dwarves, but to them he had always been part of the criminal world, and he would remain so, forever perhaps. Just his presence or him stealing anything, or getting in trouble with the law would pull their attention to him.

Sometimes fights broke out, and then everyone involved would not forget who else was there too soon. Sometimes thieves decided that it was easier to take something from somebody who had already acquired a thing illegally, and Nori complained about that the most.

“I’d bring home more gold,” he muttered as Dori held his hand in his own, and cleaned away the dirt from scraped knuckles. “These bastards seem to smell gold, they think I’m easy to overpower, and I can’t risk too much, I need to get this back home, and stealing good food quickly is hard, I really don’t know what else to…”

He always rambled when he was in pain or nervous, or at least when Dori was around, so he did not interrupt him.

Dori listened and tried not to say anything, tried not to disapprove or say anything that would make Nori even more nervous than he already was. He was only doing this for their family, even if it endangered them if he was careless.

Nori had never been that good at finding proper work. Either the craft was nothing for him and he grew restless, or his reputation as a troublemaker made everyone else be too wary to give him work. Now, with the War, it was even harder to find something, so Nori only had one way of providing for his child and his family.

Dori could not judge that, at least not openly, even if he wanted to. He had to admit that he would have had a much harder time with just his own work, seeing as their mother was often too tired or weak to work for as much as she had before.

It hurt to see his brother like this, even if he kept claiming that he would be fine.

But now it was dark outside, and both Ori and their Ma were asleep, it was hours since the time Nori had actually wanted to return and the stew Dori had left for him had gotten cold twice.

Nori’s hair was ruffled, and there was dust all over him, little bits of rock and splinters in his hair and on his clothes, as well as on the scrapes and cuts.

Dori has put the stew back over the fire and carefully set to clean or bandage all he could.

“I had to run away,” Nori explained “Got careless in my haste.”

Some of that was true, and Dori could recognize how most of Nori’s injuries had come from falling or sliding down somewhere, not worse than a child’s injuries from playing, but he could also see that some of the bruises and cuts could only have been caused by fists or weapons.

“Take care,” Dori just said, knowing that Nori would deny everything just as always.

They sat in silence for a while, Nori looking at the fire and Dori dabbing at the scratches on his hands with a wet cloth. The little bag of coins Nori had brought back, sat between the rolls of bandages Dori had fetched earlier, just in case he’d need them, and he refused to even look at it.

He hated how they did need it, to some extend, and he hated how Nori thought that he had to do it.

As long as he thought it was helping the family and providing for Ori, Nori would not stop doing what he did, and as long as he did that he put himself in danger, and even risked having whoever he was fighting with turn on the family instead. Usually this would have led to Nori running away and just not coming near the city until things calmed down, but now he had Ori, whom he did not want to leave for more than a week at a time.

Dori’s hands stilled around Nori’s wrist where he had bandaged over some bruise salve, fingers tightening slightly.

“You should leave this place. This can’t go on as before.”

Nori’s shoulders tensed and he looked up with fear in his eyes.

“You want me to go? I can’t, I can’t leave Ori, you can’t just… I’ll take care, nothing will happen, I promise, I won’t be any trouble.”

“Something might happen to you if you go on like this,” Dori told him, and patted his hand slightly. “Everyone knows you here, they won’t let it go for quite a while, but if you leave the Blue Mountains for a bit, it will be better. It will be easier for you, both to stay save and not be tied to only one place that has nothing to offer to you.”

“Ori’s here, and you and Ma…”

“You have never liked this part of Ered Luin. Return when you feel you can, but don’t just stay here despite all that is going on. I promise you, I can take care of everything on my own. You might put everyone in danger otherwise, including yourself.”

Nori’s eyes grew distant then, but he hadn’t protested any more yet.

“Leave the Blue Mountains and wander if you must, stay out of danger and away from Dwarves who know you or think you’re easy prey. Visit the realms of Men, or other Dwarf settlements, if you want to. And then return to us when it’s easier for you to stay here.”

They were silent for a while, before Dori put down the cloth he was holding and carefully pulled Nori into an embrace.

“I don’t want you to leave, Nori. I want you here, with us and with your child, I want you all to be safe and happy, but it’s not safe for you here if you go on like this.”

When he sat back, Nori didn’t look too distraught, but calm and nearly content in a way.

“I will bring back gifts, when I’m back,” he promised. “Some toy or maybe candy, and pretty silk for you?”

He stood up and went to fill a bowl with stew, leaving Dori to put away his medical supplies. Nori didn’t protest about having to leave as he ate, but Dori noticed how he had grown quiet, and how he sometimes glanced towards the corridor and where Ori’s room was.

Dori wished it wouldn’t be like this. He wished that Nori would find proper work he’d actually be at least somewhat content with, and that he wouldn’t get into trouble everywhere he stepped.

He wished that Nori were older, and that the Dam who had given birth to Ori was still around, and that she loved Nori the same way he did. Maybe they would have made a nice little family, and maybe Dori would be able to just sit back and not worry about everyone’s safety and happiness.

As it was now, he could only try his best to make it easier for Nori. He went to prepare their best travel pack and filled it with all supplies one might need or have trouble getting on the road. He wrapped up some cram and dried meat and put a small bag of coins into one of the pockets. When he was done with that he brought Nori’s warmest traveling coat and tried to think of anything else he should take and that wouldn’t be too heavy.

It was not much but it was the least he could do.

Dori didn’t sleep that night, but stared out of the window, into the darkness of the city, listening for the sounds of a quiet house.

Nori was ready to leave just before dawn. He took the pack and everything else Dori insisted he needed, even the gold that Nori wanted his family to have. He had knives hidden away from sight, if you didn’t know where to look, and a walking stick in his hand.

The brothers rested their foreheads together, promising to take care of the family and stay safe, and then Dori stood in the doorway, watching his little brother leave once more.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

The air was cold, nearly painfully so. Nori didn’t mind it, felt strangely calm as he breathed in deeply and felt the sting on his face and in his lungs. The air was fresh and clear, and there was frost scrunching underneath his boots as he walked over the mountains’ paths.

It felt good to walk away from the settlements, and really know that this wasn’t just a short trip and that he truly would go wandering again. Ered Luin had been stifling these past few months, and for a few moments Nori could really feel free.

It wasn’t even that he only disliked the place lived in, but it was also the people, the ones who did not know him, or did and sneered down on him, the ones who knew him since childhood and the ones who claimed he owned them this or that, or that he somehow had stolen from them.

It didn’t matter, he could have endured it to be close to his child, and to know that he had his family to help him, and that he needed to help them in turn. But it really was safer to leave at this point, Dori had been right.

He had said goodbye to their mother and kissed Ori’s cheek, not wanting to wake him and knowing that he was too young to understand ‘I am going away, I will return soon’. It pained Nori, but he knew that there was no better place than in Dori’s care, and there was nothing Nori could do to really contribute additional security and certainly no way he’d be able to deal on his own.

He wasn’t leaving forever, and by the time he returned, he’d have presents for Ori, to apologize for the absence, if it was even noticeable for a child that young.

The sun had risen high enough for the sky to slowly change into white and blue, but most parts of Nori’s path still weren’t lit due to the mountain tops’ shadows. He wasn’t sure where exactly he wanted to go, so he took a moment to rest and watch the play of light on the rocks.

The room above the inn came to mind. Four years had passed since Dwalin had left it, and he had never returned there after taking Ori and laving to join his family. The War was still going on, as far as he knew, and there didn’t seem to be any news from how long it would take.

Dwalin had promised him a year, and Nori hated the King for going and getting himself killed in a place that had taken her for so long. She shouldn’t have gone, she should have stayed with him and the child, and she should have been there when Ori got his name, when he first started to babble or crawl, and when he smiled and called for Nori, or his uncle and grandmother, in strange, shorter variations of their names. What would he have called Dwalin? ‘Amad, or would he have found some way to shorten her name into what he could already pronounce.

The thought of it made Nori smile, and he felt warmer despite the chill. The room they had lived him was shoddy, and really no place anyone would have wanted to call a permanent home. But it had been that, a home. More so than the house he had just left had ever been, even though those who were dearest to him lived there.

He would have liked a better place, of course, but the place he and Dwalin had shared hadn’t been comfortable, but it had felt good. Perhaps it was still there. Without Dwalin, and with no Ori, but the village couldn’t have changed much.

Nori picked up his walking stick again, and turned towards the direction of the place Ori had been born in. It wasn’t much, but somehow he felt like he needed to see the place that had once been his home, anyway.

Chapter Text

Barely anything had changed in any of the cities or smaller settlements Dwalin came through. The streets were just the same and the buildings looked just the way they used to be the last time she had been there. Even the smells had remained, and she could tell where the forges were being used again, and what sort of food was being sold, and how it all was where it used to be.

It was the people who weren’t the same. Superficially all was as always. The Dwarves were a sturdy race, they could deal with almost anything one could throw at them, and they wouldn’t even bat an eye.

Azanulbizar had been one thing too much. One could tell who had been there to see, by the distant look in their eyes or how their expressions were harsh and closed off. Dwalin was the same, most of the time. It was hard to forget, and even harder to just shake the past six years off like it was nothing, especially with the ever-present reminders, such as the new scars, and the absence of those who had been burned at the gates of Khazad-Dûm.

Those who had stayed behind weren’t the same as before, either. By now every Dwarf had some friend or kinsman who had fallen during the war against the orcs, and the Dwarves of Erebor had dealt with two terrible catastrophes in a row. It hadn’t been easy to come by in Ered Luin either, with so many Dwarves gone for so long.

There were also those who had liked the time of war, those scoundrels who saw the lack of guards and the general situation as an opportunity to do what they wanted. And it would take a while before everything returned to the order there was before before.

The further one got from the main part of the populated cities, the less one could see the impact of the war. And when Dwalin reached the village she and Nori had first met, it was as if she had only walked away yesterday. Nothing was different, and even the people seemed to be the same, or at least as much as it was possible in a place, that barely had anyone living there permanently, and only passing through on their way towards the realms of Men and to the East.

It was so strange, to see it be like this. Dwalin recognized merchants and taverns and workshops as she walked through the streets. She felt strangely out of place here. She had left her family as soon as she could, after she had healed enough to wander alone, and after she was sure that everything was fine and her help wasn’t really needed or helping anyone. The way she had changed hadn’t been this obvious then.

Usually she would have met somebody she knew, or various Dwarves would approach her or at least greet her, she would have at least two or three waving her over or nodding at her, upon entering a pub, and other sellswords would come to chat with her. It felt like Nori should be there, grinning as he spotted her and playing with his braid or just teasing her.

It wasn’t like this, and Dwalin had changed too much for them to recognize her, perhaps. She was taller now, and broader, with much more muscles than she had before leaving. There were scars all over her arms and face, some still bright red and fresh; she had tattoos and a scowl she seemed to be unable to shake. With her light traveling pack and her axes she must make an intimidating figure, and somehow Dwalin felt like this image suited her, even if she wished it weren’t so.

The inn they used to live in hadn’t changed at all; the door made the same soft screaking sound when the wood was pushed, and the old crone was apparently still the owner. Not even the tables had changed their position. Dwalin looked around, glanced over each of the Dwarves inside, but she wasn’t sure if she had ever met any of them, and with the noise and the drinking patrons, nobody paid attention to the traveling warrior.

She walked past them, and unlike before nobody offered her to sit down. She wasn’t the easy-going girl anymore, and even before people had had a healthy respect of her. Now she was a warrior one would not want to cross on a good day.

Dwalin sat down at the bar, glancing around and towards were a narrow staircase led to the single room right underneath the roof. The window could not be seen from the street, and the staircase itself was dark, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it was… abandoned.

What were the chances of Nori still being here? Six years were a long time, and this wasn’t the best place to raise a child all by himself.

Would she even recognize Nori after this time? Of course, she would know him anywhere, he couldn’t have changed that much. Dwalin’s heart clenched in longing just thinking about it, and about having Nori by her side once more, to hold him and to have him kiss her and joke and say that al was alright. And their child. It was the child she might not recognize. He’d be able to walk already, and maybe he would talk, maybe he already recognized things, and maybe he was old enough to understand that his ‘amad wasn’t there but should be.

There were no children in the inn, and Dwalin hadn’t even really expected Nori to leave the boy here on his own. She still looked for him though.

The old owner of the inn stepped up to her, empty tankard in her hands, and the look she gave Dwalin was an intense one. She looked her over, eyes wandering over the wound cutting across Dwalin’s face and over her weapons.

“So you survived the War? That’s good to know, lass.”

Dwalin used to be wary of her, unsure of what to think of the way she acted, but the familiarity was a relief now, just as the fact that at least one aspect of her old life was here to welcome her.

“Aye. And now I’m back, as promised.”

The Dam nodded, filled the tankard with ale and pushed it towards Dwalin.

“Are they… are they still here? Have you seen Nori?”

She wanted to reply, but then some Dwarf had overheard what Dwalin said.

“Nori? That bastard thief? Ah, he better not be, or else ‘e’s a bigger fool that we thought.”

Dwalin slowly turned to glare at the one who had spoken. He was old, hair going to grey, though his beard was still brown, and he was drunk enough to sway where he stood. He seemed unfazed by her look, or maybe he did not feel like it was a threat towards him.

“If you have some quarrel with him, I suggest you wait in line, round here everyone has.”

Some others heard the name, and Dwalin saw how some Dwarves, who had been playing cards at one of the tables, perked up at the name.

“Aye, he is an idiot!” a Dam said loudly, fiddling with the massive rings on her fingers. “Wouldn’t have thought he’d be stupid enough to return the first time he did. Thought we’d taught the bastard not to go where he’s not wanted.”

“You two showed him this time, eh, Gerir, won’t be running round here no more.”

The Dwarf beside Gerir bowed at that, and she grinned entirely to pleased with herself.

“Never had a mind for the business, that one. Thought he’d do best on his own, and never even tried to be good at it. Dared to steal from our territory, too.”

“What would you expect?” her friend asked, and then turned to the other ones at their table. “Had that brat, I hear, the first time round. Too small to do anything but eat, shit and scream. What self-respecting thief keeps something like that around, I ask you? Can’t teach it to shut up or take anything, or even be all cute and distracting while you do the hard work. Should have left it with the whore of a mother who’d touch the likes of him. Dunno, that’s where it is now maybe.”

There were loud exclamations of agreement, and laughter at that, and it seemed that they had forgotten about the warrior who started the conversation.

Dwalin’s hands tightened around her tankard, her knuckles turning white and the carved wood started to creak slightly.

The crone’s hands covered hers then, and when she tore her eyes away from the group, Dwalin found her looking up from grave silver eyes.

“They are fools,” she whispered. “Don’t listen.”

“Lyk and me taught him what it means to be such a fool,” the Dam started again, and pulled out a dagger out of her jacket. She threw it in the air and caught it, again and again, and perhaps she thought it looked impressive, but Dwalin had seen Nori do much better with his knives, showing off his skills in fight and juggling in the past. Gerir was nothing compared to that, but she looked strong, and she’d be able to do much harm with the broad blade.

“Came back some years ago, and met this pretty thing here.”

The dagger reflected the light of the lamps around them as she flicked it again.

“Saw him on the road a few times after, but he was clever enough to not come back here at least. Next time he does, the dagger’s gonna rest between his eyes.”

Dwalin nearly stood up to smash her axes into her face then and there, but the innkeeper’s hands were still on hers, keeping her from doing something too rash and stupid.

“I saw him he’s fine,” the crone whispered. “He won’t come round here no more, but he wasn’t injured and he’s too clever to cross the path of the likes of these.”

Dwalin forced herself to relax, to keep the sudden flash of anger inside of her. She might have found them right here if it weren’t for such scum and Nori’s penchant to getting into trouble anywhere he went. Instead she tried to focus on the thought of him being alive.

“Is he… were they doing fine?”

“Yes, your friend and the baby were healthy and doing very well. Your lad was a sweet baby, and his father did his very best. Always was exhausted and trying to come by with these around. He did the clever thing and went to join his family, don’t think he’d be safe on his own.”

It calmed Dwalin a little, and she tried to tune out the voices of the Dwarves behind her. They didn’t pay any attention to their quiet conversation at least, and it seemed like the topic of ‘Nori’ was done anyway.

“When have you last seen them?” she asked and the crone shrugged.

“Not that long after you left. A few months? He wanted to have his family help him.”

Dwalin remembered that, Nori had barely ever talked about his family, and neither of them knew much of the other’s, but he had never seemed to doubt that his would welcome their son.

“Do you know where…”

The crone shook her head, giving Dwalin a pitying look.

“Somewhere in Ered Luin, among the larger cities I think. Couldn’t have been more than a day’s marsh from here, maybe two? He went on foot after all, with a baby in his arms.”

Her hand patted Dwalin’s cheek slightly, avoiding the cuts in her face.

“They are fine, I am sure of that. You will find them happy and healthy and waiting for you.”

Dwalin forced a smile but she didn’t even believe it was convincing herself. It was a relief that Nori was alright, and that nothing seemed to have happened to their son, but Ered Luin was divided in many settlements, and many cities. How was she supposed to search through all of them, without really knowing what she was looking for?

She wasn’t certain if she’d be able to recognize her boy now, with how he must have grown, and she knew nothing of Nori’s family. She couldn’t really look properly anyway, not without risking for everyone to know that it was her child. And if Nori had similar problems everywhere, he would take care that he was hard to find, too.

Dwalin felt her throat tighten and her eyes burned again. No, she was done weeping, she wouldn’t do it again, not here, not when she had just heard the first news of Nori in years and it hadn’t even been bad ones. This was ridiculous, she had survived so much and she wouldn’t just…

She had slayed orcs and goblins and fought to the bitter end, surviving were older and more experienced warriors had fallen, with nothing but scars to suffer from it. She should not feel so helpless because of two lost Dwarves.

Behind her the Dwarves were getting loud again, and somehow their conversation had turned back to Nori.

Nori the fool, Nori the bad thief and useless Dwarf, Nori the idiot who thought he could cross them, Nori and his whore’s brat.

Dwalin gritted her teeth at each word they spoke, and she felt her pulse rising with every sneering laugh behind her back.

They had no right to speak of them, had no right to pretend as if Nori was nothing and had no skills. She had not always approved of all he did, but she could not deny that he was the best and cleverest at what he did.

Nori was clever and sharp, a thief and quicker than anyone when it came to making something disappear or draw out a knife, and his name was the sweetest thing she could think of, the name she’d growl and gasp and drawl out when teasing him, the name that gave her comfort when she felt alone and helpless, though she had never dared to speak it out loud lest anyone hear and question it.

Dwalin finished her ale with a few large gulps and then stood up, walking up towards the table where Gerir was just laughing and musing about what they’d do if Nori dared to show his face again. The crone gave her a worrying look, but she did not care, walked slowly and drew herself up to her full height.

Nobody else paid her any mind, but when she came to halt before Gerir, everyone around that table got quieter and looked up at her, curious and trying to take her in. She was intimidating now, without any effort, and she was making the effort right now.

“You’re the one who asked after Nori, yes?” the Dam asked with a grin, her crooked teeth shining in the lamplight. “If you want to join us in teaching that sod a lesson, welcome. I bet he’d piss himself in fear, at the sight of a warrior, bet you could beat his face to pulp, too.”

Dwalin didn’t reply, and the others laughed. She breathed in and out, calm, balling her hands to fists as Gerir went on, balancing her dagger on its tip.

“Just wait till we had him, I prefer to see them be afraid and be able to apologize. Though Nori does deserve a good knock in the teeth.”

Dwalin moved in a flash, faster than any of these self proclaimed fighters would have been able to notice or block, if they would have been the target.

Her fists crashed into the table top, flesh and bones and knuckledusters more than the old wood could take, and the force of her movement made it screak and splinter and break in half, letting all cards and coins bounce to the floor, and the tankards spill all over the place.

Everyone jerked back with a scream, too shocked and terrified and inexperienced with such sudden violence to even reach for their weapons. Even Gerir, who actually had her dagger in hand just sat there open mouthed, unable to tear her eyes away from the wreck of a table.

She didn’t even resist when Dwalin reached for her and pulled the dagger out of her hand, only flinched back automatically.

The entire inn was silent now, and Dwalin could feel everyone’s eyes glued to her, but she didn’t care. The dagger’s blade wasn’t made particularly well, the metal wasn’t of a good quality, and though it was broad and gleamed sharp it was nearly laughably easy to bend the metal with her hands, until it broke and was twisted and useless all over.

“If you ever come near him, or even speak his name again, this’ll be you,” Dwalin hissed at them through her teeth and tossed the useless dagger at Gerir, who nearly fell from her chair at that, trying to avoid it.

Nobody seemed to breathe as Dwalin spit at the floor before their feet, and turned to return to the bar. She tossed some coins down, too angry to try and be careful about it. There was blood on the gold, and Dwalin’s entire vision was somehow wrong, though she did not care.

“For the table,” she told the crone, who was watching her but didn’t seem to have any sort of disapproval in her eyes. “And for everything else.”

They were all silent as Dwalin did that, and as she walked out through the door. By the time they dared to speak again she was well out of earshot, walking quickly through the cold night, away from the inn and the village and towards the smaller paths leading through the mountains.

Her hands ached and would be bruised soon, she hadn’t taken care, and the table had been at least somewhat sturdy.

Her throat and lungs burned, from the exhaustion or from the cold, she wasn’t sure, and both her cheeks and hands felt wet and hot. Dwalin took a few shuddering breaths, trying to understand why everything hurt and while she still felt like it was nothing, and before she knew it she was alone with only some bushes and rocks and the moonlight around her.

Dwalin raised her hands to wipe over her face, to see that she had started crying again. Maybe she was even weeping, with how her throat felt, but what did that matter. Her cheeks felt hot and wet, and there was more than just tears. In the moonlight she couldn’t see well, but Dwalin did recognize the dark thing covering her hand.

It was a painful gash, and she was barely feeling it through the rush of rage and the fear in her heart. She must have slipped when destroying the dagger, one hand on the hilt and one on the blade, and now she had smeared the blood everywhere she touched.

In the moonlight she couldn’t take care of it, and there was no use trying to clean herself up with nothing to see and no stream in sight, for fresh water and a reflection. She wouldn’t meat anyone here anyway.

Dwalin walked on, not caring where exactly she was heading, and tried to keep her tears quiet, at least. She had done too much crying, lately, now it didn’t even feel like she should stop it, or like there was relief in it. She would just walk on and maybe rest in some cave if she found one, but in the morning her eyes would hurt and she would not know where to look for Nori anyway.

He might be dead. Their child might be dead for all she knew. Anything could have happened. And even if they weren’t, how would she find them? How were they supposed to find her? They had been so stupid and naïve to believe that everything would work out on its own. This was exactly the reason why everyone said one should wait for their first century before having children.

Dwalin wiped her eyes with the back of her uninjured hand, to see better, and turned to take a look at her surroundings. Endless mountains stretched out to her side, their tops and valleys painted silver, blue and black by the moonlight, as far as she could see.

Somewhere there, in some village or some city within the rock, Nori was with their son. Maybe waiting, maybe thinking that she had died like so many had. It should be possible to find them here, somehow. No matter how long it took, it was all Dwalin could do, to keep herself from breaking down from the thought of never seeing them again.

Chapter Text

Dwalin sat in the little kitchen, playing with the little copper coin that had already been lying on the table when she came there. She watched the reflections on it, listened to the scrap of metal against wood, and the distant voice of her cousin. It was warm here, with the fire burning and Dís working on a meal and she did not expect Dwalin to actually speak or even listen.

There was a comfort in having her around; of not being alone and feeling as if all was as it should be, without having to make an effort to do anything. Dwalin didn’t feel like she could even pretend that she wasn’t hurting, and she was afraid that her voice would betray her if she did speak up.

Dís just invited her over, would let her sit at the table in the kitchen and sometimes would hand her a little knife to help peel vegetables or pluck feathers of some bird one of their family had shot down. She wouldn’t expect anything, would comment on how Dwalin was when there was nothing to do. Dís wasn’t one for speaking without true purpose or when her input wasn’t needed, but she did chatter away when her younger cousin was there.

Dwalin suspected that Dís just recapped what had happened to her that day, in unnecessary detail, to have something beside the silence for her benefit. She never expected Dwalin to answer or to even listen, and sometimes she would sing under her breath or hum, as she cooked or worked on mending her family’s clothes or on the parchments filled with calculations and letters of importance.

Sometimes Fíli and Kíli would be there, too, but at the times Dwalin visited they preferred playing outside or followed Thorin to whatever he was up to.

It was good, just to sit there, to listen to the sounds of the kitchen and just tune out everything without having to guard her face. Her family knew that there was something Dwalin suffered from, but so far she had been careful about letting it show and they probably still thought that she was slow at coming to terms with the war and the death of her father and friends.

They could never know the truth; none of them was ever allowed to find out…

If they knew of what Dwalin had done… It just kept getting more and more. Not only had she managed to get herself pregnant the first time she ever left her home all by herself, but she had done so with a Dwarf of low birth, or at least with a reputation that already leaned towards being worse than a good family might make up for.

She hadn’t been a good mother, in what little time she had been actually present to care for her son. She loved him, by Mahal, she really did, she’d give her life to keep the boy safe and happy, but she knew nothing of being a mother. Nori had been so good at this, and such a loving father, and he would have made a good husband, too, if they only had been older. But herself… a good mother wouldn’t have left them behind like that.

And this was another thing. Even if her family somehow managed to forgive her for her mistake, and for how stupid she had been, just like any foolish girl, they would certainly not be happy about her not standing up for what she had done.

This might have been a scandal, if people knew, and happened to care about what the second child of the side-branches of Durin’s line did. But she had abandoned her son and her love, like it was nothing.

She might have died, in that war, and this would have left her child alone with Nori.

Dwalin had heard it sometimes, how Thorin and Frerin were told about what was right by their grandfather. She hadn’t cared much at her age, but as they had gotten older they had been told to always take care when sleeping with a Dam, even if that talk left them flustered. Try not to make it public if it’s nothing serious, try not to have a child to introduce to the line to the throne, but never abandon that child and its bearer either.

Dwalin’s lesson was simply a brief ‘do not choose a bad father if you ever want to have children’ in addition to her education. Nobody had cared that much in her position, and even so, making the father stick around was not something Dwalin could influence if it came to the worst. Nobody would have expected a situation where she would need to be reminded of duty and family, it wasn’t as easy for the bearer to cop out after all.

They should have made her listen to the boys’ lessons more. Nobody would have expected that a young mother would leave her child behind, in the way that Thorin and Frerin never were supposed to do.

She didn’t even know what would appal them more, the fact that Dwalin had abandoned her child to go to war, as noble and right as it had seemed at the time, or that she had left her own baby with the likes of Nori. They wouldn’t understand, they wouldn’t get how good and loving and perfect he was, they would assume… Even if Dwalin knew him. She didn’t think she’d ever be able to lie about him. Keep her silence, yes, but she would not talk of him in lies and as if he wasn’t who he was.

And now she still hadn’t found either of them. Not a trace of her child; and of Nori there were only rumours. Of who had seen him and where, and how he left the mountains or was chased out or died or would die if he crossed the paths of certain Dwarves, but apart from where her child had been born, nobody seemed to know of Nori having a child with him.

Where they still alive? Where they in the Blue Mountain if they were?

Dwalin had wandered as much as she could, looking for any trace of them, and wondering how she was ever supposed to manage this. If Nori felt threatened by other criminals, he would hide, and Dwalin didn’t even know whether she’d recognize her son. She wouldn’t, not without someone pointing him out to her.

Sometimes Dwalin would walk and see children in the streets, and she’d look at any that looked to be younger than ten years old. She’d glance at any with freckles or brown hair, but these weren’t rare traits, and beside that Dwalin had no idea how to tell how a baby would look like later on. Fíli barely had any similarities to how he was when she had first seen him, and even in the short time Dwalin had known Kíli, the boy had grown and changed noticeably. They grew quick, at that age, and the longer Dwalin couldn’t find her son, the more she’d miss of that.

She was so tired of this. There had hardly been any rest after returning to Ered Luin, and now she had used every opportunity to wander. Walk from village to village and through the towns and actual cities and the main caverns of the Blue Mountains. She had walked the streets and looked, even though she didn’t really know what she was supposed to look for. There was no way to track somebody down without having them exposed or in danger, or without having to share too much of her own story. If there was, Dwalin didn’t know it.

She didn’t even know whether her child was alive and well. She didn’t know whether she had seen him already, somewhere on the market, or whether he even lived in Ered Luin. Some had left the mountains after all, when it got bad during the war and she didn’t know how well Nori’s family was doing. Would they have risked wandering with such a young child? Was he even still alive?

The guilt of not knowing the answer to any of this was like a steadily narrowing rope around her neck and chest, cutting off Dwalin’s ability to breathe properly at times.

The worst of it was when she truly was alone, like in her bed and trying to sleep. Those were the moments when she’d miss Nori more than anything, when she would yearn for the nights he had slept by her side, when she could hold him and he’d gently brush his fingers through her hair. Just having him back would make everything all right; just having him back would be worth anything. She’d even dare tell her family everything, if it only meant that she would have Nori back.

And sometimes, just sometimes there were moments when Dwalin would think that she’d give anything to have Nori and her son back, but that she’d even content herself with only having Nori.

The unbidden thoughts of it always made her want to scream and break things, until her hands would bleed again. What sort of mother would give up her hope to have her child back just to have the father returned? Of course she wanted and needed them both, but she suspected that given a choice she wouldn’t hesitate… It was selfish and awful and she could not help thinking it.

“Dwalin?”

Her head snapped up, and she tried to see who had spoken, disoriented for a few seconds before she saw that Dís had sat down on the chair closest to Dwalin, looking at her with a frown and worry on her face. Dwalin must have drifted off, or shown signs of distress then. She should think about things like that in company, not if she couldn’t even control her own expression.

“Do you need anything? The tea is nearly ready.”

“No, I’m fine, I’m fine I- lost in thought, no more…”

Dwalin forced a grin, but Dís’ eyes fell on her hands, and Dwalin saw how her hands were trembling and cramping around the coin she had played with. She quickly dropped it and clenched her hands to fists.

Dís looked at her, eyes searching and serious but she did not say anything, and Dwalin was glad of it. Dís wouldn’t ask or push, and that made her the best company right now, but somehow Dwalin felt like she’d breathe easier if she just spoke. She shouldn’t, really, but having her cousin’s bright blue eyes staring into her made her forget why.

Dwalin tried to withstand the stare, but then the door crashed open and Dís’ attention was pulled away by little Kíli stumbling into the kitchen, holding something in his hand.

“’amad!” he called, giddy in his excitement to show Dís whatever treasure he had found while playing.

His hands were gingerly cupped around something, and he raised them to show his mother.

“Fee found a grasshopper! Wanna see?”

Dís smiled fondly and her eyes flickered from Dwalin and back to the boy.

“Sure, dearest. Go and ask your uncle to give you a big jar and find some leaves to put in it. You can put your grasshopper in it and I’ll take a look after lunch, all right?”

Kíli nodded, and with a “Sure ‘amad!” he turned on his heels and dashed right back out, his long tangled hair bouncing against his back.

Dís smiled as she watched him go, and Dwalin’s heart clenched. Her own son was a little older, and seeing Kíli always made her wonder how her boy was like at that age. Maybe he was the same? Maybe he too was digging for worms and bugs with his friends to run back to Nori and show him his treasures.

It should have been Dwalin, watching over him and looking at what he had been up to all day. Would he call her ‘amad and love her? What would it have sounded like, to hear him do that? She couldn’t imagine how her baby’s voice would sound like when spoken.

Something in Dwalin broke at the thought she had had so many times before. Dís had more reasons than most in this family, to hate Dwalin for what she had done. Her own husband had left to war after all, and died leaving her with two sons. But something about Dís, and Kíli’s easy going cheer was just too much for Dwalin to handle. She didn’t feel jealous, really, but sad and lonely and somebody needed to know, even if that would rob her of comfort and perhaps her good reputation in the eyes of her entire family.

“Dís…” she said, voice sounding too rough and too weak. She had kept her secret for very nearly seven years now, and by now Dwalin feared that she couldn’t speak the words at all.

Dís looked at her, and whatever she had seen in Dwalin’s face made her smile disappear and she leaned closer, putting her hands on her cousin’s shoulder.

“What is it? Dwalin, what happened?”

“It’s… I…” Dwalin struggled for words, wasn’t sure how to explain what she had done, was desperate to find words that wouldn’t leave Dís disgusted by her behaviour or would at least keep her from going to tell Thorin, or her ‘amad and Balin. Dwalin could not bear the thought of it. But there was really no way to soften that blow.

“I had a child,” Dwalin said instead, and braced herself for a reaction, or for trying to explain. Dís showed no reaction yet, only stared at her with big eyes.

“When I was gone before the war, I met a Dwarf and we didn’t take care and I had a son.”

It rushed out of her, easier than Dwalin would have expected, and it felt just like clutching her axes and walking to where she knew the enemy waited and would try to kill her if they could.

“A son? Before… Dwalin you were just…”

Dwalin only nodded and tried not to look up. Dís expression was unreadable, but so far Dwalin saw no disgust or anger in it. Only sadness and surprise.

“What happened?”

Dwalin moved her mouth, trying to decide what to say first. Now that she had got the first bit out she felt like she needed to get it all off her chest.

Dís stood up and moved some things on the counter, when she returned she placed a large cup of water and one with tea before Dwalin.

“It’s fine, take your time.”

Dwalin nodded and started to speak. She told Dís of how she had met Nori, told about how he had been, both reckless and a bastard, but loving and gentle and not at all as he had seemed at first. She talked about how she had came to love him and how he was just a little younger than her and how she would have married him then and there, if they could.

There was no need to mention any of it, or at least not in such detail, but Dwalin missed him and it did not seem right to leave him out of the story.

She spoke about how she had discovered how she was with child and how Nori would have done anything for her then, would have been with her no matter what. She spoke of how she decided not to let her family know, and how Nori hadn’t done it either, though it made her feel guilty to admit this to Dís. Among all other reasons to feel that it was barely noticeable though.

She described her son, and how it had been like to hold him, and how she hadn’t known what to feel, and how she had loved her baby so much but how it still had felt like her duty lay with her old family and not her new one. She described how she had decided to go to war, because at the time it had seemed like the right thing to do and she hadn’t been the only one and so many other mothers and fathers had done that, it hadn’t seemed wrong until after it was too late.

She wept through her explanation of how she had tried to find them, of how she didn’t know how to search for a child she didn’t know anything of, neither name nor how he looked nor whether he was alive, and how all she ever heard of Nori was how he was gone, hiding or how he would be hurt or even killed if he showed his face and how it unnerved her to think of the threats becoming real soon, and how much she just wanted him back and to have him hold her close like nothing had ever happened.

Dwalin’s eyes and throat hurt by the time she was done with it, and it hurt to speak after for how long she had done that now. Tears were streaming down her face and she barely stopped to take a sip of the drinks in front of her as there was always something she needed to get out now.

“I don’t know how I could ever… how I could ever make up for all I have done,” she sobbed and tried not to look at Dís. “I am so sorry, I never meant to… I just want them back. I just want him back and my son to be all right, I’d even be happy just to know that they’re a-alive and out there somewhere-“

Dwalin rubbed at her eyes and sniffed, ignoring how there was nothing dignified about what she was doing in the princess’ kitchen right now.

“I am sorry, so sorry. What kind of mother feels like giving up after all this? What kind of mother can’t find her child or even leaves it in the first place?!”

Dís moved on her chair, the wood’s creak the only sound in the kitchen beside the cooking food and Dwalin’s wailing. She tried to ignore it, for just a few seconds of composing herself.

She grabbed the water and gulped down all that had been in the cup, trying to will her tears to stop. Though with how much Dwalin had been crying without even noticing she couldn’t tell whether she had stopped or whether there were more tears dropping into her beard.

Dwalin didn’t expect Dís hands on her, and she didn’t expect how easily the princess puller her closer and hugged her close.

“Don’t say that, don’t ever say that,” Dís murmured as she cradled Dwalin in her arms just as her ‘amad used to do when she was sad or smaller, and not a big scarred warrior.

Dwalin’s arms wrapped around Dís waist and she whimpered, too tired to cry anymore.

“I left them…”

“You did what you thought was best, you were younger and naïve. Neither of us knew what to expect, you did what seemed right to you and I am sure that your love thinks the same. You did nothing wrong.”

“How can you say that?” Dwalin’s voice was rough and still she managed to be shrill. “You… You are the same as him, in this situation…”

Dís’ fingers combed through Dwalin’s messy hair and she melted into the touch. It was so good to be caressed like that, to have somebody give her comfort, who knew of what Dwalin had done, and still somehow thought that she deserved it.

“He did what he thought was right. And so did you. Dwalin, what you had to go through all on your own is not something anyone should ever do, and you were so young…. You are so young, only barely an adult, legally speaking, and that’s not the same as being grown up. We all made mistakes at that age, trust me, but you handled this so well! Older and wiser Dams made worse choices, and you felt like it was right, so do not blame yourself!”

Dís started to wipe the tears of Dwalin’s face and Dwalin let her, her arms feeling too heavy to do it herself.

“I cannot imagine what it’d be like to loose my boys, and yet you are still so strong. You don’t have to tell anyone else, but let me help you Dwalin, as well as I can. Just let me be there for you, look what this is doing to you, you have to take care of yourself.”

“I am, I am fine.”

“You are not. You aren’t injured or ill, but you aren’t well. You are barely sleeping, or if you do, you don’t get much rest. You aren’t eating enough; you will worry yourself sick. Please, you survived so much in just one decade, don’t let this get to you after all.”

Dwalin felt her breath calm slowly. She definitely wasn’t crying anymore.

“I will do that once I made up for what I did. I just feel so guilty all the time.”

“Dwalin, it is fine. Rest properly before doing anything. You are so young, and so far your search went, as I would have done it in your situation. You are looking, are you not?”

Dwalin nodded and she saw Dís smile as she glanced up.

“That is all your child could ask of you. You are just a Dam, Dwalin; you can’t do more than is in a Dwarves power. But you are not giving up, you want to find them, and that is enough. You will, I promise you will see them again. But it is not your fault if it takes longer; there is nothing you can do to speed this up for certain. I am sorry for that, but you are strong, and you do so much more than most could have handled.”

Somehow hearing Dís say that made Dwalin smile. It was more of a grimace, but the first time Dwalin had felt lighter and like even trying a genuine smile at all, in longer than she could remember. Dís was wise, in her way, and she did not blame Dwalin at all. She sounded like she meant it, and she held Dwalin close and she promised her that it would turn out fine.

Dwalin felt every bone in her body weighting her down, and she felt as if she hadn’t slept since the last night she had seen Nori. She just wanted to sleep and the kitchen’s chair seemed like a good place to start that.

Dís helped her sit up, and brought her another tea and a damp towel to clean up face. For some reason Dwalin felt content, and sleepy in a nice way, despite how she had been mere minutes ago.

“Please don’t tell ‘amad. Or Balin, please, not him or Thorin, I don’t want… I am scared of what they’d say.”

Dís nodded in understanding, and Dwalin thought that her cousin might not only understand but also even agree with her fears.

“I will never, not until you think that you feel safe to do so.”

She looked a little worried at the thought, but Dwalin truly didn’t care this very moment. She didn’t feel like her secret would burst out of her any minute, and she didn’t even feel guilty for sharing the weight with Dís.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, and her tongue felt heavy. “I don’t think I can get up now, I don’t want to bother you here-“

“It is fine, Dwalin. I won’t mind, sleep here, you won’t be disturbed.”

Dwalin rested her head against her arms on the table, and she felt her consciousness leaving her slowly, and it felt nicer than any time she had tried to fall asleep, even with how her head hurt after crying.

She saw Dís finish her preparations for lunch, and she heard voices in the distance, that sounded like Fíli and Kíli and Dís explaining something, but they let her be, and when Dwalin finally felt asleep she didn’t dream at all and just felt warm and as if there wasn’t anything keeping her from breathing.

Chapter Text

Passing the quarters of the nobles was painful. Passing where the richer Dwarves lived, or the families dedicating themselves to being warriors, or distant relatives of the royal line, or the houses that belonged to rich merchants was sadness.

Nori didn’t like going there much, didn’t like visiting parts of town where it was just houses and flats. He had no reason to avoid them, if they were short cuts, but more often than not Nori’s way didn’t lead him anywhere near these places.

Every town had the palaces or houses big enough to be nearly considered such. They only made him hurt inside, and he had no reason to go near these places, but somehow Nori still ended up there, no matter where he went.

He’d just stand at the gates leading to the cavern containing the houses, or he’d lean against a wall and watch what was going on there.

Dwalin might live in any of these places, if she was still alive. She might be anywhere, and he’d never know, and he’d never see or find her. He’d never speak to her again.

Nori wanted her, wanted to be with her again and have her hold him, but most of all he wanted her to tell their child’s name.

Meet your child, my gem, Ori son of Nori, Ori son of Dwalin.

He’d give anything to have Ori see his mother. His real mother, not the Dam he called Ma.

There was no real way to look for Dwalin. He didn’t know how much she might have changed, or whether she had scars and visible injuries. He didn’t know who exactly she was either.

It wasn’t like Nori could just take Ori’s hand, walk into the noble quarters and ask for a warrior Dam named Dwalin, who was the mother of his child, and whether anyone had seen her or could tell her that the scoundrel of a thief and a cute little Dwarfling were looking for her.

Nori didn’t even know whether Dwalin’s family knew anything about him and his child. He did not wish to let them know like that, even if anyone would believe him.

He wished to do it more than once, especially when he was out with Ori. Little Ori, who always tugged at his hand when he tried to walk steadily, or who kept getting distracted by pretty things.

Once Ori had tried to pull Nori into one of the noble quarters, because he had seen how the light caught in the stained glass of a guild house.

Nori had very nearly let him, but his heart had squeezed painfully at the thought, and at the memories of all the days he had spent gazing into that street and watching people.

He had pulled Ori away with promises of a new toy, but in the night he went and wandered the streets in the shadows, looking and praying for Dwalin to be there, or for a way to find her without anyone questioning him.

If he only knew who she was, if he only knew more of her family or if he had bothered to ask where she had lived last at least. It was so frustrating, that they had been so secretive, and that they had hoped for the best. Never would Nori let himself be as naïve as that again.

There was no point in just wandering around, and watching what was going on among the warriors or in the markets of the nobles, there was no point in walking where the living quarters were.

It was painful and useless and never served any purpose but wasting time, and still Nori found his feet turning to each and every quarter of richer and nobler Dwarves, no matter where in Ered Luin he was.

Chapter Text

Dwalin had never been one for wandering, or so she thought. She had liked being in the Blue Mountains before, not really willing to travel much from the temporary home the Dwarves of Erebor had in Ered Luin.

And yet somehow Dwalin ended up joining each caravan she heard of, and often she didn’t even care for how well they paid her for her service. She was a veteran of Azanulbizar, had been in the war since its start to its end and was a noble, well trained and young and strong in every way. Everyone was glad when she offered her axes.

She travelled back and forth with any group of merchants who needed protection of professionals, towards Rohan and down into the South and up towards the Iron Hills and back and forth between the mountain ranges and settlements.

Dwalin had no preferences, not really. She did like bigger caravans better than small ones, liked it when there were Dwarves from all over the place and not just Longbeards from one small village. Sometimes she preferred caravans without ponies or too many wagons, but when she had to ride she endured though she liked handling beasts.

And when she could, Dwalin preferred to go far. There was nothing in the Blue Mountains for her, and her family could travel as well, wasn’t bound to them at all. Her family was home and comfort, but Dwalin felt nothing about Ered Luin, apart from a sense of safety when she had gone too long without the comfort of solid rock around and underneath her.

Sometimes she nearly hated that place. Too often had she wandered aimlessly and tried to look for Nori, or for her son, and too often had she stopped and cursed herself for knowing how there was no use in that.

Going away gave her comfort, and somehow also the feeble hope of seeing Nori among the Dwarves in the caravans, or of even just hearing about him.

It was silly though. Nothing she could rely on.

Apart from getting away from her own problems, joining caravans also helped her family. It soothed Dwalin’s conscience, on those nights when she wondered whether she only did so to run away and not face her failure.

Thorin was King by now, and both he and Dís tried to work out trade and good connections to all other Dwarf realms. It’d be good for their people to always have a safe trade and travel on the Dwarf roads, and to have capable warriors for protection.

Before long journeys Dwalin would sit in the warm kitchen, and listen silently to Dís and Thorin working over plans. She never said anything about it, only listened and kept her mouth shut and did what was asked of her.

It wasn’t like she could contribute anyway, she didn’t know much about specific trades and which goods needed to be brought where. She’d just follow along when Thorin wanted someone he trusted to protect a specific caravan.

Only once did she have to fight to keep quiet.

Thorin was looking at a list of warriors in their service and experienced Dwarves to join a caravan, trying to decide which he’d call for, when Dís looked up from her own work.

“Do you know about the families of these Dwarves?” she asked her brother, and Thorin raised his eyebrows.

“I know some of them. Why?”

“Make sure that none of them have too young children. Or if they do, demand that they must have their other parent be here with them. Too many have lost one or both of their parents, some nearly their entire family. Don’t let the number of orphans grow, Thorin.”

Thorin’s face fell as he thought about the losses of that battle, and Dwalin felt something clench in her chest.

“I will let them know. You are right, of course…”

Dís nodded, and as Thorin returned to his notes she glanced over at Dwalin, meeting her eyes. Dwalin wanted to say something, one simple ‘thank you’ or ‘I wish you had been there to give me advice all these years ago’, but then her cousin turned to her work as if it was nothing. And Dwalin just kept her mouth shut, as she always had.

At first joining caravans was just something she could do to make herself useful in one of the few ways she knew, but after a while Dwalin felt that she liked the caravans and the journeys. Being among many she didn’t know was soothing, and later she grew to like talking to Dwarves, most of whom weren’t warriors, and escaping the Blue Mountains lead to seeing many interesting places.

Dwalin didn’t love wandering, but she still came to enjoy what came of it.

She met people from all over Middle-Earth, she talked and slowly started to be at ease with just having fun and joking and not being silent all the time. Nobody knew her, nobody wanted to talk about her past, and most didn’t even care that she was barely even 90. She was strong and a capable warrior, gruff but fair and nobody cared for the things she didn’t want them to know.

There were traders and those who had crafts that required wandering. On one journey there was a family who made instruments, and when they found out that Dwalin knew how to play the violin their gifted her a sturdy one they had made, one that she could take traveling without fear of breaking it. Once Dwalin managed to get over her surprise she was glad, as she hadn’t played for years. Having a way to play music was something she had missed without knowing.

Not everything about the caravans and the Dwarves she met was pleasant.

There were thieves and contrabandists among the caravans, and Dwalin recognized them easier than most of the others. There just was something about the way the acted and spoke to one another, gestures she had seen in happier days, between Nori and those others he did not fight with, signs thieves used to communicate quietly.

At first Dwalin didn’t want to intervene, but she did end up doing so over and over. Each time she had even the slightest suspicion that one of them was doing something illegal on her watch, she would intervene and stop them, and each time her suspicion was right.

And sometimes she heard them speak of Nori, heard them speak of a Dwarf who matched his description perfectly, or actually say his name. And it was like it had been with Gerir and Lyk far too often, with these scoundrels insulting Nori, or speaking about how he was a coward or how he had run from them or what they’d do to him when they’d see him next.

So many of them saw Nori as their enemy, and all of them would have Dwalin see them as hers as well. It’d always end with her loosing her composure, hunting them down when they tried to flee from the caravan when she found proof for them being criminals, with them begging for her to stop or offering her gold when her fists clenched around their collars and she slammed them to the ground.

She never cared, and Dwalin had no mercy for those who harmed the caravan or dared to speak of Nori.

It didn’t matter, none of them knew where Nori was, and barely any of them even knew that she snapped or recognized them for who they were for mentioning him. None suspected that Dwalin snapped at Nori’s name because she loved him, if they thought about the connection at all they thought that she had a bone to pick with him as well.

All of that only left Dwalin angry and disappointed, and made the criminals fear her and the other Dwarves admire her. More than once they asked her whether she wanted to join the guard, or whether she wanted to help hunt for criminals who moved between the mountains, but she declined every time.

She didn’t think she could bear it, and she’d rather not give up the wandering. Better to be able to move around, than to be bound to one town she hated and one in which she was alone.

Dwalin remained where she was, following one caravan and then the other and doing what she thought was right.

Still, it made her built a reputation, and soon she heard people talk about how viciously Dwalin hated thieves and scoundrels and how she tolerated no behaviour that was less than honest.

She never bothered to correct them.

Chapter Text

Balin had never felt as if he and Dwalin had a relationship that was less strong than what one would expect of siblings. She was much younger than him, which had made it uninteresting to actually play together as children, and she didn’t share a lot of his interests now that she was older.

Despite that he loved her unconditionally, and Dwalin has always looked up to him, had seen him and their father as her role-models and Balin had never felt like their family was in any way wrong or that they weren’t close to each other.

There never had been secrets or problems or anything Dwalin did not want to talk about and that he couldn’t help her with. Until recently.

Perhaps it had been Balin’s mistake to not keep in contact with her as much as he could have. But he had been wandering and helping his Prince and his King, and Dwalin had been grown up and wanted to go out and away to find work away from her family and do her own thing for a while.

They had been apart for too long and Balin hadn’t recognized that his sister was in pain right away. She had been different even before the war had started in earnest, and he had not seen it. She had been in pain and shocked and so quiet when there was no battle, but different from how everyone else was, and neither he nor their father had seen that there was something troubling her beyond what they all feared.

He should have noticed sooner, should have worried and tried to fix whatever it was that had his little sister miserable.

She had asked for their mother and had never spoken to the other Dams in the army. She had dealt with the nightmares after battle and the misery and pain of it better than some others, but Balin had seen her disturbed in a way that was different from their trauma. She had been so quiet later on, hadn’t talked to their mother for all he knew, and though Dwalin had always liked Dís she started seeking out the princess noticeably more than before.

Dís did not tell Balin what his sister had wanted once he finally made the connection between her strange mood and that, and she told him that it was not her place to speak of Dwalin’s problems.

And then Dwalin was running, joining every caravan and company leading away from the Blue Mountains and Balin returned to seeing her much less than he wanted. Especially now that he started feeling guilty for neglecting his duties as the head of the family and an older brother it was unfortunate.

Dwalin seemed happy with it, and if she was more gruff and quiet than the girl he remembered, it could be credited to the war and her being older.

There were rumours though, about how Dwalin was good in more than keeping raiding Orcs away but also how well she fought criminals and how mercilessly she was about contrabandists, how she never cared for bribes and how she pursued and helped convict them all. Balin heard of it because he was her brother and sometimes met those who knew her, and they all praised her for it. It was a good reputation for his sister and a warrior who was making a name for herself after all.

Dwalin never mentioned it. When she did boast about what she had managed to do, hunting criminals was never something she hinted at, and Balin never heard her mention the topic of lawbreakers at all.

There was nothing Balin could do if Dwalin chose not to speak to him, and he would not pry into her privacy unless he was sure that he needed to, for her own good. This wasn’t the case now.

All he could do was to let her know that he was there for her, should she need him after all.

Dwalin had returned after four months out with a smaller caravan, and now she was sitting behind the house smoking her pipe. She didn’t smoke much or regularly, but when she did it was often because she wanted comfort. Balin knew that, and he wondered whether it was the case now, and whether he should approach her.

He had spoken to some merchants who had been there as well, and they had told her that Dwalin had caught some thug this time, one who had tried to intimidate some smaller families into giving him part of their goods.

Dwalin had known him from before, that much had been obvious. She had known his name and she had been furious, they told Balin. She had yelled at him and asked others to search the caravan because she knew that this Dwarf had accomplices. They hadn’t been found in the caravan, but the Dwarf had been afraid and begging for Dwalin to not do anything to him.

Perhaps that wasn’t too unusual behaviour, and who knew how Dwalin had first met that Dwarf. When she had returned home Dwalin had looked beaten and sad, much more so than Balin had seen in years. It had been different than the other encounters Dwalin must have had with thieves.

When Balin looked out of the door he found his sister on their little bench, as expected alone and smoking on her old pipe. She did not ask him to go away when he joined her there, didn’t change anything about the way she was sitting.

Balin watched her for a few minutes, examining how Dwalin’s shoulders were tense and her face was pale and her eyes red. He did not want to see his sister like that, and he needed her to know that she could speak to him.

“I spoke to your companions from the caravan,” Balin started, and Dwalin hummed quietly.

“They told me about what a blessing you are, and how you took out another thief.”

She hummed again, showing no sign of emotion. Balin sighed.

“They also mentioned how you reacted… as if it was personal. How you knew his name and knew who he’s usually with.”

This time Dwalin didn’t make a sound.

“Are you looking for someone?”

Dwalin nodded, barely visible, and glanced at her brother.

“I knew that bastard, he… I knew him from before and I had some matters to settle with him.”

Balin watched her until Dwalin looked away again.

“Did he do something to you?”

Dwalin frowned and shook her head, putting her pipe back into her mouth and pressing her lips shut.

“Did anyone do something to you?”

Her fingers tightened around her pipe, making the old wood creak a little. Balin gently put a hand on Dwalin’s elbow.

“Dwalin, I see that you’re not well. I have no idea what anyone has ever done to you, or what happened when you were out there without us, but whatever it was, you can talk to me. I will help as well as I can, I won’t judge you for whatever it is.”

Balin bowed his head slightly but his sister didn’t answer.

“Did you get in trouble with criminals? Some thugs or blackmailers who tried to harm you? A thief maybe? Did you get into fights or witness things?”

When Balin said ‘thief’ Dwalin’s eyes started to fill with tears and she looked very afraid all of a sudden.

“Thanks for wanting to help,” she said, voice deliberately steady. “But I really just need some time for myself.”

Balin wanted to say more, but Dwalin just stood up, put out her pipe and disappeared back into the house, and he wouldn’t force his sister to talk if she didn’t want to.

At least now he knew a little more. Even if knowing that some thief was responsible for Dwalin actually crying at the thought wasn’t much help.

There was nothing Balin could do to fix the past, but he could promise himself that he’d pay more attention to Dwalin needing comfort, and that he’d never let anything bad happen to his sister again.

Chapter Text

It was so noisy in the kitchen, much more than Nori had ever noticed, more than a supposedly quiet house was supposed to be. Dori’s boots made soft shuffling noises over the stone floor and the chair Nori was sitting on was creaking with nearly every breath he dared to take, there was some dripping sound coming from where dishes were drying and the fire crackled way too loud where Dori had put a kettle of water up to warm.

He didn’t want to do this, he wanted to be gone and flee but he knew he needed to, knew the day would come. Dori was there for support, Dori would help him not screw this up.

Dori had made tea, but Nori’s throat felt too tight to try and drink it. Instead he just held the cup between his hands, feeling the burn of it against his palms. Even that was calming now.

“It will be fine,” Dori said, over and over in his steady and firm voice, each time he noticed Nori grow more nervous than he was the minute before. Nori believed him, his brother was always right after all, even if this was hard now. But they had to…

Their mother had been dead for years now, and though Ori remembered her fondly he didn’t remember her as clearly as he might have. He had been so young then. Of course, Nori would always bitterly remember how Ori didn’t know his real mother at all.

And now Dori thought that Ori was old enough to know that his mother was not Kori, that Dori was his uncle and Nori his father, and that his mother was a stranger, that he had never seen her and that she might still be out there, somewhere. He was old enough to understand and old enough to comprehend that he needed to keep it a secret.

Nori had known the day would come. He didn’t want to lie to Ori forever, but somehow he wished he didn’t have to say anything. He wished he could remain the slightly estranged brother, the one Ori loved and looked up to and cheered for when it was safe to come home and grew upset when Nori had to leave again. If Ori knew that he was his father… Fathers were different from brothers in what they could and should do, and Nori had never been a good father.

Ori was still so young, a child really, but he was old enough.

Maybe Ori would never even meet his mother, maybe it was just him knowing who he was, so that their lie would once again be known by just the three in their family.

Nori wanted to run or beg Dori to postpone it, but he just clutched his tea and tried to think of why this needed to be done.

Dwalin should have her child know that she existed. That his mother wasn’t who he thought, but that he still had one. Even if he never learnt more of her, Dwalin deserved this. Nori wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive, though he hoped so with all his heart, but should he ever meet her again he wanted to be able to take her hand and show her what a wonderful lad their child was, wanted to be able to tell Ori that she was his mother without having him be too shocked about the lie.

Dori was far to calm and Nori’s palms were hot and too uncomfortable but at least the feeling distracted him from the spikes of fear that start stabbing through his heart when they heard the front door open and close and Ori’s cheerful ‘anyone home?’ was heard through the house.

He wanted to run and all of him was tense and he wouldn’t but Dori’s hand was on his shoulder, strong and grounding as if he knew what he was thinking. Nori didn’t need the restraint but he was glad to feel Dori’s presence like that.

Then their brother, son, nephew walked in, still smiling for now and rubbing at the fresh ink stains on his hands. He looked so small, happy as he always was when he was praised in his lessons, and he always was. Barely 40 and really, Nori was supposed to have him only now, and he was supposed to be married to Dwalin and have the world know.

“What’s for lunch?” Ori asked, looking at the Dwarves he thought were his brothers and frowning slightly. He must have felt the tension, seen how Dori’s calm face didn’t match Nori’s tenseness. “Did something happen?”

Nori wanted to lie and tell him about something meaningless, something that wouldn’t get Ori worried or upset him in some way. He knew he shouldn’t.

“Nothing happened,” Dori promised, smiling and looking genuinely calm. Nori envied him for that.

Ori still looked nervous, biting his lip and glancing at Nori.

“Everything’s fine,” Nori managed to say through a forced smile. Stupid, Ori was too used to Nori being able to hide his emotions and hurts easily, he’d know that something was wrong now. This was an exceptional situation though, and Nori couldn’t make himself be calm.

“Everything is alright,” Dori promised and squeezed Nori’s shoulder once before letting go. “There’s something we need to talk about with you. Nothing bad, but it is important anyway.”

He gestured at one of their free chairs before turning to get Ori a cup while he sat down where indicated.

Once that was done, Ori wrapped his hands around the cup, at ease and looking up at his father and uncle expectantly.

Nori didn’t look him in the eyes, looking anywhere but the small narrow face that’s too much like his and too little like Dwalin’s.

Dori gave him a look, Nori knew he did, but he didn’t turn his head to see it. Finally his brother sighed and came closer to the table to start the conversation Nori wanted to avoid.

“This is about your mother, Ori, and your Da.”

Ori leaned his head to the side, nodding.

“What about Ma?”

He sounded calm and only a little curious, he had been so young when his grandmother died after all, the memory barely caused him any pain, only some sadness and but mostly just happiness and fond memories. She had been old and he was so young. Nori envied him a little, with how he both still missed his Ma sometimes, and grieved for Ori’s mother, and missed her and wished to know whether she was dead and he should mourn her, or whether she was alive and he should hope and look harder.

“Your mother wasn’t exactly who you think she was,” Dori went on, so calm, and Nori nearly winced at the bluntness. Ori pressed his lips together, catching on to the ’your’.

“Ma was very old when she died. She was already old and ill when you were born, and we didn’t expect her to live as long as she did.”

Ori nodded, slowly, and Nori knew that he’d catch on any minute now. His son is far too clever for him after all.

“Times were hard, and our situation wasn’t the best back then. We were afraid for your safety and we weren’t sure how to explain you, and Ma… She’d do anything to keep her children safe, anything for what little family she had and she said that she was the one who bore you.”

Ori’s eyes widened, but he was still so calm at that.

“You never told me about my father…” he said, “only about your Da and how he died, and I thought that you simply never pried into Ma’s… into her privacy. But she was very old, wasn’t she?”

He didn’t look to upset or surprised, and Nori hated how Ori must have wondered for so long. Wondered about whether his mother wasn’t too old and why nobody ever talked or even wondered about who his father was. He must have kept all questions to himself because he trusted those he called brothers and that more than everything was making Nori feel like the worst person in all of Arda.

“She was,” he agreed, and glanced up at Ori’s face.

Ori looked afraid then.

“I’m still related to you, aren’t I?”

“Of course you are! You are a Ri in name and blood!” Dori reassured him, his voice gentle. It calmed Ori, and he smiled as if that was the only bad thing these news could have brought with them for him.

He looked from Dori to Nori, hands curling around his teacup just like Nori’s, and it’s as if nothing was wrong at all.

“Then who was my actual Ma? And who’s my father? Am I a cousin?”

Dori looked at Nori again, and as his brother didn’t move he went on explaining.

“We don’t have any closely related cousins. Our Ma is your grandmother. She’d do anything for her sons and when we thought it’d be safer for you… Well…”

Dori made a pause and Ori’s mouth fell open. His eyes were fixed on Dori, staring in wonder and Nori could see the questions he had in his face. Of course he’d think that Dori was his father. He didn’t look too disappointed yet, and Nori didn’t want to know how much that would change once he learnt the truth.

“You were… a bit older than your first century?” Ori asked, counting in his head. “But why did you hide... is it about my bearer?”

Nori felt Dori’s glance, felt how Ori’s eyes turned to him with his questions and he had to fight the urge to shrink into himself.

“I couldn’t take you anywhere,” Nori whispered instead, and he knew Ori didn’t get it yet. “I didn’t know your Ma’s family and they couldn’t know about you. I couldn’t take care of you alone.”

Ori tensed, and Nori could see that even out of the corner of his eyes. He raised his head then, because Ori deserved that he looked at him as he dropped such a message on his head.

“Y-you?”

Nori saw Ori’s lips move, knew that he was counting the years for his age now. He could pinpoint the moment Ori’s expression turned from surprise to horrification.

“But you were barely even old enough to… to… anything?”

Nori bit his lip and waited for Ori to process that. Next to him Dori was quiet and watched them.

Finally Ori rose from his seat, walking to the corner of the kitchen, shaking his head and then turned back, worried.

“How?”

“I was young and stupid and wanted to be on my own,” Nori started the story. He wondered whether it’d be easier if he had practiced this, if he had words or things he knew he needed to say, but he had never actually managed to think of anything that would be adequate.

“I went away to live in towns and villages far away from here, or in those closer to the towns of Men than to the main part of Ered Luin. I was too young and then I didn’t know how to take care of you and I tried my best but then I just came home and Dori said everything would be fine and Ma agreed to claim you as her own because nobody would question it anymore with how little she walked out.”

Ori shook his head at Nori’s quickening voice.

“Why did you lie?”

“I wasn’t even old enough to get married. And I was in trouble with some… nasty sort and I was scared that they’d do something to my child, but they would likely not care for my brothers especially since I was away so much.”

He saw how Ori’s face was darkening and how his frown of confusion slowly turned into an angry one. Nori deserved that too.

“What sort?”

Nori didn’t know how to reply to that, how to answer quickly.

“Other thieves and criminals. The times were hard, there were fewer guards and I was young and they thought I was easy prey. It was easier to turn against each other than to always look for… Other means to get rich.”

Usually Ori was amazed by the stories Nori told, had never minded that his older brother was a thief. His father being one only made him angrier.

“And who… who was my bearer?”

His fists clenched and Nori saw how Dori shifted, clearly worried now. He must have heard Ori’s voice shaking slightly. Perhaps it was best to stop the conversation, before Ori got too upset, but they had already started.

Nori swallowed, looked away and then back at Ori. He hadn’t said Dwalin’s name in front of anyone in forty years, hadn’t spoken of her either. He should, but he just… couldn’t.

“I met her in the village I lived in last,” he said, wishing that he was brave enough to look at Ori without wishing to close his eyes and not see anything but his memories of Dwalin as she was back in better and easier times.

“She wasn’t that much older than me. She also wanted to live on her own for a bit, she never wanted her family to know anything about me, she was afraid, I think.”

Nori tried a smile but he didn’t even manage to turn the corners of his lips up and Ori was glaring.

“Where is she?”

“She… gone. I don’t know, I looked but I don’t know whether… I don’t know.”

It pained Nori to think of where Dwalin might be so he went on quickly.

“Understand, I knew no other way, I wanted you to be safe and not suffer because of anyone wanting me harm, and I didn’t care about people talking about me, but I never wanted them to talk about how you were the son of somebody like me and how I was too young. I wanted you to be protected and happy and not get a reputation before you could even talk!”

“Really?”

Ori’s voice was shaking and he really was furious now. Nori wasn’t sure whether he’d ever seen Ori like that, ever since the half serious tantrums he had maybe thrown twice when he was a toddler.

“So that’s the truth? I’m the son of… of one like you?”

Never before had Nori heard Ori talk about him and sound angry and bitter and perhaps he had it coming with the lies and how long Ori was the only one who was blind to all of his faults.

“You are,” Dori confirmed. “Nori came back all these years ago with you in his arms and you already looked so much like him and your grandpa.”

For a second Nori thought that Dori’s calm voice would calm Ori down as well. Then Ori sneered and took a step back.

“So I’m really just the son of some good for nothing thief who wasn’t even an adult, who slept around and didn’t care about what he was doing and some whore who couldn’t even bother to introduce me to her family and walked away?”

“Ori!” Dori stepped closer, angry with Ori for using such words and worried at the outburst.

Nori just felt a stab at how Ori insulted Dwalin without even knowing her.

“She wasn’t!” he insisted, “She really did love us, she just-“

“Keep telling yourself that!” Ori shouted, and there were tears in his eyes. He looked so angry, he didn’t even seem to care about anything he was saying anymore, avoiding Dori’s hands.

“You’re a liar and I wish… I wish this weren’t true! I hate you!”

The last was more sobbed than shouted, and then Ori dodged Dori’s hands and he was out, running away and then all they heard was a cry and the door slamming shut.

Dori stood in the doorway, watching where he had disappeared to and Nori crumbled and leaned his head on his hands.

“He’ll be back soon,” Dori said quietly.

“He was right,” Nori said into his hands.

Dori was by his side immediately, holding him.

“No,” he said firmly. “No, Ori was just upset and lashing out. Give him time and he will calm down and wrap his head around this.”

“He was right about be being a good for nothing thief. He just shouldn’t have called her… She was… She is the best Dwarf I’ve ever met, she just couldn’t let her family know, she was too good for me.”

It was more than Nori had ever said about Dwalin in Dori’s presence and his brother held him, stroked over his hair even though hat was messing with his braids. He had failed her, failed Ori and everyone, and still Dori was at his side and comforting him.

“Please give him time,” was all he said, and then he went to make Nori a new cup of hot tea, since his first had cooled down completely.

This time Nori managed to drink it, as his throat felt too dry.

He could only hope that Dori was right.

Chapter Text

As soon as the door slammed behind him Ori felt all of his initial anger and irritation wiped away by a wave of guilt. It was nearly enough to make him turn back and return into the house and hug Nori and apologize for his outburst and what he said. But the last momentum of his anger and the fear made Ori run instead, as he had intended.

He ran and didn’t care where he was going, ignoring the streets around them and trying not to think.

Sometimes he had suspected that his Ma wasn’t his real mother. He only had good memories of her, but she had been past her bearing years and sometimes he had wondered if she hadn’t been when he was born.

But everyone had said that he was her son, and then he had looked so much like his family. Especially Nori, with his features and his freckles and how his hair colour was like; even if his tended to stick into all directions and Nori’s was smooth and pretty.

Not surprising, really, if Nori was his real father.

He had lied all these years, had lied about being his brother, and Dori had done the same.

Part of Ori was horrified about it, about the lies and that revelation, and another was terrified about how he had acted.

He shouldn’t have yelled at Nori for something he couldn’t help. He had always been happy after all, had always understood why Nori sometimes was gone, and both he and Dori had always provided for him. He had loved Nori and admired him, had wanted to be like him and had been proud when Nori praised him and told him that he was already so much better and should never copy Nori, but be himself. He had always made Ori feel proud and happy and had always done his best to comfort him when needed.

The only thing that had changed was that Ori was his son, really, and though the lie stung the guilt was greater.

He shouldn’t have yelled and he shouldn’t have insulted him. He had even shouted about his mother and the hurt in Nori’s face at that had been terrible to watch. He hadn’t even defended himself, only her. He must have loved her or think too little of himself.

What if she was dead and Ori was to blame? What if she really had been afraid of her family? Both her and Nori had been so young, it must have been scary.

Even if she was a scoundrel and hadn’t wanted Ori, he shouldn’t have said so. It hurt so much to think that she hadn’t wanted him and that he was the son of such a person, but it didn’t change anything. He was Nori’s son and that wasn’t bad, and he had lived in a good family and his Ma… his grandma and Dori had always loved him and they were good to him after all.

Ori hadn’t realized that he was crying as hard as he did, and the sight was blurry. He looked around, sobbing and breathing hard from the run, trying to recognize the place. He knew these streets, he was not too far from places he could hide away.

It was a deliberately slow walk from then, and Ori tried to not look at anyone and wipe away the tears from his face. He was tired and upset and mostly he just wanted to sleep and he knew he looked like a mess.

Finally he reached the house of his friend, and as he knocked at the back door it thankfully was her who opened.

Luth stared at him in shock as soon as she saw how Ori looked like, and she reached out to touch his shoulder.

“What happened to you?”

“I had a fight with my… my brothers. Can I stay for the night, please? I won’t be a bother either!”

After a quick glance over her shoulder Luth nodded and gently led Ori inside.

“’Amad, Ori’ll stay for today, if that’s fine with you,” she called towards the front of the house.

“Sure, if he wants to,” came the reply and then Luth quickly led Ori up towards the big room in the attic that was all hers.

Ori barely looked around, noticing how there were some dresses lying on her bed in disarray and inks and scraps of paper on her table, where she had practiced her penmanship. Luth quickly cleared the couch and then fetched some oversized old blankets and pillows to make it more comfortable.

“Here, do you need anything, are you sure you’re fine, do you want me to leave you alone, do you want somebody here?” she kept asking, but Ori really didn’t want anything but to rest and not cry anymore.

Then Ori could finally sit down on the couch, before sinking down further and curling into himself, under Luth’s worried look.

He wanted to forget everything, but still the thoughts wouldn’t leave his head.

He had shouted at Nori, and insulted him and his mother and he knew nothing of her. He only knew that he had always loved Nori and that one wasn’t supposed to be as rude as he had been to his father, very nearly unprovoked at that.

Nori hadn’t done anything wrong after all, not really. Ori had had a good and happy life so far, nobody had ever done him any harm and sometimes people would joke a little because even at her age Kori had managed to get three sons.

His face when Ori had shouted though…

Ori’s fingers clenched in his scarf and he shut his eyes as if it’d make things better.

He couldn’t tell when he had fallen asleep, but it wasn’t a good sleep. Ori woke up still worried and guilty and feeling like he needed to go and apologize to everyone, and for a moment he was confused about where he was.

Outside it was dark, with the reflected light dimmed in most parts of the city.

“Are you all right?”

Luth was sitting at her table, a plate of biscuits and her parchments in front of her.

“Sure… What time is it?”

“The bell’s beaten for the tenth time a while back. Do you want to stay?”

Ori rubbed at his face, feeling stiff and still tired.

“No, I think I have to go back. Dori will worry.”

She watched him with worried eyes as he brought his clothes and hair in order and tried to wash his face though that wouldn’t help if his eyes were swollen or red.

Luth followed him down towards the backdoor, both of them quiet and trying not to alert her family though that didn’t even matter.

“Are you sure?” she asked again, just before Ori was about to leave. “You can come back if it’s bad again.”

Ori managed a little smile and put his hand on where hers was touching his elbow, squeezing it slightly.

“I’m sure. It’d be better if we settled it today. Thank you so much.”

The way home was slower than it could have been. Ori wanted to get back before it got too late, but he also was scared, ashamed and tired and didn’t want to run or walk much quicker.

Dori had looked so disappointed when Ori had shouted, and Nori so hurt. He hadn’t stayed to listen what they’d say about how Ori had acted, and it frightened him to think that he had done worse than it had seemed to him at first.

He hoped they’d forgive him. He hoped they could talk it through and maybe he’d get to understand how it was possible and why Nori had lied to him or how nobody had happened.

Ori made sure to be as quiet as he could when he reached their house and unlocked the door. He didn’t want his family to hear him just yet, first he wanted to make sure that everything was all right and that they were home at all.

There was light burning in the kitchen, and voices, and Ori walked silently until he could hear and see what was going on.

“… Of course he will be fine,” Dori was just saying when Ori dared to glance into the kitchen. “He’s your son after all, though he doesn’t get into trouble nearly as much as you do.”

“Really? He might… I don’t know what I’d do in his place.”

“Ori wouldn’t do anything stupid. Give him some time to adjust to the though, on his own. I know he wouldn’t do anything bad.”

There was a bitter laugh and Ori saw how Nori was sitting at the table, toying with a coin and looking miserable, though he was smiling.

“He probably went to stay at the library or at a friend’s house, he always does that when he needs time alone or doesn’t want to tell me of everything.”

Dori was sitting near Nori, close enough to reach out and hold him. He had given comfort to Ori like that, he remembered, but never to Nori and that worried Ori a little.

“He is a sensible lad…” Nori’s eyes were fixed on the coin between his fingers, turning it and letting it reflect the light of the lamps.

“Clever and never doing anything stupid. Nothing like me, and I’m glad about it. He is good at proper crafts and has a sweet character and everything good about him isn’t something he inherited from me.”

Nori’s smile twitched, then he dropped it, hand curling around the coin and Dori sighed, as if he’d been listening to that for way too long. Ori’s throat felt tight as he saw the expression on Nori’s face.

“I hope I didn’t fail him completely at least.”

Ori’s fingers clenched around his scarf.

Nori hadn’t failed him, not one bit. He had always known that Nori often worked hard to help his family, even if that wasn’t really work, could remember very early days when everything was bad after the war and Nori would come and bring food or toys or ribbons for his hair. He remembered how Nori had always done his best to be a good brother, good family and a good father apparently, and how Ori had never felt mad at him for anything.

Even if he didn’t understand how one could do such a thing, and why Nori had been so young and so stupid and why he was born in the first place, but Nori had done it to protect him, hadn’t he?

If Nori could do so much for Ori, then Ori could make himself be calm and try to understand.

“You didn’t fail me!” Ori insisted and stepped into the kitchen, startling everyone.

“Ori!”

Nori was pale and Dori looked glad and a little relieved, but Ori took just a few steps to stand in front of Nori’s chair, and then he hugged him, like he always had since he was a child and each time he returned after too long.

That too seemed to startle Nori, but then his hands were on Ori and he was hugging him back, tight and secure as he always had for as long as Ori could remember.

“Are you alright?”

“Ori, I’m sorry for today, I really am!”

Ori managed to nod, fighting back tears and smiling reassuringly.

“I was at Luth’s,” he explained to Dori, then turned to Nori again.

“I’m sorry for what I said, I didn’t mean it, I’m sorry! You’ve always tried to be the best brother one could ask for, and you’ve been a good brother!” Ori said, hoping Nori would forgive him. “And… And you’re not a bad father at all! I just… I was so shocked and angry and I can’t imagine how it must have been like. I’m sorry what I said, and I’m sorry about what I said about my bearer.”

Nori’s eyes were bright and he blinked a few times, before pulling Ori down into his lap, even though Ori felt like he was too big to be coddled like that anymore. Today it didn’t matter though. Dori stood up and wrapped his arms around both of them, muttering something about how they both were fools but how he loved them anyway.

“I don’t mind, I would have said far worse if I were you,” Nori sighed, and Ori shook his head. “Really, I know more swearwords for once.”

Ori laughed at that, and Nori’s smile was hopeful.

“I promise, I can explain why I did what I did. Even… if it’s not really justification enough.”

“I think I just need time…” Ori said, glancing at Dori. He hoped he did, he loved Nori too much to risk loosing him about such a ridiculous thing.

Nori looked hopeful at that, and Ori felt like it was true. He already felt much more accepting than he had that day.

“I’m not calling you Da though!” he clarified, and Nori really was laughing then.

“That’d be weird!”

“I know, little one,” Nori’s smile was wistful at Ori regretted saying that.

Then Dori was holding them closer and pulled them together so that all of their foreheads rested together.

“No matter how, we are a family. Always were, always will be. Tomorrow we will talk calmly about everything, and I promise everything will be alright.”

Ori wanted protest and ask for answers right away, but it was late and his head still hurt from the nap and the crying.

“About whatever I ask?”

“All I can answer,” Nori nodded.

Ori held him tighter for one moment, then climbed down from his lap and made his way to the bathroom, trying to hide a yawn.

“Good night then,” he said, voice too small and Dori and Nori smiled at him.

He was done with getting ready for bed quickly, but alone in his dark room and hiding under the cover Ori felt afraid again. He wasn’t sure what to think of what to ask. He thought of the Dam he had called Ma all his life, and about who his real mother was.

Not knowing who she was or why she had left and wasn’t there was… bad. Had she not wanted him? Had she been too afraid to keep him? Had she not liked Nori and decided that he’d be better for Ori than she could?

Ori didn’t get to worry for too long, as the door creaked and he could see Nori standing in the dark of the corridor, glancing in.

“You’re awake, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I can’t sleep.”

There was a sigh and then Nori was inside the room, closing the door behind him.

“Do you need anything?”

“I…” Ori swallowed, wondering whether he should ask. “My mother… Why… Why isn’t she here?”

It was quiet for so long that Ori wondered he had somehow offended Nori, or upset him. Then finally he spoke.

“I don’t like talking about her.”

The floorboards creaked and then the weight of the bed shifted as Nori sat down next to were Ori was lying, making himself comfortable.

“It hurts to think about her most of the time.”

“Did she hurt you?”

Ori didn’t know what to think about that. No matter what he felt about Nori right now, he didn’t know whether he could like someone who had done that to him.

“Oh Mahal, no, not intentionally. She was too good for that,” Nori waved off. “Your Ma was the best Dwarf I ever met to this day. She was honourable and loyal and quick to anger and so stubborn. But if she liked you she’d do anything for you.”

Ori fumbled with his blanket, listening to Nori’s voice, trying to imagine her.

“She was a warrior you know? A sell-sword sometimes, she was young and there was little where proper warriors were actually needed. She was taller than me and broader and nobody would cross her.”

“A warrior? Really?”

Nori laughed at Ori’s tone.

“You look little like her, at first glance. So much Ri in you. She had scars everywhere and carried axes, you know? Sometimes she was so serious but she could also be gentle. I love her, very much. And she loved me, I think. I know she did.”

Nori was getting quieter then, and Ori reached for his hand, holding it.

“Did she… what happened?”

“She loved you,” Nori said, his fingers squeezing Ori’s. “She was so scared to hold you, you were so tiny in her hands, so fragile. But she loved you and she was scared but she also did her best as a mother. She wouldn’t have left for any other reason but at the time…”

Ori heard how Nori’s voice trembled, how he must be close to tears, and Nori never cried like that, he shouldn’t. He didn’t quite dare to tell him to stop and not speak if it upset him that much.

“The king at the time was Thrór, and he got murdered by some Orcs. So his son called for war. We all were so sure that it’d be a short one. A few months, a year at most. We were sure it’d be easy and that we have Khazad-Dûm, and she promised that she’d be back and I believed it. We all believed that our army will return with barely any losses.”

Ori felt his blood run cold and Nori was definitely crying now, though Ori couldn’t quite see it in the dark. His voice had changed when he spoke, and he barely moved.

“So my mother…?”

“Your ma left to take part in the greatest tragedy that happened to our people since Erebor fell.”

Ori felt like crying himself then. His mother had left. He didn’t feel like being angry with her, he knew so many friends and neighbours who had been in the same situation with their loved ones. Ori had barely been a year old and didn’t remember the start of it all, but he had never felt anger. But if his mother had left…

“Do you think she is…”

He didn’t dare asking.

“With Azanulbizar? I don’t know. Your ma was the best warrior I’ve ever known, but I can’t… I never dared hoping that she survived, but I can’t stop hoping anyway. I miss her so much sometimes, I want her to be back and meet you, and just be whole and…”

Nori stopped his tale abruptly, and Ori pretended not to hear the sniff.

He leaned against Nori, wrapping his arms around him as if he was still a little child and Nori his doll, and then Nori was holding him, cradling him like a baby and sighed.

“I’m sorry about this, I shouldn’t have told you right before bedtime.”

“No, I’m glad to know. I… I’m just glad that she loved me, even if she isn’t here anymore. And that’s horrible!”

He shouldn’t be thinking that while Nori was thinking about a possibly dead love.

“It’s not, my little one. Your Ma loved you, and if she could she’d be here and would tell you herself.”

Ori nodded and squeezed his eyes shut. Nori’s hands brushed through his hair and it felt so calming and right.

“Stay? I don’t want to be alone…”

He wasn’t a little child anymore, but he had never had a father comfort him when he was upset. Or perhaps he had, even if he’d thought of him as his brother each time Nori had made everything seem all right.

“Of course my gem.”

Everything he had learnt about his past was sad, but though Ori felt like crying and like he missed his mother much more than he should, and thought it felt like he’d have nightmares, he fell asleep nearly immediately, and didn’t dream a bad thing.

Chapter Text

Dwalin wasn’t one to pray to Mahal much. She loved their Maker and she worshiped him, but she did not pray on all the holidays. There never was a need, and she never felt like she should.

There was only one time of the year when Dwalin did pray as the traditions called for, silently, never telling anyone about it. When spring turned to summer, and everyone had a quiet prayer to thank Mahal for their creation, to honour him and their ancestors, their families, both living and those who’d come after. It was quiet, and some Dwarves prayed for the good of these things at any time.

Dwalin would go about her day as always, she’d work over anyone who’d go against her in sparring, not keeping back one bit and let some more experienced teachers tell her opponents what they’d done wrong to fail. Then she’d train on her own, focusing on nothing but her axes. The first year she did it, she had tried to use her hands, beat up bags of straw, and similar things. It wasn’t that much more satisfying, and it didn’t help her focus on just the weapons either.

She’d be alone that day; she couldn’t face Balin who sometimes looked at her with suspicion or worry, or her mother, who’d see right through her.

She’d lock herself into the bathroom, would wash herself with warm and cool water and rags, not staring into the polished mirror at all, ignoring the image of the warrior with her scars and tattoos. Dwalin never wore braids or decorations, but she would tie her hair up with a simple leather band, just for today.

When she was done and dressed, Dwalin would just go up to her room, and sit on her bed. Her empty, empty bed.

Nori had never been in in, had never been in Dwalin’s house, or anywhere near the city, as far as she knew. Still, when Dwalin closed her eyes, she could imagine that he belonged here, that it had been this place where Nori had curled up against her, where she’d held him, and he held their boy, and all was good.

Dwalin would close her eyes, and she’d focus on only this. It barely even hurt when she was tired, and her muscles ached. It was just so close to be true in her mind. Maybe Mahal would hear her and look out for her if she just focused hard enough.

Year after year she imagined Nori, his beard growing longer and his beautiful braid wrapped around her hand, imagined his grin, the mischievous glint in his eye and how his smile grew softer. She also imagined the boy sitting between them. In her mind he grew year after year.

First he was a baby, though he couldn’t be anymore at that point. Later he was a tall boy, lean like his father, but sometimes Dwalin would watch him in her mind, and his broad back reminded her of Fundin, and how he’d grow to be just like the grandfather he never knew. In her mind her boy had long hair, just like Nori’s, but growing darker with age, barely braided.

Sometimes the boy snuggled up against Nori, sometimes Dwalin could nearly feel his weight against her chest as he leaned back to use her as a rest, sometimes she heard laughter and him saying that he was too old for this, but never did she see his face. He never turned, no matter how much she hoped for it.

All Dwalin could do was hold him, or pet his head and compliment the clumsy child’s braids he’d made for himself. Sometimes she wanted to call him by name, and the words got stuck in her mouth. She didn’t think in names after the first time it had made her curl up in herself and stare into nothing until it was dark.

She became better at it after a few times. It helped to control her moments of weakness, nobody would find anything strange about Dwalin’s behaviour on all other days.

When the sun outside the mountains, and the lamps went on, Dwalin would pray.

She’d pray that Nori was still out there somewhere, that he’d never been caught by anyone. She prayed that their child was safe, that Nori had him, and cared for him, and that both of them were happy, and healthy at least. She prayed that Nori would find her, that she’d come across him on some wandering.

Most of all Dwalin prayed for her son. The boy who was just a baby in her mind, or a faceless young Dwarf with no name. She had nothing of him, didn’t even know whether…

“I know I made mistakes,” Dwalin would finish when she couldn’t sit still anymore. “And even if I’d never see him again, protect the boy, keep him safe. Let me find him, let me see that he’s well. I don’t care about what else happens, help him.”

Some people spoke of how mothers knew of how their children were, how healthy they were. Dwalin had heard of it, how mothers knew when their children were in danger, or how they sensed these things.

It was wargshit. Dwalin never felt more than a numbness, guilt and the uncertainty gnawing at her from the inside when she let it. She wanted her son to be safe, and that would be enough, perhaps. But Dwalin wanted to know and see him, even if she never spoke to the boy, she wanted to see him and make sure…

There was only one time of the year in which Dwalin would pray, and curse and plead for their Maker to help her and protect her child. She’d allow herself these few moments of weakness, and afterwards she’d untie her braids and get on with her life, the despair and longing locked away where it wouldn’t touch her anymore.

Chapter Text

Dwalin focused her weapon skills and strength on shorter caravan trips, and she was good at that, so it wasn’t truly a surprise when she only was informed after her brother and cousins had already discussed the issue of the quest for several weeks. She wasn’t hurt, only mildly annoyed. And the annoyance was gone once her mind latched on the task at hand.

“How are you so sure that now is the time,” she asked Óin, as their family sat around the table of Dís’ kitchen. A map of Middle Earth was stretched out before them, red pebbles lying where they considered laying out their route. One single white stone lay on the spot none of them had seen for way too long. Erebor. Their home.

Óin adjusted his grip on his trumpet.

“The Ravens return, and they would not do so if there was a chance of Smaug roasting them right up. I read the stars too. And the fires.”

“The wizard approached me with this as well,” Thorin added. “He too seems to think that we will not fail if we make our move now.”

That was good enough for Dwalin, she supposed. She might not know how exactly to read fortunes as Óin was able to, and she did not trust outsiders, even wizards, but she knew Thorin had made up his mind. She would follow him, no matter what.

Thorin leaned back in his chair, slowly taking each of his cousins in.

“We will have to start forming a company soon. I can’t ask anyone to come if they don’t want to, I know you have family-“

“You have my axe,” Glóin interrupted, since it was him Thorin looked at when he said it. “You’ll need someone to look over our budget after all.”

Óin rolled his eyes, but he too nodded.

“Aye, we will see the mountain reclaimed.”

Thorin glanced up at Dwalin, and his lips quirked, but there was something strange in the way he watched her.

“We will. This isn’t the sort of caravan you usually join. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Dwalin shrugged.

“It’s not much different as far as the journey goes. And I want to reclaim our home.”

It wasn’t like she had anyone to leave behind and fail this time.

Her cousins returned to talking over how to let it be known that they needed Dwarves to join, and about a possible contract. Dwalin just leaned back and got lost in her own thoughts. They didn’t need her for diplomacy or deciding how to get the word out, Dwalin wasn’t the sort to convince anyone of anything.

Dwalin’s mind wandered to the image of Erebor, of what she remembered of their old halls. If Thorin succeeded, the lives of their people would be different, and so much better. She thought of the homes and the new life so many families would get, thought about the pride of the Dwarves, and of how they’d return…

Dwalin scoffed quietly. There was no use to think about that now. It hadn’t done her any good before.

What Dwalin would put her focus on, was to help Thorin reclaim his seat in the throne-room of the Lonely Mountain. His dream to do what his father had tried before, to get back what was theirs. Thorin’s dream to give their people a better life. She’d do it for Thorin, not for faded promises and hopes she used to have once. She could give her life for someone she followed, and she’d not regret it if it just gave him a chance.

For Thorin.

She could do that. There was no need to do it to make up for what she had promised to do over seventy years ago. No need to think of her failures.

No need to remember it ever again.

 

*-*-*-*

 

Dori’s eyes were wide and full of disbelief. He hadn’t blinked or looked away from Nori for what must have been a full two minutes now, though Ori couldn’t be sure. He didn’t know which of them to look at either.

Nori was unusually quiet. He sat on the table, relaxed, one of his small knives balanced between his fingertip and the table top. It might leave scratches, but the old wood wouldn’t suffer from one more. He seemed completely unfazed by Dori’s stare, and maybe he really didn’t care.

“You can’t go on this quest…” Dori said eventually. Again. At least he sounded calm now, not as if he’d start a fight.

“I already signed on.”

That was the reason why Nori was so relaxed, why Dori was helpless, and why Ori wasn’t sure what he should say to either of them. Nori had apparently already handled the matter of the contract with one of the King’s cousins, and now he officially was part of Thorin’s company. Dori had nothing he could say against that.

Ori watched his uncle’s hands twitch and clench into fists. Then Dori let out a sigh and sat down again. Nori simply turned the knife on the spot.

“Is this really worth getting away from whatever mess you’re in now?”

“Better than lying in some ditch with stabs and my teeth and hands smashed to bits, yes, certainly. Anything that could happen during the journey would be a quick clean death.”

Nori noticed the stares this earned him and he grinned. He always tended to have a dark humour when danger and death was concerned.

Dori frowned and stared at the knife. Light played over its sharpened edge; Nori never neglected his tools after all.

“I don’t want you to be alone on that quest,” Dori insisted. “Nobody should go without family.”

Ori knew he had considered going, for the honour of their people, for their hope. He hadn’t signed on yet, as it was dangerous and he had a life here. He knew what Dori would say, before Nori even glanced up from his blade.

Dori folded his hands together and nodded subtly in the way he did when he’d made a deal.

“Well, you understand that I can’t leave you on your own. I will come along to sign up for the quest tomorrow.”

Nori opened his mouth in surprise, but Dori’s face was serious.

Ori started from one to the other, fingers playing with his sleeve.

Ori thought of never going on a long journey, and of writing his master’s work about the quest to reclaim Erebor. He thought about dragons, and being brave. He thought about being left behind by the two men he’d considered his brothers for most of his life, and still called so. He thought about loosing his father, the only sort of parent he really had left without ever knowing his mother…

“And I will go too!” he told them.

There was shock on Nori’s face then, and some exasperation and understanding on Dori’s. Nori’s hand closed around his knife’s handle.

“You can’t go on the quest,” Nori said quickly. “It’s dangerous. Any journey outside of mountains is dangerous.”

Ori raised his eyebrows.

“You’ve been going outside of mountains when you were my age, you told me the stories,” Ori reminded him. Not to mention that his mother had been a warrior and did the same, but that wasn’t for Dori to know unless Nori wished to share it.

Dori’s lips quirked as he glanced as his little brother, while Nori just seemed speechless.

“He’s right, Nori. He’ll be safe with the King’s most honourable warriors. And me, too.”

Nori stared at Ori for a moment longer. Then he twisted his knife up and let it disappear into his sleeve. He looked too tired to argue the point, and for a moment Ori did feel a little guilty.

“Fine then,” Nori said and got up. “We shall go together.”

He left the kitchen quietly, avoiding their eyes.

Ori fiddled with his sleeve and stared at the worn table top. Dori unfolded his hands again and gave Ori a mild smile.

“It seems like we two have some packing to do.”

Chapter Text

Dwalin didn’t know what she had expected. She had no idea why she still felt that there should have been some warning before her world crumbled and broke piece by piece, why there never was some tingle at the back of her neck, or some sense of foreboding. Even in retrospect, there had never been anything that might have let Dwalin brace herself for anything.

The quest would start in just a few weeks, and Thorin would leave to meet up with Dwarves from the Iron Hills. But before, there was a company to assemble and to meet. A pitifully small company, but at least Dwalin didn’t feel like the Dwarves who joined would be bad.

Barely half of their company would be consisting of warriors, though the other half wasn’t hopeless. She’d heard Glóin discuss this, and she trusted his judgement. Later on it would be her, who would check how well her companions fought, but Dwalin also knew from experience that being good at sparring did not equal a good travel companion. She knew some who’d barely trained with weapons the proper way, but were vicious when it came to protecting their lives on the road.

She suspected that Bofur was like that, when she fist met him, and she was sure that Bifur had experience as well. Bombur was very quiet and Dwalin had no way to watch him much, but since he had signed on and didn’t look nervous about the quest, she felt like he thought he could fend for himself. Though she didn’t know what to make of the cousins, she didn’t think that either of them would overestimate their own skills too much to be any good in a real fight.

The only thing that bothered her was that so far it seemed like the cousins were the only ones signing on, who weren’t related to Thorin in some way. It angered Dwalin to know that so few would still trust the King; that so few would join and try.

The cousins were toymakers and hunters, and Dwalin knew that her brother would frown at that. She’d taken a hundred of them, if it just meant that more followed. Though she supposed, warriors might have been better should it come to fights.

As it was, there would be thirteen Dwarves, a wizard, and whoever said wizard and Thorin would bring along from outside of the Blue Mountains.

The last three had already promised to come, and they would sign the proper contract and meet their King that day. Dwalin might have gone to eat some leftover roast in the kitchen, and let Kíli try to beat her at cards perhaps, but she stayed with Thorin instead. As one of his cousins, it was her right and even duty to attend court, small as it was. Balin wasn’t there, so she’d join in his stead.

The room was larger than needed, meant for an actual court meeting, not meeting a few brothers. It was best located in the palace to reach easily though, and it also looked impressive, somehow. Dwalin liked it for giving her the opportunity to be there, but not be noticed unless she wished to. Standing at Thorin’s side, behind his throne but where the pillars already cast shadows. Nobody would talk to her at least, when strangers came.

The constant gruff expression she was sporting, and folding her arms to show off her muscles and knuckledusters did the trick where hiding wasn’t enough.

They’d all waited when a guard announced that the brothers were there. Dwalin saw how both Glóin and Thorin tried to straighten and look more official that they usually behaved, and how Óin was relaxed as always. Glóin had some ink and the contract ready, and Dís was whispering something to Thorin that made him smile.

It was a mere formality really. Dwalin stared at the patterns on the stone tiles, hearing steps approaching and how Glóin fumbled with a quill. She wondered how these three new ones would be like. They were the last, and Dwalin hoped they’d be able to offer good skills.

Strong fighters maybe, skilled medics to help and compliment Óin’s abilities.

She didn’t think of anything.

When the door opened and Thorin turned to greet his guests, Dwalin raised her eyes.

The oldest was the first who spoke, and the first she noticed. A solid Dwarf with beautiful mithril hair and a large sword at his side.

“Thank you for welcoming us to your home, your Majesty,” he spoke for his brothers.

The youngest was the next Dwalin saw, barely older than Fíli and Kíli by the look of him, standing slightly behind the older, looking eager and nervous. He didn’t look like he could possibly had had much of a fighting experience, but Dwalin recognized the scribe’s kit at his side.

“I am Dori, son of Kori, ready to pledge my sword to you and your cause,” the oldest said.

Dwalin glanced from the youngest to him, taking him in once more. The third was standing behind the other two, keeping back, and Dwalin first saw the strange mace he was holding.

“My brother, Ori, is a journeyman scribe and his skills would be of great use to documenting the quest.”

He sounded a little as if he’d tried to memorize it before, not noble enough to feel comfortable in talking to the King less than perfectly formal yet, and not as easy going as Bofur to be relaxed.

“My other brother has great experience in, eh- acquiring items, and he has travelled far beyond the Blue Mountains so he knows the roads-“

Dwalin nearly snorted. A thief. Well, that would be fun to witness. She was still trying to hide her smile when she saw the middle brother’s face.

“-and I assure you, Nori is a very good aid far from towns.”

Dwalin hadn’t been stabbed often, and never deep. She was sure that it felt like just the way she did that moment, though, staring at the stranger’s face. Like being stabbed, and cut and beaten, and she couldn’t even tell what her heart was doing anymore.

Thorin waved the three closer, and Dwalin nearly sagged against the wall before she caught her composure again, but nobody noticed.

The way he moved, the way he stood casually, leaning on his mace just a little, the faintest curve of a smile on his relaxed face. The way his golden eyes were still very alert, despite his calm.

“You have already discussed this with Óin, so this is more of a formality,” Thorin started, “I wish to know the Dwarves I’m asking for so much.”

Dwalin squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, when Thorin asked Dori about his craft, and turned to the youngest. She couldn’t handle the sight of the middle one, not right now.

“A journeyman? I suppose, your report on the quest would be your masterwork?”

Ori had dimples when he smiled.

“I hope so,” he said, and Dwalin saw how he bowed subtly and stiffly.

Nori’s hair was darker than she remembered, and he wore it in three peaks. His beard as well, and Dwalin felt her heart clench even more when she saw the lines on his face, saw how old he was. Seven decades, she hadn’t imagined seeing him this late.

She wanted to say his name, reach out, but this wasn’t the time or place. Not while Thorin was still talking.

He hadn’t noticed her yet.

“Good at acquiring items? You’re a thief, aren’t you?”

Dori looked pained but Nori shrugged and leaned his head to the side.

“I ‘suppose that’s what I am.”

His voice sounded just like it did in Dwalin’s mind at least. She wanted to laugh in relief, or cry, or maybe both.

She caught Glóin staring at her with a frown and an unreadable expression, and she raised her eyebrows at him. He looked concerned, nearly.

Dís nudged Thorin’s shoulder very gently, and Dwalin saw how Thorin waved Glóin to come closer and brig the contract.

“Before you sign, is there any family you are leaving behind? Anyone who will have to be informed or given your profits should something happen to you?”

Yes Dwalin thought with a start. If Nori was here, it meant that Dwalin would find out where their child was. They’d say it, and ask Thorin to promise that everyone would be all right…

“No, there’s just us three left in the close family,” Dori told them.

Dwalin forgot how to breathe for a moment.

Then she felt something hot burn through her chest.

Just the three?

What was that supposed to mean? Why would Dori say such a thing? He should talk about his brother’s son; he should mention a young lad. If there was no child, where was he then?

Nori’s eyes looked at some spot on Dori’s back, and Dwalin watched him carefully; saw how his face moved in the few seconds it took Dori and Thorin to discuss this. She saw how his lips twitched just a little, how his eyes moved to the side, away from his brothers.

“Very well, you should sign your name then,” Thorin said and Glóin walked down towards the three to give them ink and the contract.

Nori’s eyes moved over him briefly, and then further until they locked with Dwalin’s.

He tensed up right away, so painfully obvious that Dwalin was sure the others would see. His hands clenched around the staff of his mace, and his shoulders drew up. He stared at her with such wide eyes…

Usually Nori didn’t react that way. He used to go into a defensive pose immediately, or one that’d let him run quickly. Dwalin didn’t remember ever seeing him freeze like a rabbit facing a predator.

And he was looking at her that way.

The heat in Dwalin’s chest turned to barely concealed rage. She felt her fingers shake and she clenched them to fists, letting the leather of her knuckledusters creak quietly.

She wanted to step down and towards him, she wanted to threaten and curse and demand to know what he’d done with her boy, what had happened to him. Why he wasn’t there, why he wasn’t mentioned.

Dwalin barely even heard what was said anymore, she only heard a rush in her ears, could only see Nori frozen under her glare. She did remember that she wasn’t supposed to cause a scene here, and that it’d not do any good either way.

Nori finally looked away, staring at the back of Dori’s head for a few seconds and then on the floor. The fear from before didn’t go away, even if he visibly tried to relax.

Dwalin bared her teeth for a moment, but he didn’t see it anymore, so she stopped.

She forced herself to calm down, focused only on Thorin and Glóin’s voices. It did clear her head, and give her room for thoughts she wished she wouldn’t have.

There were few things that would have led to Nori not being there with their child, for not talking about him at all.

Maybe he was simply… gone. Dwalin couldn’t even feel more than numbness at that thought, since it’d been a fear she had for far too long. Children got lost, children died. Dori would not speak of his nephew just like that, if it were still painful to him.

Unless…

Dwalin did not know Nori’s family. She wasn’t even sure whether she knew Nori anymore. She had not expected to see his brothers all prim and proper, honourable Dwarves, the younger very soft looking and the older very polished. What if Nori had allowed for their child to be rejected by such a family? Could that have happened?

The urge to walk down returned, but this time Dwalin’s fingers itched to grab Nori and shake him and demand answers.

When it was Nori’s turn to sign the contract, Dori had to call his name twice before he responded. He looked so numb as he accepted the quill and scratched his name over the parchment. Then he gave it to Ori, and turned his head away from the contract while his little brother wrote.

By the time all was done the heat in Dwalin’s chest was gone. She felt nothing at all, and it took all her effort to keep her eyes on the three.

“Shall we show you the rooms you can stay in then?” Dís asked with a smile. “It would also be a good opportunity to meet the rest of our company and have a drink and some food.”

Dori accepted with a polite bow, and Ori with a smile. Nori looked as numb as Dwalin felt. His eyes darted over to Dwalin one last time, then he followed his brothers and Dís and Thorin out of the hall. Óin and Glóin folded the contract, then went as well, though Glóin paused to glance at Dwalin.

“Aren’t you going?”

“No,” she said, backing away slightly. She could not face Nori again, couldn’t be close to him or try act as if everything was all right and they were strangers.

“I’ll go see what the princes are up to,” she lied, and slipped away and out of the back door before Glóin could call her out on it or ask her to come along anyway.

Dwalin wasn’t sure where exactly she was going, only that she hurried as far away from the kitchen or any place where she might meet someone. She had to sort her own thoughts before she could push them aside.

The anger from before was quickly replaced with ice-cold fear.

What if something had happened. Why hadn’t Nori said anything?

Why had he looked at her so afraid?

Dwalin found an empty room and slipped inside before slamming the door shut and leaning against it.

What had she expected to happen? Did she think she would meet Nori again, and they hold each other and laugh and everything would fall into place just then? Did she think Nori would just run towards her and she’d be able to hold him and then he’d take her hand and introduce her to her child?

These past seventy years couldn’t just be forgotten like that, and ignored just because they had found each other. Things like this took time and patience, and of course it was a shock for everyone.

Instead of just being glad that Nori was alive and that she could see him, Dwalin had gotten angry though. Her first instinct had been to blame Nori, to imagine all the things he might have possibly done wrong. She had wanted to shout and shake him, and all because she was afraid.

Dwalin leaned her forehead against the door and closed her eyes. Acting like that, it was no wonder that Nori was afraid. He’d be even less likely to trust her or even love her again if he knew how Dwalin was like these days. That thought specifically made Dwalin’s heart clench.

If she couldn’t have her child and a family, she’d at least wish to have Nori back. She wanted to hold him and feel his body against hers, wanted to kiss him and remember how he tasted and felt like, wanted to talk to him and know he was by her side.

As if Nori would want a bitter grim someone like her…

It took Dwalin twice as long as usual to calm down and push the thoughts to the back of her mind, away from conscious questioning. By the time she’d managed it, her neck felt stiff from standing leaned against the door for so long.

She stretched a little and cautiously peeked out of the room. Nobody was there in the corridors, so she walked out slowly and turned to return to the kitchen. Perhaps Fíli or Kíli were there, to keep her company that wasn’t anywhere near where Nori was. She didn’t feel like she could handle being alone just now.

Chapter Text

Nori could not sleep.

He tried, but it simply would not come anymore. Ever since the day he’d seen her again, all there was for Nori were nights spent staring into the still too bright dark of the night, clinging to his sheets, listening to the countless tiny noises a completely quiet house still produced and not sleeping.

His head was filled with the impressions, the creaking of wood and the rustling of curtains in the ventilation shaft’s light draft, the occasional soft snores from somewhere close by, or the sounds of the road, once the company set out.

It was nights spent alone and curled under a blanket, trying to ignore it all. When he was lucky the exhaustion lulled Nori to sleep in the early hours of the morning, and he could function with very little rest, always had. When it all grew too much Nori would sleep hidden away in some corner of the palace, hoping none would notice him lazing around. The sunlight streaming into the mountain sometimes helped with dreamless sleeping, but it was hard to get away from any preparations.

His head buzzed with it until his sleepless nights and the noise turned into a headache, but even that was preferable to his own thoughts.

Dwalin was… different. Of course she was, Nori wasn’t the same silly young boy anymore either. In the past seventy years he’d matured and lived his life as well as he could, had watched his son grow up and learn a craft much more honourable than anything Nori had ever done in his life. Dwalin had gone on with her life as well. There was silver in her wiry hair and beard now, just a little, and there were scars and tattoos all over her bulky frame.

She truly was all warrior now, strong, and taller than any Dwarf Nori had ever met. She was beautiful too; she looked healthier and better than he’d been afraid of. She’d survived anything Nori had feared she might not, and scars decorated her to prove it. She was alive, and her eyes had blazed with rage as she watched Nori and she was cousin to the King.

Each time Nori couldn’t stop his thoughts from reaching that point he’d have to swallow a pained whimper, and curled into a ball as if to brace himself against a beating. It certainly felt like one, to think of how Dwalin’s eyes were like when they followed Nori whenever they were in the same room.

They weren’t often, while they still stayed at the palace. Dwalin seemed to avoid him on purpose, and even Dori had noted that she certainly was the rudest of the family.

Having his brother scoff at the woman he was still so painfully in love with made Nori’s heart ache even more. He’d known Dwalin so well, once. Now she seemed just like that young warrior he’d met in some little village at the edge of Ered Luin only... bitter. And angry.

There was so much hate in Dwalin’s eyes the few times Nori had managed to catch her looking. He wasn’t even sure it was directed at him, but it made him reconsider his attempts to speak to her.

He had thought about it, of course, he just never dared when they were in the palace.

As Ori had written his false name on the contract Nori had seen her, and he’d been so sure that it was just a dream. Why had he found her when he hadn’t even tried looking, when he’d more or less given up on the dream to leave to where Dwalin most certainly couldn’t be.

After the initial shock had passed Nori had tried to think of a way to confront her. Ori had been too excited to really notice anything off about Nori’s behaviour, and Dori assumed it was just one of his darker moods, so they left him alone, so he hadn’t told them anything either.

It might have been easy to track Dwalin down in the palace, to find a moment when she wasn’t busy doing something else. Nori was a thief after all; he had experience in moving through places like that and remain undetected, or find the spots one might be unnoticed.

But the way Dwalin avoided him, and the way she watched him… He couldn’t.

Sometimes she would be there when they trained and sparred in the company, but she would never offer to Nori and he didn’t dare ask. She seemed to avoid Dori as well, but less so. Nori had been afraid of what she might tell Ori, or how she would react to him, but the one time anything happened Nori wasn’t there to see.

“Mistress Dwalin is a really good teacher,” Ori told them as he chatted about the day. “She said I really need to learn to balance any longer weapon but that I really am showing promise and will do well in the wild. She made Fíli and Kíli spar with me and show me moves and so on. Really, I think she’s gruff but not near as rude as you say, Dori.”

Dori went on to discuss the proper behaviour around princes with him, while Nori huddled up on his chair.

He wasn’t sure what to think about the way Dwalin was like. He could understand that she was angry at him, that she hadn’t forgiven how he’d simply taken their child to run away instead of waiting as he had promised. But she should have demanded an apology, or for him to explain where their child was, so that he could explain.

There was another fear creeping in his heart as time went on and Nori started to avoid Dwalin as well, if just to spare himself the image of those eyes watching him in cold rage.

Sometimes he’d notice how Glóin watched him with a strange expression as well. He was a good person to be around, good to drink with and listen to when he told stories of his trade and of his family. At first Nori had thought that the merchant was wary of him in a way any merchant would be of a known thief. But there was something in the way he would just watch Nori that made him think he was being inspected for something more specific.

The way Dwalin didn’t even ask about their child, and the way she treated Ori as if he was just some kid made Nori fear that she didn’t even want him back. That she didn’t want their family either.

Could it be that she truly didn’t want this anymore? That she had changed so much in these seventy years?

Was it her family maybe? Nori had told Dori everything he could bear to, of course, but had Dwalin? She had been so afraid of letting her family know of them, but who knew, maybe she had. Maybe they would react badly if they knew who Ori and Nori were.

It didn’t matter, in the end.

All that mattered was the way Dwalin looked at Nori, and the way he could barely sleep from the pain in his chest and the pressure in his lungs.

It got a little better once the company set out to travel towards the Shire, to meet their King along with some others who’s join the company there. Being outside of the mountains and focusing on the wild was distracting and at the end of the day Nori was exhausted enough to just fall asleep without a fuss. Dwalin rode ahead and since the lands were peaceful the company didn’t mind stretching along the way.

Others started chatting with more than just their own families now. Kíli was interested in any of the stories Nori could tell of the places he’d travelled to before, and Glóin seemed to be at ease with him by now. Bofur rode near him most of the time during the day, and talking to him was fun. Both he and his brother were like the best kind of company one could find in the shoddy taverns of Ered Luin, only without the drinking and the noise, and Nori certainly didn’t mind the attention.

Dori made friends with the rest of Dwalin’s family at least, and he preferred Óin and Bifur’s company while they rode side by side. When Ori wasn’t too distracted by writing into his journal and drawing whatever caught his interest he could be seen with the princes, making friends already. Though Nori had to smile at how nervous he was each time Ori remembered the royalty he was with.

It was nearly perfect. Nori was in good company; he wasn’t running for his life or searching desperately without knowing how to start. His brother and his son were there with him and he wasn’t missing them while on the road. The weather was good and the mood was cheerful, and sometimes Nori could nearly forget that there was something wrong there.

If only Dwalin weren’t staring at him the way she did. If only Nori wouldn’t feel the chill of her gaze on him at any time they were gathered around the campfire. If only the few words she spoke to Nori weren’t sneered remarks about him and Bofur being trouble.

If only he couldn’t see how she was when she forgot about Nori’s presence. If he’d just not seen how she joked with her cousins and how she smiled at Fíli and Kíli, and how her laughter sounded just as it had so many years ago.

Dwalin was still the lass he’d fallen in love with when he was younger, she’d just grown up, grown rough and wary and for some reason came to hate Nori.

There was nothing he knew to make it better.

They travelled like that, with the days as close to perfect as it could only get, and the evenings and nights spent sitting with the others in uncomfortable silence.

It couldn’t go on like that, it just couldn’t.

Nori chided himself each time he considered just running away.

Was he a coward that he’d flee from some high and mighty warrior of Durin’s line? Since when did he care how he was treated by those who thought they were better than him? What did it matter that it wasn’t just some musclebrained noble, but the woman his heart had longed for for more than half of his life?

He wouldn’t back away just because he could not bear facing his beloved’s scorn. Was his love so fickle that he’d give up at the first sign of hate or possible rejection? No, he’d not tried to look for Dwalin for so many decades to give up on her now.

Nori was determined to at least find out what had made Dwalin hate him so. Maybe he could fix it, maybe he couldn’t, but he certainly couldn’t let this stand like this. He would just talk to her, just once.

He didn’t have to wait for a good opportunity for too long. It was still early and the company had prepared a campsite in a young forest. Since there was little to do, they started spreading out to search for more firewood and berries. Maybe even some game to add more fresh meat to their meals, while it was still light enough to hunt. Nori slipped away from Dori as soon as he could and moved through the undergrowth silently.

At least he was used to forests, and was one of the few who knew how to walk with making as little sound as possible. Unlike some of the other Dwarves. It was easy to track Dwalin down, Nori just had to listen for the cracking of branches all around her as she moved right through them all, unbothered and able to do so thanks to her bulk.

Nori took a deep breath to calm himself before he dared to slip out of the shadows he’d hid in. He made sure to make some noise, as he approached Dwalin, not caring for keeping his steps light or tone done the rustling of leaves his movements caused. It wasn’t wise to spook an experienced warrior, especially if said warrior already had a grudge on you.

“Dwalin,” Nori called out softly as she turned to search for who had joined her. He hadn’t spoken her name in too long.

Dwalin tensed as she saw him, but she didn’t turn from him and didn’t speak either. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, showing off her knuckledusters and scowled enough that it might have made anyone else decide to avoid her after all. But Nori knew her, and he couldn’t turn away again.

“Got lost?” she asked, her voice a quiet growl, in itself threat enough.

Nori shivered, but it wasn’t from fear at least. Not like that. His heart clenched and he tried to smile at her. His lips only managed a pained twitch so he doubted it was any more than a grimace.

“We need to talk. You can’t just pretend that nothing happened without saying anything.”

Dwalin sneered even before Nori had finished speaking.

“Can’t see why we need to do anything. And what I do is of no concern to you.”

Nori fought to keep his expression from showing the frustration welling up in him. Now was not the time to make Dwalin even angrier with him than she already was.

“We do. Why are you… why are you like this?”

It came out angrier than he intended after all, and he took a step closer to Dwalin. She glared, but didn’t back off.

“I am what I am. And you need to keep away. I mean it, thief.”

She wasn’t even using his name anymore, and Nori was as close to Dwalin as he hadn’t been since the day she’d left, leaving him behind with little Ori in his arms, wondering whether his love would ever return to him. He hadn’t felt anything close to anger about that in so long, but now his stomach clenched.

“Why? Is being associated to the likes of me too much for the fine young Lady Dwalin of Durin’s house? Oh what would my noble cousins have to say about this? Oh dear me,” Nori mocked in a prissy voice, “Is that your problem oh mighty war hero?!”

He hadn’t meant to snap like that, or try to bait her with insults, but it was too late to take it back. Dwalin’s eyes widened in anger and she bared her teeth in her sneer, clenching her fists.

“How dare you speak like this,” she hissed, and it was so little like the woman Nori loved, it nearly made him forget what he had planed to do.

He reached out and grabbed Dwalin’s wrist, his hold much stronger than most anticipated and giving him a few seconds to keep her from storming off or throwing a punch.

“How can you just ignore me, what have I done to earn this? What is it that makes you want to forget we ever had-“

A relationship, love, a child, a family, he wanted to say, but a rustling somewhere further up the hills and voices made both of them pull away from the other and freeze.

Dwalin was hardly breathing as he stared up to where they’d heard it, wide eyed and a hunted expression on her face. Only when the voices turned out to be Bofur and Bombur joking about something that had happened back in Ered Luin and not any of her relatives did she relax a little.

Nori watched Dwalin’s face as they waited for the other two to walk past without coming into view. The brief wave of anger he’d felt was completely gone by the time they were alone again, leaving him hollow inside. Dwalin turned back to him then, eyes narrowed.

“If you speak of this where anyone can hear I’ll-“

“Forget it,” Nori interrupted her, slipping out of her reach quickly. He couldn’t look her in the eye anymore. Just standing where she could see him seemed like too much.

“I mean it-“

“I won’t, just… forget I ever spoke to you,” Nori managed to grit out, trying to draw on the last of his anger.

He didn’t look back as he turned to rush back into the shadows, not fleeing from her gaze, but needing to return to his family.

Her calls of ‘Wait’ and ‘Damn it, come back!’ were easy to ignore like that, and Nori barely even looked where he was going anymore.

When he reached the campsite half of the others were already sitting on their bedrolls. Ori was sleeping cuddled up in his own blankets, and Dori was engrossed in a conversation with Bifur, so Nori could slip into his own bedroll quickly and quietly without anyone noticing.

Lying still made the hollowness in his chest fill with pain though. Idleness always did that to him.

Nori stared up at the canopy above, and turned his head to watch Ori in his sleep. He was peaceful like that, happy with some tiny leaves sticking to his hair and ink stains on his fingers and the tip of his nose. Whatever had gone wrong with Dwalin, at least Nori had this. At least he knew his child was safe. At least he knew his child was a good Dwarf, and happy.

Somewhere on the other side of the camp he heard the heavy steps that must belong to Dwalin so he squeezed his eyes shut and rolled over to curl against Ori. Even as he hugged him and pulled him close Ori only mumbled a little but didn’t wake up.

Nori hid his face and hoped nobody would see how tense he was, that Dwalin wouldn’t look over and watch him. Nori didn’t want her to watch him, didn’t want her to see how empty he felt.

He still didn’t know what it was that made her react as she did, why she had not asked after their child, why she hadn’t even looked at Ori in contemplation. Did she really not care? Did she think that having them wasn’t good for her life? Was it her family?

Nori trembled and did his best to not think of anything at all. He listened to the sounds of the company, to how the conversations died down and how Dwalin didn’t speak up even once. Dori joined them at one point, lying down behind Nori but thinking he was asleep just as Ori.

By the time the last of them had gone quiet Nori had managed to drown out the noise, and he fell asleep, with his face pressed against Ori’s shoulder, dreaming of nothing.

Chapter Text

If being fools in love was a common trait in the line of Durin, then Dwalin had certainly inherited at least two scoops of the usual amount. Why could she not act as she was supposed to when seeing her long lost love again? Why did she have to feel rage and helplessness tighten her chest each time her eyes met Nori’s?

Even weeks after leaving the Blue Mountains behind and seeing Nori again Dwalin still wasn’t sure what she felt about any of this. Anger perhaps; that old rage she had never noticed too much being directed at the thief now. Helplessness and fear as well. Fear of her family finding out what she had done, fear of the power Nori now held over her with her closely guarded secret in his hands. Numbing and endless fear at the thought of what Nori had been up to these past decades, fear of speaking to him and being told how much she’d failed, seeing the confirmation of all the wrongs she’d done. Fear of finding out what had befallen her child. Frustration at how she could not do anything right and at how Nori sneered and hissed the one time they came close to talking and then both just lost it. Desperation at how the words she did want to say kept getting stuck in her throat and came out a jumbled mess of accusations.

Beneath all of that though Dwalin was certain of what she felt. She still loved Nori, she missed him, she wanted him. He was right there for her to hold and tell she love him, to tell she’d never ever leave him again, that they could be together forever…

That too was a fear though. A lot could happen to a young Dwarf in the better part of a century. She was not the lass she’d used to be when Nori had fallen in love with her. And who knew how Nori had been all these years, or who he was now. Whether the Dwarf lurking in his brothers’ shadow would love the gruff old warrior standing loyal with her King, just as the young pickpocket had loved the loud sellsword so many years ago.

There had been such hurt in his eyes when Dwalin had snapped at him, and later she had found him sleeping curled against his younger brother. Hiding, hurt, just as he had curled up against her once upon a time. Through her own aching heart and through the anger Dwalin still had felt a pang of jealousy, wishing that Nori would walk over to lie with her instead, that she might hold him and give him comfort and be comforted in the act as well. As if she hadn’t been the one to hurt him in the first place.

Nori did not approach Dwalin anymore after that night and it seemed to her that he was avoiding so much as glancing at her. He was shying away both from her and her family as well, though that might just be her imagination. Nori was slippery and easily avoided conversation if he wanted to, and now he seemed to only stick to his older brother, who in turn spent more time frowning at him than chatting with the others. Only Ori seemed more or less unaware of it, and talked to everyone equally in his awkward but sincere nature.

She half wished Balin were there, but she’d only meet him in a few days time and even then she could not possibly ask for advice or even comfort. He’d want to know what happened to her, or what caused her to feel so much worse than she had in years. He wasn’t stupid; he might figure out that this had something to do with Nori, even if he didn’t know the truth (and he could never know it). No, best not to make the situation even tenser by having her family side with her or meddle in her business.

On the morning of the day the company was meant to reach their host Dwalin still didn’t know what to do to make things better. She wanted to snap at Nori and demand to know where her child was, she wanted to forget anything had ever happened, she wanted to confront him right there so he could not escape, she wanted to hold him in her arms and ignore anything else until he was ready to speak, if ever. There was no way to tell what the outcome of either would be, so Dwalin simply braced herself for yet another day of glaring ahead and doing nothing.

She gobbled up her breakfast quickly and then simply watched the company finishing up theirs and making the ponies ready for another day of riding. Nori was sitting quietly, lost in thought and fiddling with a blade of grass while his brother sat beside him working on his book. What little Dwalin had gotten to see of Ori’s journal was mostly beautifully drawn illustrations of things he’d seen on the way. Most of it was animals and the crops of the Shire, but Ori also had pressed some flowers and leaves between the heavy pages of his book. Now he was doing so as well, carefully flattening some flowers he had gathered and deciding where to put them.

Dwalin watched for a while, then turned around to search for something he might have missed. She only barely knew the flowers of the Shire, as she was more familiar with what might be encountered on a mountain, but she did recall some pretty ones. There were some tall weeds and bushes close by, and Dwalin spotted some nice white flowers with a strange petal shape and some pink in the middle. She picked a few and then got up to hand them to the scribe.

Nori was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn’t notice Dwalin approach, and when she inevitably was looming over him to talk to Ori he twitched and his hand was on the hilt of his knife in a heartbeat.

“For your collection,” Dwalin said as calmly as she could, avoiding staring down at Nori.

Ori’s eyes widened at the sight of the flowers.

“Thank you! I’ve not had these yet!”

He only looked pleased with the attention and did not notice how tense his brother had gotten, and Dwalin did her best not to make a sudden motion or even glare down at him. Nori’s wide golden eyes were fixed on hers, his shoulders drawn up. For several seconds neither of them moved until finally Nori slumped in defeat and let go of his knife.

Dwalin stared a few seconds longer. Then she scoffed and turned on her heal.

“I’m riding ahead,” she said gruffly as she made sure her pony’s saddle was put in place properly.

“Ahead? Why?” Glóin asked just as the princes perked up.

“Let us ride ahead with you,” Kíli begged, but Dwalin shook her head and straddled her pony.

“No, you stay here. I will take a look at our Burglar first.”

She didn’t wait for another reply as she bade Harley to ride on quickly and she carefully didn’t look back at Nori either.

It didn’t take long to leave all of them behind her, and Dwalin rode for another couple of minutes before she let the pony set her own pace as she saw fit. The hills around them were quiet and full of fields, the local people probably working far off the road or staying near their homes. Only the wind and the birds kept Dwalin company, and for once she was able to catch a breath.

Her mind remained mercifully free of all her troubles for most of the day, and when she took a break to eat some of the dried meat and drink from her flask she felt calm enough to think clearly. Harley browsed the tall grass near their path and Dwalin watched the clouds above the hills. This couldn’t go on as it did. She was too torn between trying to get Nori to love her again and raging and accusing. And he was too tense and cautious and now he even assumed she might attack him each time she came to close? This wasn’t good for them either way, not matter what Dwalin wished their relationship to look like eventually. This wasn’t good for the stability of the company either. They needed to put aside any feud they might have, and Dwalin did not want to cause a rift in the company.

Wasn’t she a professional? Couldn’t this wait for until the quest was over? Nothing was as important as aiding Thorin with all she had and giving everything to see Erebor reclaimed, her power, her life if necessary. Her personal problems were nothing against that, neither her lost love nor her child. She had to keep it together for this time and make sure that the company was united as well.

Which really only meant that she had to put any rage or longing aside and just work with Nori. Make sure that neither he nor her kept messing it up by poking at aching wounds. If Nori was as he was before, he might do this too, for as long as he didn’t feel threatened by her.

Dwalin finished the last of her meal and chased it down with some water before climbing on her pony and riding on.

The sky was a deep royal blue and the first stars shone by the time Dwalin reached the town of Hobbiton and found the street their host lived in. She’d never been this close to a Hobbit’s dwellings before, but as she approached the big round door she thought it must make for a fairly decent house, if the rooms truly took up as much of the hill as she thought. The wizard had not described his Burglar, but when the tiny soft Hobbit opened the door and froze at Dwalin’s sight she already was starting to doubt the decision to take that one along on such a dangerous quest.

Still, there was food and soon her brother arrived and Dwalin didn’t mind the detour at all. Fíli and Kíli arrived shortly before everyone else and the cheer and drink and song had Dwalin in a better mood than she had been in for days. The Hobbit who was introduced as Bilbo Baggins kept rambling and ranting about something, but nobody paid much attention to him for the most part. It wasn’t up to them to ask him to sign the contract while Thorin hadn’t yet arrived.

The songs died down the moment Thorin entered the house. He was quiet, explaining the details of the quest again, and the wizard revealed the map and the key Thráin had carried before. Dwalin wondered why the old man would keep them from Thorin, and then snorted as his praised Burglar kept insisting that he was of no use to the quest. She could see as much. Why he’d been put forward was a mystery to Dwalin, and after he fainted and decided not to come along she was glad that she would not have to look out for him anymore.

Afterwards it was quiet in the Hobbit hole. Dwalin walked through the corridors and watched as the company was quietly talking and having a smoke. Some had already laid out their bedrolls though nobody was going to sleep yet. Their host had already retreated to his bedroom, and Thorin and Gandalf had taken up the guest rooms. Dwalin wasn’t sure whether to be glad that they wouldn’t have a helpless Hobbit on their quest, or whether she should worry about how so few were willing to join. He didn’t need to though, so maybe it didn’t matter what a Hobbit wanted.

It didn’t take long to realize that Nori wasn’t among his brothers and Dwalin set out to search for him in the winding tunnels of a corridor. If she could catch him alone in this quiet place…

Eventually Dwalin found him standing in the kitchen, fingers moving over the sausages she’d seen him fight Bofur over, and fumbling at the locks of a cupboard. Looking to steal or simply curious about the possibility of it? It didn’t matter to Dwalin, somehow seeing Nori focused on these things simply made her miss the old times.

“Nori,” she started, and of course that was a bad way to let him know who approached him.

Nori spun around, pressing himself flat against the cupboard, making the cups inside chink slightly. He watched her with suspicion, ready to flee.

“What?” he snapped and Dwalin tried her best not to snap right back.

“This has to stop,” she growled at him, keeping her frustrations in check as well as she could. It came surprisingly easy after the day she’d spent alone and with her belly full of food and safe in a home…

Nori didn’t reply, but the quirk of his eyebrow spoke of how this must sound like to him.

“We can’t go on with this feud. Not with the quest going on.”

“I’m not the one who started it,” Nori muttered but Dwalin brushed that off.

“There are things we might have to deal with. Eventually. Or not, I don’t know yet. Whatever there is to say, it can be said when we have reclaimed our homeland and Thorin sits on the throne of his grandfather.”

Nori’s face fell at that and there was sadness in his eyes Dwalin couldn’t stand looking at. She couldn’t look away though, despite how much it made her feel like she was eighty years old again, and leaving him to… No it wasn’t the same.

“Can we call a truce? For the quest at least?”

Nori was still watching her suspiciously but the tenseness left his shoulders.

“Can you?” he asked and Dwalin nodded.

“We leave each other be and don’t speak to one another unless it’s necessary. We don’t fight, we don’t bring up anything… We’re just two members of the company.”

A few moments of silence passed before Nori nodded.

“Ah, I can do that. Truce then?”

“Aye. Truce.”

Dwalin extended her hand on reflex, as she always did when coming to an agreement. She wanted to pull back to not make Nori uncomfortable, but then it was too late. Nori didn’t seem fazed. He looked at Dwalin’s hand for a few seconds before taking it and giving it a good strong squeeze.

As soon as Dwalin let go of his hand Nori nodded at her and slipped away. She was left standing in the empty kitchen. She suddenly didn’t know what she felt or thought anymore. There was nothing in her, as opposed to the mess she’d been before. Dwalin curled her hand into a fist and rubbed her fingertips against her palm.

She really did miss Nori’s touch it seemed.

By the time Dwalin finally went to re-join the others they already were settling into their bedrolls. Balin was reading through the contracts and he glanced down at her briefly. It’s been a long time since they’d last slept side by side on a journey, even if they were indoors now. Dwalin curled up under her blanket, with her back to her brother and glanced down at her hand.

A truce… Could they truly keep it up? They had to. Already Dwalin was feeling calmer with the excuse not to fret about anything. She closed her eyes and within seconds she fell into a light dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Dwalin would never have thought that trying to actively ignore her issues with Nori would yield any good results. It did, however, and at least during the day Dwalin could travel and feel comfortable with the entire company. Then Nori was just another Dwarf willing to risk his life for their cause, and apart from the nagging feeling of ‘I knew him once’ Dwalin felt the same about him as about the other Dwarves she had not known before this. Only at night she felt like it was difficult to ignore and push aside the lingering sadness and the loss. Usually she was exhausted enough to just turn her thoughts of and sleep before it got bad.

There were enough things to worry about as the company was on its way to leave the Shire behind them. Dwalin mostly worried for Ori and Bilbo, who had never travelled this far in their life, and who both had the least experience with any kind of weapons. Soon she also realized that the Hobbit had no idea of travel whatsoever despite hastily joining and insisting he’d be fine. He’d not brought sturdy clothes (though Dwalin wondered whether Hobbits even had proper travel clothes like the Dwarves’) and he lamented not taking essentially useless things rather than those he’d miss as the journey went on. Like weapons. Even Ori had a long knife and his slingshot, brave and ready for battle despite how little he knew of what to expect.

It was fine though Dwalin was counting the days until Bilbo realized this was not a journey he wished to go on, and would ask to return home. He obviously would not care for Erebor as the Dwarves did, in their longing to return to their ancient halls, and Dwalin wasn’t sure if she’d wish to go on a journey with strangers of another race for just a treasure she’d never seen.

She stuck to Thorin during their travel for the most part, not participating in the louder chatter of the others as they rode. Thorin was speaking quietly when he did address Dwalin, but they were used to quiet companionship either way.

Óin and Balin mostly kept to the family as well for the first few days, but then they started making friends with Bifur and Dori and Dwalin did not wish to be around the latter too much. She still wasn’t sure what to think of pretty Dwarf, since she didn’t know what he knew of her child’s fate. It was easier to consciously ignore the issue and keep to the truce she and Nori had agreed on, but with Dori the uncertainty kept nagging at Dwalin’s mind before she shoved it away. Even being with her relatives Dwalin still wasn’t comfortable, fearing that they might realize that something was off.

Nori was at ease at least. It took Dwalin a while to understand that, with how quiet he was now, and how he preferred to stick to the back of groups and conversations. He was different than before, but he was grown up after all. Dwalin did recognize the easy set of his shoulders, the way there was a soft smile nearly obscured by his beard on his lips so much, and how he watched everyone calmly. Now that Dwalin consciously focused on the here and now she felt that he might be a good companion on such a quest.

Nori joked with Bofur and listened to Glóin’s tales of places he’d not yet seen, he teased his older brother and treated Ori with a quiet and near uncertain affection. He sparred with Fíli, as he saw the princes preferred knives, making the entire company bet on the outcome and had Bilbo twitching in fear for them.

Sometimes Dwalin caught herself steering her pony near where Nori was, not actually looking at him, but close enough to listen to him when he spoke. She had promised herself to ignore what once had been, but she was interested in the things he told. The places Nori spoke of where mostly those Dwalin had never seen herself, and of course he was a thief and had taken different routes or had travelled for different reasons.

A tiny treacherous voice in Dwalin’s head reminded her that she wished to know what had happened to her love, the ways she might have found him before, the ways he’d endangered himself over and over. She ignored it though.

Nori was interesting in his own way, even without the brief life they’d shared. He had caught Dwalin’s attention then, when she’d been a loud sellsword and entirely sure of herself, and he was catching her attention now that she was a rough warrior who’d really seen a lot in life and wasn’t surprised often anymore.

She rode slightly ahead of Glóin as he and Nori exchanged tales, listening to them and trying not to laugh as she kept an eye on the surroundings. Nori was telling entertaining stories, very nearly too absurd to sound real. Abandoned troll caves and goblins featured heavily, and Dwalin noticed how Nori told the best ones after carefully making sure that Dori was way out of earshot.

Glóin told of some trade caravan towards Rohan he and his wife Imlís had been on before, and Nori immediately launched into a story about tricking some Men from the area. It was hilarious and soon Bofur and Kíli joined to listen, the latter looking way too curious and Dwalin briefly considered telling him to leave before Glóin beat her to it and told him off for eavesdropping. In the end Nori finished with a smug grin and earned himself the laughter of all around him.

“Oh that’s simply a lie!” Glóin said as his chuckles died down.

“Aye, you’ve made it up to make yourself seem much more clever than you are!” Bofur threw in, his laughter nearly throwing him off his endlessly patient pony.

“Do I look like I need to?” Nori smirked, bowing a little.

“But I do doubt all of your tales being true,” Glóin said and glanced at Dwalin for confirmation. “Would you believe him? The people he stole from must have been completely witless.”

Dwalin shrugged at him. She had seen Nori do things that others then laughed off before, and his lies had been much more over the top.

“Why not, you know how people get when they’re sure they know exactly what’s going on. Especially Men.”

Glóin shook his head and glanced at Nori who was looking back and forth between them.

“You better not try tricks with the company.”

“Do you think yourself witless then, to fall for me?”

“Watch your words lad!” Glóin scoffed good naturally and Dwalin smirked as she flexed her hands and let her knuckledusters creak “Oh he wouldn’t dare.”

Nori leaned his head to the side, looking thoughtful for a moment before grinning at them.

“Very well, no tricks. I’ll stick to good old-fashioned pick pocketing.”

He pulled something out of his jacket then and threw it to Glóin. It was the little tinderbox he’d used just this morning, and after a moment of shocked silence Glóin started laughing again.

“Unbelievable. When did you- ah I don’t even want to know,” he muttered as Bofur tossed Nori some coins, as part of one of their endless bets.

Nori was laughing, his eyes shining in the sunlight and he looked just so pleased with himself… Dwalin barely managed to look away from the sight of the way his wrinkles moved when he did that in time to see Glóin stuff his tinderbox away and shake his head.

“Remind me to keep this one away from the little ones,” Glóin told Dwalin with a slight shake of his head. “Lest he rubs off on them.”

Dwalin glanced back to where Nori put a hand over his chest with an offended expression while Bofur whispered something to him.

“Oh of course he-“ ‘he should think about rubbing off with those who’re not as easily impressed, like me’ burned on her tongue but never left her mouth.

Dwalin froze, but Glóin did not seem to notice her stammer.

Why had she nearly forgotten herself? She’d felt a brief surge of fondness and want as she watched Nori, and for just a moment she had nearly forgotten where she was, and who she’d nearly said this to.

It wasn’t unusual to propose a quick tumble to friends and have brief affairs on long journeys. It wasn’t something Dwalin really felt like doing most of the time, but it had never been an issue if she did… If Nori were anyone but himself, he would have been just the kind of Dwarf Dwalin might have considered for asking. But this was Nori and Dwalin surely did not feel like affairs or any kind of pleasure now anyway?

Her mind was occupied with the journey to Erebor, the task of keeping them all safe on the long road and the many things she carefully hid away from herself to deal with later were enough to make her loose interest in these things for the time being. And now this.

With all the mixed and painful emotions Dwalin already had in regards of Nori wanting him was the worst thing that could be added into that. It had already been hard enough to deal with the past.

Dwalin firmly pushed the thoughts of longing and desire out of her mind, and she did not look at Nori again that day.

*

 

Sometimes it was easy to forget that even among Dwarves, with all their shared hardships and major and minor calamities befalling their people over and over, there were those who had been spared of the worst and didn’t share all experiences. Most things in Dwalin’s life had been shared by all of her closest family members, and not every other Dwarf had lived through it as well.

Not every Dwarf had travelled back and forth across Middle Earth with smaller caravans than was really safe, though most knew the hardships of the road. Not everyone had joined a war and had lived through the fear and helplessness of it, even if there barely were Dwarves among the clans who had not lost a family member at Azanulbizar. There were Dwarves who had never gotten into an ambush or had to face off against Orcs or any wild beasts in the wild. There were Dwarves young and not yet jaded from the dangers of the road.

Bilbo had not known anything of the world outside the Shire, had been confused when he’d heard howling in the distance that was not like a wolf but not something he’d heard before. Dwalin barely even heard the joke Kíli made at the Hobbit’s expense, but she did hear Thorin’s reply to this. She might have told Kíli off afterwards, reminded him that Bilbo might be foolish to join a quest he was not prepared for at all, but that it was cruel to use a very real danger as a joke.

Truly, Thorin’s rough reprimand was fine by Dwalin, though the bitter feeling of knowing what he spoke of gnawed at her. It was Balin’s speech that made Dwalin’s heart clench and her breath hitch for a moment. The descriptions to one who probably did not know a thing of the long war and the many fallen Dwarves was making it feel so real again. The pain, the rush and the loss, the numb hollow feeling that had followed.

Dwalin remembered it all so vividly, her father lying dead, Thorin standing straight and not quite aware of how everyone was turning to him, the tears running over Balin’s face, the deep ache of her wounds and muscles… The pity for Thorin’s position. The compassion she felt for her friend resurged anew as she watched his back. It had only gotten worse now, that the hope to reclaim Erebor was so close and he was personally responsible for the entire company. With so few it was like a family, and no Dwarf would ever take the possibility of harm coming to their family easy, doing their best to keep it safe.

Well… nearly.

The others returned to their bedrolls or the spot by the fire they’d been sitting at before that speech, most of them even falling back asleep. Dwalin had lost all interest in lying down and trying to sleep though. With the memories clawing at her mind she’d surely end up thinking of everything that made her heart too heavy to bear.

Dwalin left the camp behind, as far as she could go without leaving the relative safety of company and not be too far to be right there in case of an ambush. Just in case. She sat on the rocks, overlooking the valley and the ponies near her, axes laid out by her side. It helped just looking out into the peaceful night, one hand on Grasper’s worn and familiar handle. The memories ached, but it didn’t matter. It was in the past and she was old and knew how to accept it.

The sound of rustling grass and soft steps behind her came about ten minutes of sitting quietly, and Dwalin barely had to glance up to see that it was Ori. He had a very timid way of approaching people, and she heard the shifting of his big woollen scarf.

“May I sit down with you for a bit?” he asked cautiously, and Dwalin thought that he must be expecting a rejection.

She nodded, never minding the company in times like this. Ori was not obnoxiously loud when the moment called for silence, and Dwalin could appreciate that in a Dwarf. They sat for a bit, Dwalin with her hands on her axe, and Ori’s curled around the journal he worked on so much. The way his ink stained fingers brushed over the soft leather binding was very much like the way Dwalin touched her weapons when she was nervous or simply wished for the familiarity of the touch. She wondered if the scribe did it for the same reasons too.

After a while Ori started to shift a little, angling his body to face her stiffly, looking determined but a little lost as he was trying to decide on an action. Dwalin nearly let out a laugh but bit it back. She’d been young too, once, though she hadn’t been as quiet as Ori.

“Out with it, lad.”

“Hm?”

“You want to talk to me, don’t you? So come on then, say what you wish.”

Ori nodded, and his straightened up a little, signs of nerves gone apart from a slightly furrowed brow. He looked like Nori did when he was trying to get away with things, and Dwalin gently dismissed the comparison.

“You have been in the battle, haven’t you? Of Azanulbizar?”

The question wasn’t entirely unexpected after the speech from before. Of course Ori would be interested in the history of their people like this.

“I’ve been in the entire war laddie.”

Ori’s eyes widened, and there was some pity and curiosity mixed in it. Most young ones did that, when they realized that she had been their age at the time.

“How was it?” Ori asked quietly, fingers playing with the edges of his book again. “If I can ask that. I’ve not heard many actual tales of this, only facts and history. Never… how it was.”

Dwalin sighed but nodded.

“It was tiresome,” she said, remembering the bitter victory. “Six years and so many dead. When it was over it didn’t even matter anymore. Most of us barely realized everything was over as we burned our friends and kin.”

She glanced at Ori who had gone still as her voice grew quiet and distant.

“Have you lost anyone there?”

Ori shook his head.

“I was too young to remember anything for a long time after. It’s all distant hazy memories and I never could make a sense of who Dori and Nori were mourning for when it was all still fresh on their minds.”

Nori had mourned? For family or for… family? It was none of her business to ask his younger brother though. Strange that Ori did not remember anything of this. Fíli spoke of his father sometimes, of how he remembered him and the others from before, even if he’d been very young. He had grown up where the memory was never truly fading, with being related to the royal family and to so many warriors. Might as well be that Ori had never known anyone who’d left expectantly in the first place.

“There have been many losses. Too many to mourn for each and everyone, and every thing at that.”

Ori nodded in understanding. He was quiet again, but the tension and formality were gone from him. He stared out into the darkness, eyes sad and Dwalin wondered how the war had impacted on him in ways besides loosing somebody he’d known. Even the Dwarves who were to young to remembering the particular tragedy befalling their people were affected usually.

“Have you lost a lot?” Ori asked, quietly and not looking at Dwalin.

She thought of the scars and the bits of flesh torn out of her by ugly Goblin knives, of the friends she’d seen lying dead or too shocked to respond to anything. She thought of her father in his bloody armour and Frerin who’d been way too young, and all the fires consuming those who could not be buried.

She thought of Nori with their tiny son in his arms, his worried expression on his smooth face barely hidden by his beard yet. Their tiny Dwarfling she’d left behind, the empty room when she had looked for them again, the desperation of not knowing where they could possibly be if they were even still alive.

“Yes,” she said simply, not specifying, and Ori was content with the simple answer.

Dwalin resisted the urge to close her eyes and wallow in self-pity. It was easier out in the open, it always had been, but Ori’s presence helped her focus on how she wasn’t alone here.

His fingernails tugged at the pages of his book, and Dwalin saw how Ori was smiling a little, nearly shyly.

“Thank you for the flowers, Mistress Dwalin,” he said and for a moment Dwalin wasn’t even sure what he meant. “They’re really nice and I’ve not seen them before.”

Ori patted the cover of his book and Dwalin couldn’t help but grin at his pleased expression.

“I can see if I recognize more we don’t have back in Ered Luin, and I’ll give them to you if you’re still collecting.”

Ori’s face lit up and he nodded eagerly, his pretty braids bouncing around his head.

“I’d like that!”

Dwalin laughed and patted him on the shoulder, careful not to use too much strength. He wasn’t Fíli or Kíli who were used to her roughness, and she didn’t want to scare him away again.

“Then I will do so. And now, I think we’ve sat around for long enough. Tomorrow there’ll be another long way ahead of us.”

Ori scrunched up his nose but he didn’t protest as Dwalin took her axes and got up. He accepted her hand and she pulled him up to his feet. They returned to the company and Ori made an awkward little bow to Dwalin before quietly stepping between his dozing brothers and curling up under his blanket.

Dwalin shook her head fondly at the soft little Dwarf and returned to her own sleeping spot. It had been so long since she’d last been around somebody as young and inexperienced as Ori, despite him being around Fíli’s age. He was alright with weapons and though Dwalin wasn’t sure of his craft she found that it was still entertaining and calming to watch him work or speak of it.

Three Dwarves so young they might still be children and a Hobbit to take care of during their journey. Dwalin had not asked for it, and it wasn’t her responsibility, but she couldn’t even feel miffed as she quietly accepted the task of guiding and protecting them before she gently drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

The rain covered everything like heavy curtains, muffling sounds and smells and generally being unpleasant. The water ran in rivulets over Nori’s coat and dripped off the point of his nose. He was glad of the raincoats Dori had sewn all three of them, warm and water-repellent as they were, but even that didn’t help for more than two days at a time. Now they was simply heavy and cold, with the rain somehow still finding its way through their clothes and even down to their skin.

There was little any of the Dwarves could do but grumble and glare at the clouds, or at Gandalf who seemed near unfazed and claimed that he could or would not change the weather. What use was a wizard in fighting a dragon, if he couldn’t even deal with a measly raincloud that followed the company day after day?

None of them could even light a pipe without getting their pipeweed all soaked through, and their conversations had died down in the deluge. Nori was left with watching the company as his form of entertainment.

Bofur seemed to ignore the problem of the rain drenching him, pipe still in mouth even if he could not take a drag at all. His brother was calm as well, though Nori suspected that Bombur was simply aggressively trying to think of something nice instead of their current situation. Bifur seemed to get lost in his own thoughts with no effort, and from what Nori knew of the old hunter it might be best to leave him to it.

Dori was trying to keep his dignity, Thorin was stoic but visibly displeased by being so completely wet. Ori was huddled deep inside his layers of knitted scarves and his coat, trying to keep warm. Neither he nor Nori had ever liked the cold after all. He also noticed how both Fíli and Kíli were quietly talking to Ori as they rode, trying to cheer him up or telling him stories. It was nearly amusing to see how the bastard son of a scoundrel like him and a mother he didn’t know would start making friends with the princes of Erebor. Nearly.

Nori had barely really spoken to Bilbo yet; still doubting the role the Hobbit was going to play, just as the wizard. He surely was no experienced burglar, and he certainly didn’t know much of travelling judging by what he hadn’t packed for the journey. Dwalin had given him her spare raincoat when the drizzle had turned into a shower, and now the Hobbit was completely hidden away in the too large green coat. At least he would stay a little dry, despite his oversight.

And Dwalin… Dwalin…

He still didn’t know if he had the strength to stay in her presence for the entire way to the Lonely Mountain and not… do something.

Nori didn’t even know what he’d do, if he had the choice to speak freely. The way they were now made it so much easier to be around her, without the anxiety and anticipation of a fight against someone he could not defeat and didn’t want to use dirty tricks on. They had agreed to not speak of their past, but he wanted to, needed to even. He needed to set things right after all, needed to tell her about Ori, needed her to ask about their child.

Dwalin had suggested they leave each other alone and not talk when they didn’t have to. This meant that Nori was to let the past rest for now, but didn’t it also mean he couldn’t even try to pretend as if there was something new? He was interested in the big scarred warrior, she’d been just his type then, and she was just his type now, even more so maybe. He liked the way she spoke and acted now, liked the glimpses of familiar humour he got to see sometimes. If he’d never laid eyes upon Dwalin before this quest he would certainly at least try to flirt, just to spend his time with fun things if nothing came out of it.

He wanted Dwalin, and it was far too easy to forget that he shouldn’t be thinking of her, and even harder to try and ignore the changing of lightness and pain in his heart. Nori wanted her, and he loved her for who she was, who he’d missed, but he also felt himself falling in love all over again, when he watched her furtively. And he couldn’t do that, he’d promised to leave her be.

Nori pulled his hood deeper into his face, ignoring the drops of cold rain falling into his beard and his hair-peaks getting crushed, and pushed his thoughts into other directions.

 

*

The first day of dry ground and sunshine was met by a collective sigh of relief. Thorin ordered for an earlier rest when they found a river running through the rocky terrain, so that they might take care of the ponies, bath and wash their things or do any repairs if needed. Bombur and Dori set up camp as the others went to the water, excited at the prospect of rest and drenching themselves voluntarily. In the end most went away, to swim or to find berries and firewood in the forest.

The first thing Nori did was to find himself a nice warm spot between some rocks, with a limited view on the river. He could still see Dori and Ori as they started to wash out their clothes before going for a swim and that was enough. Nori got out his comb and started working on brushing out his hair until it was nice and smooth again, and quickly fixed his braids and peaks.

Afterwards Nori could just lean back and finally enjoy a pipe after going so long with it close by and no way to light a match.

It was nice in the sun, warming up properly after so long with only rain. Some voices carried over from the river but Nori couldn’t even hear the words. The wind and the birds in the nearby trees were as peaceful as it got away of rocks and mountains, the grass Nori was lying on was soft and the pipe relaxed him further until he felt a nearly sleepy calm spread in his body. He could fall asleep then and there, and he’d be tempted to if Dori wouldn’t chide him for wasting time without at least cleaning his clothes later.

Nori was content to just laze around when a soft noise caught his attention. He tilted his head to the side to glance back to the camp where Dwalin had remained. She had taken off her heavy layers of leather and fur, only standing in her undershirt and pants. Both of her axes were in her hands as Dwalin warmed up for her forms, most likely working against the stiff muscles that followed so many days of cold and rain.

Dwalin worked without paying the world around her any mind, staring straight ahead and swinging her axes. Her movements were precise and quick, and though Nori hadn’t seen her in a fight for decades he was sure that she was only stronger and more vicious in battle by now. He didn’t dare to move as he watched her, not ready to have her see how he was doing so in the first place.

She looked beautiful.

There was power in her movements, her muscles strained on her shoulders and back. The perfect dwarven warrior, truly. Her hair stuck up in all directions, unkempt and without braids, already a little damp from her exercise. Nori’s fingers itched to reach out for it, comb it out for her and make sure it shone with oils and gorgeous braids, befitting a Dam like her… And wasn’t that just wonderful? Here Nori was, watching the perfect example of everything he liked in a Dwarf, and all he could think of was how much he’d love to pet Dwalin’s hair?

Dwalin stretched one last time, keeping her axes perfectly still in front of her for a few seconds, and then relaxed and put them down with her things carefully. When she stood straight again she turned, eyes fixed on Nori with that knowing look of someone who was aware that they’d been watched. Nori froze with her eyes fixed on his, but Dwalin didn’t look angry.

She frowned, contemplating. Her eyes moved over him, slowly, and somehow Nori thought he could feel her gaze like fingers on his skin. He tried not to move from his sprawled out position, even if it was starting to get uncomfortable to remain under her close gaze. Her chest was still moving hard under the exertions of before, and maybe Nori was imagining it, but there was a near familiar heat in her gaze.

He quirked an eyebrow, despite trying not to show any kind of reaction, and Dwalin’s eyes narrowed a little. In any other situation, with anyone else, Nori might have been tempted to flirt now. She wouldn’t appreciate it either way, he could not…

Dwalin pressed her lips together, and tilted her head to the side as if to indicate a direction. If Nori didn’t know better he’d think that she was inviting him to walk with her, the way she was looking, the serious even look of her eyes… His eyes flickered to where she had indicated, towards the forest, and he wanted to, why lie to himself. It would only be a talk, of course, and even that gave Nori a thrill and made his heartbeat speed up.

He nodded, nearly amazed when Dwalin seemed pleased with the reaction. She drank a gulp from her flask, secured her things with her pack and then she was off towards the trees where she had indicated.

Nori waited a few moments, staring at his knees and trying to understand why she had possibly tried to invite him along. They had a truce. They were meant to ignore one another to avoid anything bad to happen.

Dori and Ori still weren’t back and nobody was there to question where Nori had disappeared to. He checked whether his things were stashed away safely and then got up to casually walk towards the trees, a little off the place he’s seen Dwalin disappear to. If anyone were to stop and ask him why he was going into the forest he’d laugh and say that he wanted to explore it, like the good old days of wandering in the wild and poaching on Men’s grounds. Dori might disapprove if he heard that excuse, but not as much as of Nori going to join Dwalin for whatever it was she wanted.

Nori walked quietly, taking care not to step on anything that’d make too much noise, his soft boots helping him to walk as quietly as no Dwarf ever bothered to. It was a little like searching for prey in the forests again, some skittish rare beast. Only this time it felt as if he was the one who had to hide, as he did not know what Dwalin wanted, anticipation and nervousness battling for dominance in his mind. He had to push both away to focus on not being noticed, though he didn’t need the caution.

Dwalin knew he was coming and she was waiting for him.

She stood tall between the trees, watching as Nori carefully made his way through the bushes and over the roots all around. Her arms were crossed over her chest but Dwalin’s expression wasn’t unwelcoming, more contemplative again. And interested, a tiny part of Nori dared to suggest before he firmly pushed it to the side. He stood when he was in respectful distance away from her, out of reach but close enough for quiet talking.

“Yer’ve been watching me,” Dwalin said, before their silence could even grow towards awkwardness.

“I did.”

There was no point in denying it, and little reason to feel as flustered about it as Nori did now. He wasn’t a little lad caught ogling his first crush and yet it felt too much like it. She would grow angry about that now, would demand for Nori to not even dare look at her and to leave her alone. He knew he shouldn’t have thought of her as he had all those years ago, along with not speaking to her too much, but he couldn’t help thinking how Dwalin was gorgeous and pleasant to be around, if she’d let him.

Dwalin squinted a little, but instead of the anger Nori had expected, her darkening eyes were moving over him, taking him in as he had done in her place before.

“Why?” she asked, voice a low growl. She leaned closer to Nori, before finally taking a step towards him.

Nori watched her and knew that he couldn’t just tell Dwalin about the honest affection and need to touch and hold her. Instead his lips twitched a little and he raised his eyebrows, a weak attempt at his sarcasm and usual flirting.

“Because watching you work yourself up like that is by far the nicest sight I expect to see on this journey.”

Dwalin let out a real growl then, and for one moment Nori thought he’d gone too far, before he realized that she was laughing. She reached for him, clutching at his lapels and Nori leaned towards her involuntarily.

“The nicest? Kind to say.”

Dwalin pulled Nori even closer, nearly making him stumble against her and Nori tried so hard not to part his lips, not to look at hers and feel the need to kiss her smirk away, not to shudder at the heat radiating off her.

Dwalin looked at him, completely still for a few seconds, then she let go of Nori’s jacket, her one arm curling around his waist to pull him flush against her soft chest, and the other reaching up for his hair instead. Nori cried out, moaned as his head was tilted up and his arms wrapped around Dwalin’s neck as she leaned down to kiss him.

Nori hadn’t kissed her in so long, hadn’t been kissed like that in ages and any memories to similar events escaped his brain as he felt teeth against his lips and tasted Dwalin and got pushed against her even more until that and the kiss robbed him of all air to breathe.

He barely realized that Dwalin was walking him backwards and how her hands were roaming over his body; he was too lost in the sensations of just being held by her like that. When she went down to one knee he nearly fell over but Dwalin’s arms held him, lowered him to the ground. Nori barely dared to touch her more than he did now, but Dwalin’s hands were moving over his stomach, pushing down on him and tugging at his clothes and Nori couldn’t help but reciprocate. She rewarded him with a soft moan, a tiny sound compared to how she normally talked or groaned.

When Dwalin started pulling open the laces of Nori’s shirt his hands moved up on their own accord, clutching at her wrists. It was the only time she slowed down after they’d met in the woods. Dwalin looked down at Nori’s face, a brief concerned frown showing, but Nori simply caught his breath and relaxed under her, his thumbs rubbing at the sensitive insides of Dwalin’s wrists gently.

He wanted her, why lie, and she wanted him back so he could have her, could kiss and touch. There was a knot of anxiety in his stomach that dissolved near instantly at the thought. There was no room to wonder how it would be like, how they’d changed, growing older and jaded nearly. The thought of kissing her, holding her and exploring Dwalin’s body slowly and gently to relearn it brought nothing but warmth with it.

Nori closed his eyes as Dwalin returned to her urgency, her weight pressed against him when she opened his shirt and started to bite and suck at the skin over his collarbones. She was so much rougher and more impatient than Nori wanted it to be, so unlike the first time back together he’d imagined, but his own hands clawed at her back, his fingers dug through her hair, feeling its softness, the solid rock-hard strength of her muscles…

Dwalin was like an avalanche over him, around him, her weight nearly knocking out the air out of Nori’s lungs. She hisses and moaned as her hips moved and she started to rut against Nori’s leg, clinging to him still. Nori held her, enjoyed the overwhelming feeling of being in her arms and tried his best to give back as much as she took. He tried to arch up against her when there was room, rubbed his thigh up against her to give Dwalin more friction.

Somehow she managed to work her hand between their bodies, reaching for Nori’s pants and nearly tearing through the laces in hazy clumsiness. After her rough hand cupped Nori’s hardened cock he was lost in the sensations. There was little he could do but let Dwalin take over completely and enjoy the sensations, crying out with her as she worked him up in an irregular rhythm.

Nori spilled over Dwalin’s hand after pitifully little time. He lost orientation for just one moment and then he saw Dwalin’s face as she arched up, mouth open and eyes screwed shut as her legs tightened around Nori’s thigh. The next moment her arms clenched around him as well and Dwalin sagged against Nori, with her forehead resting against his shoulder.

His hands shook as he hugged her close. Nori tilted his head to the side so that Dwalin’s crest of hair brushed against his face and breathed in. This felt so familiar, so comforting. He hadn’t meant for their first time back together to be so rough, but this was nice and exactly what he had needed and missed. After a while Dwalin’s breathing evened out and she shifted a little so that she was wrapped around Nori but could glance up at him.

Dwalin looked a little dishevelled now, younger than before and so much more like Nori remembered her. She was relaxed and her gaze was soft, affectionate even.

“That was nice,” Nori said quietly, hugging her harder.

Dwalin’s lips twitched into a smile and her arms tightened around Nori as well.

“Should have done it before, instead of trying to pretend we don’t exist to each other,” she replied.

Nori tried to smile as well, but he wasn’t sure if it showed. He felt too tired all of a sudden, only able to hold Dwalin closer and do little else.

This was right. This was what should have been. The way they were now should have been their life through the past decades. He should never have lost Dwalin in the mess that was the war in the Misty Mountains. They should have had each other to hold and to love, to look out for. They should have raised their child together and not have it be their little secret…. Their child…

Dwalin was cuddled up against Nori, her eyes fixed somewhere on his beard braids and she wasn’t speaking. She didn’t ask anything, didn’t tell him anything more either. Something painful twisted in Nori.

Ask’, he thought suddenly, desperately and very nearly angry. ‘Come on and ask me about where our child is!

Nori pressed his lips together, trying his best not to speak or let on how he felt right now as she remained quiet. How could he expect Dwalin to know what he wanted her to say? He could not speak up first, not while he wasn’t sure how much he could get away with. But she had said they shouldn’t have pretend… or was it really just about the sex being the exception? Did Dwalin want everything but secret tumbles to remain as it had the weeks before? Nori had no idea how he felt about that.

He didn’t know how long they lay there, but the warmth of the afterglow ebbed away even as Nori tried to hold Dwalin tighter. It was getting uncomfortable on the forest floor and the mess in Nori’s pants, and cold as well. He felt stiff and upset and Dwalin looked up at him, brow furrowed and lips twitching, before she rolled off him and got up. There was an accusing look on her face but she didn’t speak as Nori got up, only fixed her clothes and hair. She threw him one last look over her shoulder, waiting for something, but Nori didn’t say anything either and then Dwalin rolled her shoulders once and made off towards where the company had put up their camp. She didn’t look too dishevelled despite the rough tumble they’d had, much unlike Nori felt.

As soon as Dwalin was out of sight Nori shook off the leaves that stuck to his clothes and hair and made his way to the river. It didn’t take him long to reach it and find a spot where the rocks looked smooth. He could hear the company not too far away, probably just behind a few bushes, but he didn’t want them to see him.

Nori didn’t waste any time getting out of his clothes and letting down his hair. He ignored the biting chill of the water as he stepped into it. He washed his clothes as well as he could with a piece of soap he’d carried in his many pockets, then dipped himself in water completely after laying them out to dry. He scrubbed at his skin until it hurt and brushed his hair out from knots and dirt, destroying the efforts to make it neat from earlier.

There were marks on him, darkened skin where Dwalin’s hands had held him in her bruising grip, tooth marks where she’d bitten him. For the briefest moment the memory felt warm in Nori’s mind, but that was chased away by confusion and disappointment. Mostly in himself. He shouldn’t have done anything without being absolutely clear about how he felt about Dwalin’s decisions, or without knowing that he could let the past go in such a moment.

There was no way Nori could return to camp with the marks on his body displayed like this, so he put on as many of his clothes as possible, even though they were still wet and clung to his skin. It didn’t matter. He tied his hair in a simple braid and made his way back.

There were still some off bathing as Nori returned, and Dwalin wasn’t sitting anywhere. Only Balin guarded her pack as he smoked and talked to Glóin. Dori frowned when he saw Nori approach dripping still, but he kept his disapproval to himself and wrapped Nori in a warm blanket as soon as he sat down.

“I’ll comb your hair later,” Dori said and eyed the messy braid, so unlike what Nori usually did to take care of his hair after washing it.

Somehow that little thing made Nori feel a little better about things, and then Ori walked over with his journal and leaned his head on Nori’s shoulder. He smiled contently and Nori petted his head gently. The way Dwalin had reacted stung, and Nori felt stupid for not knowing what he thought or felt about any of this. He needed to figure it out but he had no idea where to begin with the mess inside him. But Ori was humming thoughtfully at his side and Dori was already searching for their combs, and for the moment Nori could force the tiniest of smile and think of anything but Dwalin.

Chapter Text

The next few days of journeying were entirely uneventful, which nothing for Dwalin to do to take her mind off Nori and what she’d done.

There were times when she was sure that her self-control was excellent, honed in the years of being a warrior and guarding caravans. She was sure that she could resist stupid flying fancies she might have followed easily as a young lass. If she had resolved to do or refrain from doing something for the length of a journey, she would keep to that.

And yet…

The mere thought of Nori watching her warm up at the shore of that river had been exciting. As if she truly was an adolescent thinking with her brain gone between her legs again. True, Dwalin had missed the company of any kind of lover in quite some time, and she had missed Nori for too long. She had been an adolescent when they were together, so it felt right as well.

She wanted him the way he was now too, wanted more than just the memory. A part of Dwalin was steadily insisting that she had merely wanted to talk to Nori, seeing as he was so focused on her, that the following tumble had been a mistake, a spur of the moment decision. But she new the truth of it. She had wanted and anticipated having Nori from the moment she had indicated him to follow her.

It hadn’t been the perfect moment like she had sometimes let herself dream of, and yet it had been perfect in its own right. Clinging to each other, tasting Nori’s mouth and skin and kissing him as he answered her touches with the sweetest moans, hands in her hair as she explored him briefly, too impatient to let herself pause as she wanted, to truly savour the moment.

It had been like the hottest forge fire, consuming her in her pleasure.

And after…

After she had only felt cold inside, upset at how she’d acted on impulse. She lay on Nori and he held her, but he had been so quiet… She should have known that it was a bad idea then.

Unbidden her thoughts had wandered as Dwalin tried to enjoy the closeness of lying together like this. She wondered how it would have been like to stay with Nori, to have him and love him through the lost decades. Of course her thoughts had wandered back to their child.

I want to know,’ she had thought, ‘but I fear the answer too much.

There was no way Dwalin could ask him, not after they agreed to pretend that nothing had ever happened. Nori was quiet in turn, shutting off and Dwalin felt how she could not speak to him at all, in fear of saying something wrong. He did not say anything about it either.

Did he not want to talk? Did he not care? Was he honouring their agreement even after they had gotten off together?

They had parted and Dwalin hadn’t returned to the company until much later. She had washed herself at the river, ignoring the iciness of its water, as she stayed for longer than necessary, simply staring at the current.

The need to know what had happened to her child and the fear of the truth being something terrible fought each other inside her chest, but neither of the feelings won, leaving Dwalin to simply wait, as things remained the same.

What she did know was that she wanted Nori back. She wanted him at her side, wanted him as they were before and wanted things to be new and good. Perhaps that meant that she needed to face the fate of her child, perhaps it meant that she had to push it aside for long enough to reforge what had been with Nori, so that they could face it together.

The sun was setting when Dwalin finally returned to camp, and Bofur was handing out the food his brother had cooked earlier. Glóin gave her a worried look as she sat down next to him, but otherwise didn’t question why she had been gone for so long. She had not stayed away for long enough to need to explain herself, and Thorin wouldn’t have missed his best warriors just yet either.

Unbidden her eyes focused on Nori as soon as she was relaxing. Somehow a part of her had hoped that he would acknowledge her in any way, smile, or give her furtive glances, quick smiles or anything to indicate that he was thinking of what they’d done. He wasn’t even looking her way though, his head resting against Ori’s shoulder as his arm was curled around him so that the little scribe would not be hindered in his writing. Nori seemed to be asleep even, completely at ease and vulnerable as he held on to his brother. Or maybe it just seemed that way to Dwalin.

A pang of envy hit Dwalin as she saw them, making her realize how much she wished to be in Ori’s place. How nice would it be to have Nori rest his head against her shoulder instead, to feel his body against her as he dozed peacefully, feeling safe and happy by her side? She’d hold him close, gently of course, or sit so that he wouldn’t be disturbed if there was something she needed to be doing. Maybe she’d play with the end of his braid, as she had loved to do once.

It wasn’t more than a stupid fancy again; she doubted that Nori would feel comfortable around her yet, or maybe ever again. Not to mention that it would seem so out of nowhere to the company, and Dwalin wanted no wagging tongues, nor did she want to deal with the surprise of her family as such public display wouldn’t be typical at all for her.

She watched Nori waking up as Bofur approached with the food, a little disoriented for the briefest of moments before grinning and accepting his bowl. They ate with some conversations going on around them, but Dwalin contented herself with eating and watching, somehow hoping to catch Nori’s eye.

Not once did his attention stray from Ori though, apart from the brief moments in which he’d glance towards the edge of the trees or the ponies, always returning to his brother right away. Dwalin watched him as Ori talked about something that must have excited him, chatting away as his brother listened and laughed with him. Not once did Nori look as if he was merely indulging him, and when Ori put aside his food to show him the latest pages in his journal there was pride in Nori’s eyes.

Dwalin nearly felt as if she was intruding in the little world the brothers shared then, and it made her wish for something of the kind as well. She had never lacked in affection with her brother or cousins, and yet she wanted to have Nori pay as much attention to her now.

She finished her meal and didn’t look over to Nori again as she readied herself for sleep after agreeing on the time she’d be on watch.

It was quiet in camp soon after, with everyone glad to get a good night of sleep on dry ground. Dwalin lay awake for longer than usual, on her side with her axes in easy reach. She wouldn’t be able to make out Nori’s bedroll the way she was laying even if she tried, but she wished she could watch him anyway. Her hand rested on the bit of empty space on her blanket that was left. Would it be comfortable to share that little space with Nori? They’d have to cuddle up together as close as they could to find space under the blankets.

The remaining warmth of her earlier climax was barely lingering anymore as she tried to dismiss the thought. Instead there was a frustration and longing in her chest, as Dwalin wished for Nori to be there to hold on to, just that, just hold him.

Her hand clenched against the blankets and she curled into herself, pushing aside all of it to try and get some sleep.

*

The following days did nothing to better Dwalin’s mood, and the longing in her heart only increased.

Listening to Nori joke and talk of this and that became increasingly harder, as the thief trailed off or didn’t speak at all when Dwalin was close enough to be overhear. Dwalin herself grew quieter, intensely watching Nori and forgetting to really talk between that and looking out for Thorin and his nephews, as well as keeping an eye on the surroundings.

At least there was no animosity between her and Nori anymore, no tension as if Nori waited for her to attack.

Instead it was just… awkward. And cold in a way.

In a company it was hard to always avoid someone, especially in such a small one. Sometimes there was the need to pass on food or drink or tools, and though Dwalin tried to stay away from Nori and content herself with just staring at him, she found herself in need to interact as well. It went the same way each time they came close enough to touch.

She would stare down at Nori, hoping to keep any trace of accidental glaring off her face and Nori would look at her with a furrowed brow. Their movements would grow slow and cautious, to be sure they didn’t touch each other. Dwalin would not lay hand on Nori before she was sure the touch was welcome and sometimes it seemed as if Nori did try to reach for her. He’d glance at her and avoid eye contact, or he’d seem nervous or speculative but never dared to follow through. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t proper interaction at all.

And this is exactly why one should not tumble company members you haven’t sorted your relationship out with before’ Dwalin thought to herself bitterly as she recognized the patterns of his behaviour.

Wasn’t it just wonderful? To find your lost love and then proceed to ruin it with harsh words and anger and now the awkward silence between two who’d had sex and were too awkward to even speak to each other afterwards of all things?

In all her years Dwalin had not found a sure way to dissolve such a situation. Ignoring or waiting for a sufficiently long time to be able to laugh about any awkwardness was the best thing she’d advise anyone, but she could not ignore Nori nor did she want to. Waiting was difficult as well when there was nothing more she wanted but to hold him against her side.

Sometimes Dwalin would watch Nori with his brothers as she waited. He didn’t mix with the rest of the company too much now, and when Dori fussed over him Nori would slip away. When the company was settled for the night he would stay though, let his older brother do what he wanted and cuddle up at his younger brother’s side. They slept curled up together as well.

Each time Dwalin saw the pang of envy hit her, and she hated how her yearning for the comfort was surging up so strongly now.

Even her cousins noticed that something was off about her behaviour.

Thorin asked her if she was doing fine as they plotted their path early one morning. Balin offered her a share of his own pipe weed after she spent ages glaring straight ahead to ban the imagine of Nori trying to nap astride on his pony out of her mind.

Glóin was the one to actually tried asking her about it, inquiring whether anything within the company was bothering her or whether something had come up. Óin watched as he asked Dwalin, so she assumed he shared his brother’s concerns but didn’t see them as something as pressing, as usually between these two. He promised her to help if there was anything he could do, and Dwalin had simply raised her eyebrows and sent him away.

Her weird mixture of a crush and awkwardness around someone she used to live with was her own problem, and truly her glower couldn’t be as bad as to alert her cousins more than this.

Things proceeded to be awkward between her and Nori, so Dwalin tried her best to not to impose on his personal space too much. No need to make things even more awkward and prolong the wait of trying to figure out how to deal with one another.

So far, Dwalin thought, this was the worst thing to happen in the company, even more so than the shock of seeing Nori again in the first place. That had worn off, but the longing and the brief taste of what could be if they just pulled themselves together grated on her nerves.

*

It always got worse just when the treacherous thought of ‘this is the worst thing’ dared to cross one’s mind.

Dwalin had never thought that the company was perfect as far as a group of warriors went, on such a dangerous mission especially. Most weren’t professional fighters, and some hadn’t even travelled much at all while also being young and quite inexperienced. She hadn’t expected too much of them.

When Fíli and Kíli crashed into the camp one night, frantically explaining something about trolls stealing ponies and their burglar needing support, Dwalin had thought how ridiculous everything was if even the princes somehow lost ponies to trolls of all things.

When their burglar got captured she hadn’t known what the princes had expected, to send somebody as small into such danger all on his own. It was a mild surprise when the entire company worked so well together to protect Bilbo and fight off the trolls, using each other and their weapons to get the best of three oversized creatures like that. Dwalin saw bodies nearly smashed with other Dwarves jumping to help, she saw swords digging into thick troll hide and more than once she was sure that Nori was right there, barely avoiding being trampled or kicked or pulled up right into danger.

The hope to defeat the creatures and get their ponies back was high, and Dwalin’s blood sung with the battle and the confidence of knowing how strong they were, how nothing could come in the way of a group of Dwarves working together… before the burglar got captured again, forcing Thorin to risk his death or surrender.

There was nothing quite so sobering as hanging tied to a pike with fire beneath you, not close enough to put them in danger of actually getting bruned but definitely close enough to be uncomfortable.

Half of their company was trapped like that, and the other half was tied up in bags. Part of Dwalin was glad that most of her family was down there, as they might figure out a way to escape, or even save the rest as well. As it was Dwalin was turned slowly, listening to Dori moan in distress at being sick from the motion, Bofur’s unnerving cheery tone all while growling and yelling as the burglar was making their situation even worse.

Somehow the trolls ended up distracted though, with Bilbo’s plan not being as stupid as Dwalin had initially assumed. With the wizard being there just in time to end what the burglar had started the trolls turned into stone and the company was saved.

It took some time to actually get everyone out of the bags and down from the pike, but in the end Dwalin was glad of how the company had worked to contribute their part in surviving the situation. She was one of the first to be cut off from the pike, relief flooding her as she had solid unmoving ground under her feet once more. As everyone else was dropping down Dwalin did her best to assist them, helping Bifur figure out what he had to do to get rid of the last of the ropes and then caught Ori gently to not have him fall on his face as he tried to struggle free.

Nori managed to land on his feet as he dropped down finally, but he staggered and would have fallen to his knees if Dwalin hadn’t reached out on instinct to steady him. He took a deep shuddering breath, once there finally wasn’t any rope pressing against his ribs and Dwalin noticed how Nori curled his arm around his stomach as if he was in pain. He must have gotten hit there earlier.

“Take it easy,” Dwalin grumbled softly, aware that Nori might get uncomfortable by her looming over him as she held him for as long as he needed to get to his feet.

Whatever his injuries were, Nori was a Dwarf, made to endure much worse than the last night, and after a few moments he straightened his back and stood with no support. Dwalin was about to step back and leave him be, but Nori glanced up at her with a brief grateful nod. They looked at each other without flinching away for several moments before Nori turned and walked off towards his brothers quickly, where Dori still looked quite pale but was trying to make sure that Ori was fine. Of course Nori would want to do that too.

Dwalin watched for a moment, waiting for but not feeling any envy. Perhaps she was still too exhausted from the fight, or maybe it was good that Nori had not pulled away because it was her, that he had shared touches and looks with her. As brief contact out of necessity, but after the past days it seemed like a major improvement.

She shook her head briefly and went to join Glóin in figuring out the belongings the trolls had taken off them earlier.

The moment of peace and rest and finding treasures in the stinking rotten troll hole was interrupted soon enough, first by a wizard even stranger looking than Gandalf, and then Wargs’ howling of all things.

Of course it always got worse.

Chapter Text

It was their own fault for not keeping a closer eye on where their ponies had run off to, for not trying to gather their things and just leave without getting distracted by a hoard and a wizard. Dwalin knew she could run for hours if push came to shove, an entire day without breaks perhaps. But though most of the other members of the company had been forced to run or walk steadily for days before she wasn’t sure if they could truly make it. Not to mention the Hobbit, who was weaker and less used to any of this, and who knew what the wizard was like when he needed to run?

Even with the new wizard’s help it was unlikely that they would manage to escape the Wargs, not on plain open field far off any settlement, warriors or mountains and rocks to hide in and shake their pursues off. More than once they came dangerously close to the beasts, each time narrowly avoiding being spotted, and more than once Dwalin and the others had to pull and push each other to keep any of the Dwarves from running too far and being noticed.

Dwalin felt the rush of her heart in her ears. Her hands were curling hard around her hammer in anticipation of slaying another Warg, of defending her family with all she had. It was foolish to believe that a bunch of giant rabbits would keep their attention from the Dwarves for long enough to completely lead them astray.

When the first Orc led their Warg dangerously close to the company they were trapped, waiting with baited breath and huddled together. They managed to slay that one Warg and its Orc, but the beast’s dying wail alerted all the rest.

There was an entire pack upon them then, running them into a corner, and the wizard managed to disappear with no trace as well.

Dwalin sneered and bared her teeth as she realized.

Who needed the damn geezer anyway? They were Dwarves, well armed, and desperate, and though they had one who could not fight in their midst and several young and inexperienced ones they would take down enough Orcs and Wargs to truly teach them to never mess with their kin again.

It never came to a fight, when Gandalf reappeared from between a few rocks, ushering everyone to run and hide in a crevice he’d found Mahal knew how.

If the hole turned out to lead nowhere they’d truly be trapped, but perhaps the narrow space and the rock would be enough of an advantage to risk it.

Dwalin was prepared to destroy the first Orc falling through the opening into their little hideout, but she wasn’t quite prepared for it already being slain with Elfish arrows. Or the crevice leading towards a light, growing taller even as it remained narrow. Nor for it opening up to reveal the houses of Elves she’d overheard Thorin speaking out against going to not so long ago.

Of course the wizard had managed to spin the danger they’d been in to getting his way.

Dwalin scoffed as Thorin voiced his displeasure about it and leaned against her hammer to look down towards the house nestled between the cliffs. Her family was beside her, looking down as well, and Nori stood silently at the edge of the stairs leading down, watching quietly.

If things didn’t get worse, they didn’t get better either it seemed.

*

Dwalin decidedly could not stand Elves, and never would attempt to try.

They thought they were better than a bunch of exhausted beaten down Dwarves, riding in on their tall horses with shiny armour, simply to show off and try to rile them up with their Elfish tongue to exclude them from conversation. At least their offered food and a place to rest, even if their hospitality probably only came from the Lord of Rivendell knowing Gandalf well. Even Glóin wouldn’t turn down the offer of food.

As they walked through the long and winding walkways and stairs of the Elves’ home Thorin joined Lord Elrond and Gandalf at the front, seeing as he was the leader of the company, with Balin trailing behind. Bilbo walked close as well, both because he was the wizard’s favourite and because he seemed to be fascinated by the Elves. Why, Dwalin couldn’t understand.

The rest of the Dwarves kept close enough to be with their King in less than a second, but far away enough to quietly whisper and grumble among themselves. The Elves might hear, with their large pointy ears catching the sound, but not even Balin’s sharp looks would stop them from complaining or being rude.

“You think they’ll poison us?” Bofur asked as somebody complained about how long the walk was and how hungry everyone was.

“What do Elves even eat?” Ori whispered nervously, with both his brothers briefly petting his shoulder in reassurance.

“Nothing sensible,” Glóin snorted and Bofur grinned.

“Doubt they’ll be tight on the good stuff, they gotta show off after all.”

In front of them the Elf was speaking about the Orcs now, and the company briefly listened up.

“- normally the Orcs are repelled by the power in our borders,” Elrond was explaining as Bilbo and Thorin listened quietly.

“We saw how well that worked,” Glóin muttered.

Nori grinned quietly, and Dwalin only saw because she’d been glancing at her cousin, and past him at the thief.

“It’s the scent that sends the Orcs running. They drown themselves in sickly sweet flower perfume up to their pointy ears, and looks like our Orcs lacked noses or grew immune.”

It earned him a round of snickers and a few pained looks from the Elves walking by. Dwalin couldn’t stifle her own laugh.

She wasn’t sure why Nori picked it out specifically, but his eyes turned to her, meeting her gaze for a moment. He looked mildly surprised, and a little hesitant. Dwalin didn’t look away though, and Nori’s lips twitched into a smile of his own before he turned back to watching the Elves.

The Elves had set out a few small tables that would be suitable for the Dwarves and the Hobbit, and one tall one for Gandalf and Lord Elrond. Thorin joined them there, with only the slightest reluctance Dwalin could see on him.

She didn’t expect Nori to sit down by her side at the very edge of the table, again throwing her a hesitant look before doing so. He smiled when Dwalin didn’t send him away or frown and turned to inspect the fancy cutlery.

They were served plates of scrapped lettuce leaves and atrocious music, and Dwalin half wished to be back in the wild with Orcs too close for comfort. This wasn’t a meal at all, but at least she was sure they could feast on their provisions or whatever they’d find in the kitchens later on.

There was some entertainment to be found in watching the rest of her kin. Kíli tried to act all worldly and clever while commenting on the Elves and trying to apply foreign concepts to them, and all around the table Dwarves were picking apart their food and complaining. The Elves seemed mildly scandalized by anything their overheard, and none of the Dwarves tried to keep it down, apart from Balin, who was having a quiet conversation with Bilbo.

Dori was trying to coax Ori into eating the thing the Elves had tried to pass for a proper meal, and Nori stuffed a saltshaker and some unused silver forks into his jacket while his brothers were distracted. Dwalin could only try to hide her smirk at that. Knowing Nori he’d probably hide all he took around various nooks and crannies around Rivendell when he got the chance. He’d done it a few times in taverns, once even rooting her into participating by watching his back and helping him reach a high up shelf.

It was so comforting to see that Nori had relaxed around her and how natural any interaction felt. Nori included Dwalin in the jokes he told to the others around them, and he didn’t stiffen or flinch when Dwalin accidentally bumped her arm against his, and instead nudged back as well. It made Dwalin want to show more affection that just that camaraderie. But pulling him in for a one-armed hug or brushing back the hair that had escaped his peaks would be too much. They weren’t just among Dwarves after all, and even if they were, it’d be inappropriate and Dwalin did really like showing affection in public like this.

They sang together when Bofur decided to climb a short socket to show the Elves how proper musical entertainment worked, and later Nori was still unfazed by Dwalin’s presence as everyone decided to use the chance to bath and wash their clothes in one of the Elves’ fountains.

By the time the company started to tire and dragged their bedrolls off to sleep in nice secluded corners but still close to each other just in case Dwalin felt near giddy with the content with everything. She could nearly forget where they were even, and that things only seemed fine between her and Nori.

The way they managed to get along made her feel bold as well.

Dwalin set up her bedroll near the balustrades of one of the strange open hallways of Rivendell, her axes leaning against it in easy reach. It was a sort of balcony it seemed, out of the way from anyone who might walk there. When she was just about to crawl under her blanket she saw Nori passing by, his things still in his arms and heading where Dwalin knew his brothers didn’t sleep that night. He paused briefly when he saw Dwalin, and something made her stretch out her arm a little to pat the space by her side in invitation.

She half expected Nori to startle and move away quickly, given how things went each time they were on their own in relative privacy. He didn’t though, just walked over and spread out his things so he would lie by Dwalin’s side.

Dwalin held her breath as Nori crawled under his blanket, and after a brief hesitation scooted closer to curl up against her, under her own blanket that she was still holding up for herself. He was stiff for a moment, watching her reactions, and only relaxed when Dwalin shifted for him to be able to rest his head against her arm and curl up closer.

“… this is nice,” Dwalin whispered to him, in case he needed any more reassurance that all of this was fine, that she wouldn’t snap at him.

Her chin was buried in Nori’s hair like this, and she could feel the tip of his nose brushing against her skin where her shirt had opened a little.

Nori’s hand curled around the edge of Dwalin’s shirt slightly, just holding on to it.

“I missed this.”

He sounded so tired as he said it, but it really seemed as if he was simply exhausted.

They lay like this for a little while before Dwalin felt like she had to speak again.

“Should we talk?” she tried, afraid that Nori would bolt again. She had to make sure he knew it was fine though.

He turned his head to look at the ceiling, listening. The voices of the company carried in the distance and Dwalin had seen Elves pass by on a path below.

“I don’t know,” Nori finally said with a pained voice.

“Not here? Not… not now?”

“Alright,” Dwalin agreed, hoping that Nori wouldn’t be too torn over this. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to talk now.

Perhaps it was out of line but Dwalin pressed a brief reassuring kiss to Nori’s forehead and pulled him in closer. He sighed and curled his own arm around her waist and shifted to be more comfortable.

It was fine like this, Dwalin thought before she fell asleep with Nori in her arms. It was fine enough to almost pretend that things were completely good the way they were now.

Chapter Text

The paths through the Misty Mountains were old and difficult and not what they once had been. It was difficult to get through them in parts, but despite how peaceful the rest in Rivendell had been Dwalin was just glad to be out in the wild with solid rock under her feet. They were slowly moving up to higher altitudes than they had been in since they’d left the Blue Mountains, and only actually being inside halls carved out by Dwarves would make Dwalin happier.

That’s where there were headed after all, to the great lost halls of Erebor, and the thought of finishing the quest and returning what was theirs burned brighter in Dwalin’s chest now that they were on rocky ground and her personal issues had moved to the back of her mind.

It was strange how much her mood had improved just by virtue of getting along with Nori again.

Nori talked to her normally, as to anyone else in the company now, and he’d smile at her when there was reason to, and sometimes for none Dwalin could see. He’d joke and sometimes he’d pass her by and whisper the punch line just to her, a secret between them.

It used to be like that when they were young and among other young and optimistic Dwarves in a small village at the very edge of Ered Luin. It made Dwalin feel like she was a young lass again, as if there was nothing to care for as she walked with the company as if it was just another caravan. It made Dwalin forget some of her seriousness and relax and be more willing to tolerate the jokes cracked around her.

They had things to think of, things to discuss, important things, and they would. Just not now. Not on this quest where danger was lurking everywhere and there was little privacy for such a serious talk.

Not to mention that Dwalin did not want to break the strange carefree feeling of everything being right with Nori. Just like being in love with him for the very first time, like being free and young and stupid and secure in knowing that everything would be good. Dwalin had missed this feeling, and now she selfishly wanted to cherish it for as long as possible.

It was a little hard trying to contain that strange reckless feeling bubbling up in her chest, and keep up her usual appearance of calm focus. She wanted to be silly and join in on any joke or whisper with Nori and flirt openly, only of course that would make everyone else in the company suspicious. Not only would it just be against all Dwalin was like normally for her to act silly now, it was also known that she and Nori had a tense relationship, for whatever reasons. Dwalin did have a reputation to be especially gruff and relentless about thieves and small-time criminals.

Nori seemed to feel the same way, at least a little bit, if Dwalin was judging his furtive glances, suppressed smiles and flirty expressions before his eyes darted to his brothers and he quickly went on pretending as if nothing had happened.

Sensible to try and keep anyone from noticing anything strange, sensible to perhaps try not to do anything stupid before they even had a talk, like the adults they were.

Of course, in Dwalin’s current state of mind it just made her feel like mischief. So when the company found a bigger mountain ledge with a small shallow cave and rocks, scrubs and even slender trees to shelter them against wind and weather, Dwalin could not help but notice how this sort of place would be a good opportunity for some privacy.

The day hadn’t been too cold, and with the protection from harsh wind the company stretched out their camp further than they normally would. There was space for it after all, and there were few enough of them to not have that space be crowded. Leaning against rocks and between the trees really did offer more sense of being in a relaxed trip than they’d had in weeks.

Dwalin sat a little away from the fire, where their dinner was prepared, tending to her weapons quietly, her eyes roaming over the area. It really was a perfect place, and she wanted

She took great care to keep her posture relaxed, lost in the familiar motions of handling her axes and oiling up her knuckledusters. Only once did Dwalin let her face shift, when Nori happened to glance at her, pausing briefly as he saw her catch his eye. He raised his eyebrows, and Dwalin let her lips twist into a wicked grin, full of promise and heat, and Nori recognized that look, judging by the way his cheeks briefly flushed red and he quickly turned away from her.

Dwalin allowed herself a satisfied grin before returning her attention to her gear for the rest of the evening.

As the company ate and enjoyed the brief break of the hard road Dwalin didn’t let on that anything in her mood was different than usual. She joked around with Thorin and Glóin, listened as Balin explained to the young Dwarves and Bilbo what he knew of the area, and watched as Ori showed her sketches from his book. Only once did she break that behaviour, as Nori passed by her to collect everyone’s empty bowls and wash them at a stream.

Grabbing his shoulder as Nori walked by, Dwalin leaned down to whisper in his ear.

“My bedroll, when everyone’s asleep,” she growled, low and seductive and she felt Nori’s shiver just before letting him go and moving along as if nothing had been said at all.

An invitation like that was just how sellswords and warriors would go about find a bed mate on long journeys, somebody warm to hold and share pleasure with in the nights, sometimes for as long as they were out in the wild, sometimes just once. Nori didn’t have to take it, and perhaps he’d not want to even be with Dwalin with so many others around. Still, Dwalin felt the hunger deep in her belly, and she would have him, if Nori wanted as well.

The sun disappeared quick behind the mountaintops, and it didn’t take long before the company started to settle down for sleep. Dwalin took her bedroll and paced around their campsite briefly, looking out for any dangers before going to sleep and also thinking about what spot would be comfortable and sheltered enough in case she got lucky. After finding one Dwalin made sure that Nori could see her setting up her bedroll by some trees and bushes, closer to the path they’d taken up to reach their camping site.

It had grass and fallen leaves, making it softer, and would hide her from view just a little bit, especially in the dark. To anyone else it would seem as if Dwalin was simply preparing herself for the unlikely case of somebody following the company. For Nori it would be an easy way to find her. Not that Dwalin thought Nori might have trouble finding her bedroll in the dark, but best not risk somebody noticing his longer search.

As darkness fell over the camp and only a very low glow of the fire illuminated the sleeping Dwarves, Dwalin watched how Nori shifted in his bedroll. He raised his head just enough to look around and check whether anyone but Dwalin was watching him, before Nori rolled out and soundlessly moved away from the firelight and into the night. Dwalin waited as she started out into the darkness around their camp, unable to tell where Nori was moving or how long it would take him.

Her entire body was tense in pleasant anticipation by the time Nori slipped out from beneath a tree, on the opposite side of her. Dwalin growled low in her throat to show her appreciation when he knelt by her side to crawl into her bedroll and out of everyone’s sight.

Nori’s lips were hot as Dwalin dragged him the rest of the way, pressing their bodies together.

“Impatient,” Nori chuckled when Dwalin released him for a moment.

“Get naked,” Dwalin growled her reply before she kissed him again, all teeth and roughness, making it impossible for Nori to obey.

They did manage to discard some of their clothes eventually, fingers clumsy in their desire as they fought with laces and buttons, until Dwalin’s shirt was open enough for Nori’s lips to latch onto her skin, and Dwalin managed to shove a hand down Nori’s pants. It was awkward, the way they had to lie so none would see them, and try to restrict their motions so there wouldn’t be any noise or rash movements, but it looked as if both of them had enough experience in secrecy to still enjoy themselves with those restrictions.

After a few moments of awkward fumbling and messy kisses Nori pulled away from Dwalin, wiggling a little until his lips found her chest.

Dwalin let out a soundless moan, melting a little as Nori’s tongue played with her nipple, gentle and sharp when he sucked, one hand sneaking under her shirt to pay some attention to the other one as well. He’d always been so good at this, very observant of Dwalin’s shivers of pleasure and the way she’d squeeze him closer.

It was pleasant, and so good to do it like this again, but Dwalin wanted more, and watching Nori melt in her arms was one of them.

Their bodies weren’t touching everywhere, so Dwalin dragged her hand along Nori’s stomach and pushed at his pants, until her fingers wrapped around his already hard cock. Nori let out a hiss when her rough hand started moving up and down along it, stroking it crudely but with care and effort in making Nori feel as good as she only could.

He was so small and lean against her, deliciously contrasted by her thickly muscled arms when Dwalin pressed Nori closer to herself, her hand speeding up. She could feel his strength, the tremble of his entire body as he tried to stifle his curses, could feel how hard Nori fought the tiny cries that still managed to escape his lips.

After only a few moments Nori bit Dwalin’s skin under her collarbone hard, fighting his need to moan and beg. Dwalin sped her hand up, pleased by the sharp pleasure of it. His teeth would leave a mark, but it would be low enough that nobody would be able to see it.

Dwalin got what she wanted, not giving Nori the time to compose himself or him breaking his silence to ask for her to slow down. He came with a whimper against her skin, face hidden against Dwalin’s beard and she petted him as she finished him off with a few last strokes.

The bush next to Dwalin’s bedroll had soft leaves, conveniently, so she plucked some to gently wipe both her hand and Nori up so they would not be filthy and sticky later.

Nori was completely limp in her arms when Dwalin returned her full attention to him. Shivering and happy and clinging to her.

“That was good,” Nori breathed after a few moments, his voice so tender and gentle that Dwalin nearly felt a little bit guilty for the heat in her belly and how she still wanted to do the filthiest things with him.

Her brief worry was unfounded, as Nori’s hand found his way to her beard, fingers tangling in it until he could give it a nice tug. The grin he gave her was positively wicked.

“So… what do you want me to do to you?” he whispered, low and full of promise. “I’d do anything you like.”

Dwalin’s mouth watered at the thought of what she wanted Nori to do, but she couldn’t ask for everything. Not where they were. She’d like for Nori to fuck her, but he’d just spent and she was not that patient right now. She’d want to fuck him, if she had any of the toys for this. Besides, it would cause too much movement and noise to do so the way she wanted to, so that was out of the question. There was so much she wanted, how was she to decide?

The hesitation must have been noticeable, as Nori smirked.

“My mouth? Would you like this?”

“Yessss,” Dwalin growled, and slippery as an eel Nori escaped her hold and crawled away from her.

He pushed the bedroll’s blanket to the side, low against the ground as he waited for Dwalin to push her pants out of the way and lay down comfortably. The anticipation nearly made Dwalin’s movements too rash, yet somehow she managed not to tear her clothes. She did take the time to ball up her discarded vest and blanket enough to use as a pillow, propped up enough to see. Nori’s eyes shone when he realized, and he licked his lips, still far more patient than Dwalin could have been in his position.

“Go on,” she urged, spreading her legs to bare herself to Nori’s sight.

She didn’t have to tell him twice. Nori made himself comfortable between her legs, gave Dwalin one last grin and set to work.

In contrast to his earlier restraint there was no preamble in Nori’s actions now. The first broad lick of his tongue had Dwalin shudder in pleasure, the next, harder ones, had her throw back her head, defeating the purpose of the makeshift pillow she’d made for herself.

Nori was good at what he did, very much so. He’d always been careful at judging her reactions and giving Dwalin just what she wanted without needing to ask for it too often. One hand on her spread her lips further, the other petting and squeezing Dwalin’s side Nori did his best, sucking and licking, making sure he was paying attention to all of her, exploring her preferences.

It was all Dwalin could do to remember not to make a noise or grab a handful of Nori’s hair to pull, as he tended to her so beautifully.

Dwalin’s orgasm hit her like a rockslide, making her tense up and strain against the self imposed silence. Nori’s mouth did not leave its position, though he gentled his touch as Dwalin rutted against him. Finally the wave of pleasure ebbed away, and Dwalin went slack, sighing her pleasure.

Nori rose up a little, grinning as he gently moved his head to get rid of the tension in his neck. Dwalin must have squeezed him a little too, as she’d been lost in the sensations. They both straightened their clothes and put on what had been discarded but wouldn’t bother in their sleep, even as Dwalin struggled with her pants, made harder by how wobbly her legs had gotten.

“Good?” he asked, chuckling when Dwalin pulled him down to lie by her side and kissed him instead of a reply.

“Your tongue’s talented,” Dwalin observed when they broke the kiss.

Nori hummed, pleased by the compliment, and lay down more comfortably with his head rested on Dwalin’s arm. He was completely relaxed and content at Dwalin’s side, and even through the haze of her pleasure Dwalin could feel just how nice this was as well.

“At your service, Dwalin.”

They both had to stifle a laugh.

Dwalin’s arm snaked around Nori’s waist, pulling him closer for comfort and warmth, and after a while he hooked his ankle over her leg, content to just stay. Eventually he would have to get up lest they fell asleep and had somebody discover them in this position, but for now Dwalin was basking in her pleasure too much to remind him of that possibility.

“We should do it again?” Nori asked after a while, propping himself up against Dwalin’s shoulder to better see her face as he waited for her reaction.

She hummed, letting her fingers run over Nori’s back.

“Of course, if we find such a convenient spot again,” she said, before grinning wickedly. “That, or a tree for a very quick time away from the company.”

Nori returned her grin, tugging at her beard.

“Isn’t that a bit risky? What if anyone were to see us? I’d be daylight after all.”

“You’d pass up my mouth on your cock because of light? Have you gone proper, Nori?”

Dwalin could feel Nori’s entire body shiver at her suggestion, eyes bright in the little light there was.

“Well for this I might just go back to my scoundrel ways.”

Dwalin rested her hand against Nori’s neck, pulling him closer so she could let her voice rumble near his ear.

“I’d swallow you up whole, holding in place so you can’t do anything but let me pleasure you as nicely as you did for me just now. Would suck you off too, so my beard stays nice and neat.”

Nori only barely suppressed a moan.

“Would there be time for you to use me for your own pleasure then?” he asked.

“Oh of course. But if there wasn’t, I could be patient.”

To her surprise Nori snorted at that.

“What is it?” she asked, curious to know how he found something hilarious in this.

“Oh nothing, just… we can do everything, can’t we now?” Nori asked in return, a happy little smile spreading on his face.

Dwalin squeezed him briefly, pleased by that, before sighing.

“Well, not everything,” she mused. “Can’t fuck you properly with nothing on hand.”

Nori made a disappointed noise at that.

“We can find other ways. Though I do miss you pounding into me, all nice and hard… or slow and filthy…” Nori said, smiling at the memory.

“Likewise,” Dwalin purred. “Both doing that to you and getting fucked as well. If I had anything for protection… I want you in me, bad, but we know in what sort of trouble being careless ends in.”

Dwalin knew she should not have joked like that even before seeing Nori’s smile freeze.

“Nori-“ she tried, cursing herself as she saw the way his happy expression melted into a sad one.

She’d been so angry, had hurt him over and over in everything she’d done since the day she decided to do her duty and leave him, had moved past it and felt her anger crumble to reveal the golden glow of her affection… just to go and hurt Nori again with speaking of what they could have had as if it was bad, as if it was a joke.

Nori stiffened before he started to pull away from Dwalin a little. She wanted to hold him, promise him that she’d not meant it, but who was she to force him to stay?

“I’m-“

Sorry’ she wanted to say, but Nori shook his head a little as he sat up.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m just tired and I have to go back to my family before Dori realizes I’m gone.”

Dwalin pressed her lips together, nodding in understanding. She watched as Nori moved towards the shadows of the trees, where he’d come from. Before he slipped out of sight Nori looked back, and he gave Dwalin a small smile that lifted some of the weight on her heart. He wasn’t angry with her at least.

Something in Dwalin cracked as she could not help noticing just how pained and sad Nori had looked despite it. She settled down as she waited for Nori to return to his own bedroll. The sadness in his expression made her feel bitter and upset as well. If she had been thinking about what she was saying, those words would have never left her mouth. Now wasn’t the time to be making light of their past. They might be speaking and enjoying each other again, but they had not processed what had happened between them yet.

After a while Nori had circled the camping space and reached his own bedroll without anyone but Dwalin noticing. He didn’t look over apart from a brief look around without lingering, before settling down by Ori’s side. His brothers had not noticed his brief enough absence, both very close to each other for warmth. Ori had cuddled around his scarf, which he’d taken off before sleep, and Dori looked very peaceful as he slept still as a stone. Dwalin could see how Nori was slowly edging closer to Ori, before they were nearly touching, before he stopped moving to try and sleep.

Seeing them made Dwalin’s heart ache once more. Seeing Nori with his family, close and safe and together just made her yearn for having this with him as well. Their child would probably be at that age where they might think cuddling up with family for sleep might be for very little ones, before realizing that the warmth and comfort provided on the road were just too nice to pass up.

With a heavy sigh Dwalin pulled her blanket closer around herself, trying to push that jealousy away.

She would have to corner Nori, demand that he tell her all as soon as they could grab those few minutes needed for privacy… proper privacy to talk in more than whispers. Perhaps talking instead of sharing their pleasure now might have been a little bad, given how somebody eavesdropping on that would be much worse than somebody seeing her sharing her bedroll with Nori. But they should talk; she wasn’t a child anymore, to react to bad or upsetting news too obviously. She would keep her cool, would not let anything on, she just had to…

As soon as Dwalin could, she needed to know the truth.

*

The storm had taken hold of the mountain quickly and only mere hours after the company set out the next day. At first it was the darkness and the wind that bothered Dwalin the most, given how the lightning would create confusing and ever moving shadows. The path was precarious as it was in the rain and with a deep abyss so close, making cracks and loose stones harder to see only complicated the matter. Of course even Dwarves with a weaker sense of the ground below would stand sure on any rock, but a storm was a foreign element.

Wind might blow them off, stones might crack or crash down from above, the rain water made it hard to see and could make one slip, not to mention that Bilbo was among them, and could not navigate the rock the way his companions could. The Dwarves would hold on to him, with Bofur sometimes taking Bilbo’s hand to guide him along and help him find rocks to hold on to.

Dwalin gritted her teeth and tried to blink through the rain. She’d never liked this about the surface, the way water would just appear to drench everything like that. The sun’s heat was fine, wind and frost and even snow that nearly reached up to her shoulders, all a reasonable bother to deal with. But never rain.

As they edged their way along the idea of shelter was passed back and forth, though it wasn’t likely they’d find something anytime soon. Maybe never, with their luck. Dwalin kept an eye out for Ori and Bilbo, who walked the closest to her. It was her duty to see the entire company safe, even if Bilbo clearly was not made for crossing mountains. He was not the kind of person who’d do well wandering out into the wild, which became more and more apparent. While Ori had never ventured this far from Ered Luin, and most likely had never wandered in the mountain paths in such weather, he did much better. It seemed to Dwalin that Ori’s sense of the stone wasn’t much developed yet, and the instinctive feel of balance of the stone had not been honed either. He simply was very young for that, so Dwalin tried to make sure he was fine as well.

She cursed under her breath as the storm picked up force more and more. It seemed to Dwalin as if the entire world was growling under her feet as she gave up trying to wipe the rain water off her face.

When Bofur and Balin started calling louder than the rest, pointing and confirming that the world was growling in movement, because there were Stormgiants around Dwalin didn’t even have a curse left.

They ran as quick as possible when the rocks moved and everyone realized that they’ve been walking on one of the creatures. Dwalin feel the security of where she was stepping anymore. A Dwarf could walk on any mountain that possibly could be crossed, but they were not meant to try and balance a moving living thing standing and fight with others of its kind.

One couldn’t fight a mountain, and one could do nothing against the giants. When the company got separated as the giant took a step Dwalin was stuck on the leg of the thing, and there was nothing she could do to protect herself or the others around her but hold on to the rock as best as she could. She’d managed to push Ori against the rock and hold on to him a little, but there wasn’t much she could do to help him stay on the giant under the circumstances either.

To her it was like a rush, with the moments passing quicker than a heartbeat seemingly. The giant stood and fought and lost, crashing down as fast as it had come to life (which was still slower than a Dwarf would have moved). The little separated group felt the jerk going through the entire rock, and then they were rushing towards the rock side of the actual mountains, rushing towards death by being crushed between the stone.

Dwalin’s hand was holding on to Ori’s cloak as they jumped towards the relatively safe cliff, dragging him along to do what little she could do in this situation. Then there was rock and dust and an ear-splitting crash of rock against rock, and they weren’t moving or falling any longer.

When the sight had cleared a little they were lying in a heap, and the rest of the company caught up before Dwalin could even get a sense of where they were exactly. Through the rain she could recognize Thorin’s shoulders slumping in relief at seeing them alive, as opposed to crushed to death, and the rest of her family behind him.

There was no time to make sure everyone who’d been with her on the giant was uninjured, as Bofur’s shout alarmed them about how Bilbo had not made it all the way to the ledge. At least Dwalin could do something when Thorin jumped to the rescue, and she was there to catch her oldest friend and pull him to safety.

The path was too narrow and the danger still too close, so the company didn’t linger. They moved on until they found a cave, and only then did everyone feel the relief of making it out of the rain and the danger. It was only then that Dwalin realized how close they’d all been to death.

She went to look at the back of the cave, finding it to be empty, and not very deep either, and as she turned she saw how the families were in their groups, looking over each other. Nori and Dori were closest to her, both making sure that Ori had not been hurt. While Dori seemed to be trying to compose himself Nori was clinging to his little brother, holding him in an embrace and whispering something Dwalin could not hear. He looked so distraught there, that Dwalin nearly wanted to take him in her arms in turn to assure him that all was well now.

Of course he’d be like that, seeing how much Dori and Nori were doting on the youngest of their family. It had been Dwalin once, when she was a very little and very cute lass, and later it had been Dís and even later than that Kíli as the baby of the family.

For a moment Nori’s attention wandered from Ori, and he looked up to see Dwalin standing there, watching. His eyes moved over her, taking in how she was unharmed, before meeting her gaze. He pressed his lips together, looking at her in the same worried way he’d acted towards Ori now, before returning his attention to his brothers.

Dwalin averted her eyes and went to see if her bedroll had been drenched by the rain or no.

Everyone settled down for the night, glad to have a spot out of the rain, and soon enough Nori was back to his old self, quiet preparing for sleep like everyone else.

The ground was soft enough, and it was one of the more pleasant shelters Dwalin could remember in such areas. Especially given the ordeal they’d survived. There wasn’t much space so the company lay in rows, their snoring very soon filling the cave. Dwalin was right across from Nori she saw, and he used to take some time before he could fall asleep.

She glanced around at the others, wondering if there was any way to move over to him and hold him, or at least reassure him that she hadn’t been hurt. Of course there wasn’t in such a narrow space, and Dwalin wasn’t quite sure if Nori even needed any comfort. He hadn’t asked after all. Dwalin took a brief moment to consider whether she would ask for any kind of closeness or reassurance if she’d been the one on solid ground and Nori had been out stuck on a giant’s moving leg. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how that would feel like.

It was not something Dwalin wanted to waste much thought on now, so she stopped trying to. After all they’d had to deal with already she had no wish to imagine worse scenarios. Taking advantage of her ability to fall into light sleep quickly, Dwalin closed her eyes and ignored all such things until the situation was a more pleasant one.

She slept quietly, until something within the rock made a cracking sound, and the ground broke away under the company, with nothing but a too late shout to warn them.

Chapter Text

Falling wasn’t the worst of it. In his long and varied career on the wrong side of the law Nori had fallen more than once; down cliffs, down strange ducts and down into traps that left bruises and scraped skin. The disorientation of being asleep in a cold cave and suddenly being surrounded by rock in all the wrong ways and see lamps and other Dwarves flash before his eyes out of nowhere was enough to make this one of the least pleasant falls Nori had suffered through. Landing was fine on its own.

It was the first thing he saw that made it so disconcerting to him. Seeing a flash of teeth and a sea of ugly swollen and rotten looking skin before him, only breaking apart into the twisted bodies of a goblin hoard storming towards him after a few heartbeats. The shouts of his companions when they tried to reach for their weapons or fight tooth and nail when that first reaction was futile. Clawed hands gripping his arms and dragging him up and forwards despite his struggles. Dwalin and Bifur’s snarling above all others. Dori shaking his attackers off like a hound would get rid of nasty little critters but stopping when he saw the sheer amount he’d have to face and how Ori was already captured. Ori’s wide brown eyes flashing by Nori’s vision too briefly to even have the time to yell-

That was what made the knot of panic in his stomach set in. That was what made the treacherous thought of ‘we might not get out’ cross his mind despite usually being calm even when the first few attempts to get out of a sticky situation didn’t work out.

Some how Nori was able to resist being lead away by the Goblins for longer than anyone else; though it seemed just to be chance given how the company could not be taken over the strange narrow paths and bridges more than two at a time.

Nori shook and snarled and snapped his teeth with no improvement on his situation whatsoever. Each time he thought he’d shaken a pair of hands; another was there to grab hold of the empty spot on his arm. His hair flew into his face as he shook and kicked, to no avail.

For a split second he saw a glimpse of Bilbo, behind where the goblins where, as if they’d let go of him, as if he had been overlooked. He looked just as startled by that as Nori was surprised, though the flicker of hope Nori felt was gone near instantly.

Tricking trolls out in the open was one thing, but somehow getting the entire company out of a hive of Goblins seemed like a little too much for a hobbit. That was, if Bilbo didn’t decide to take the chance and flee, which Nori might have done if his brother and son weren’t in here with him as well. And Dwalin. He could not abandon Dwalin even if he had the chance to safe Dori and Ori, and then there was Thorin with his nephews, and Bifur, and-

Just for an instant the hope returned when Dwalin, being just a few feet ahead of Nori, managed to throw her weight around and shake her arms off the attackers around her. Just for a moment it seemed like she’d get through, her eyes focused on Nori, who was closest to her of their companions. She reached out, trying to get to him and rid him of his own predicament, but Nori never managed to reach past those Goblins dragging him.

The moment was gone as well, and as they started crossing a final bridge Nori’s eyes fell on the platform that seemed to be their destination. A throne towered over all else, easy to see for all the creatures gathering around the caverns and the edges of the tunnels that stretched endlessly wherever Nori glanced.

There really wasn’t a way out of that one.

Nori forced himself to remain calm, locking away the twisting feeling of sickness in his stomach. He would be of no use to anyone if all he could think of was how he might have to watch his companions die. He would be no use if the Goblins noticed who he was the most nervous about, and chose to pick them off first.

It wasn’t the first time he was being detained, nor was it the first time anyone frisked him. It was easier to focus on that and be reminded of the many encounters with the law he’s had, rather than to think of what was going on right in front of him. Easy to act like a caught thief who knew he’d done something wrong, given how he was just that most of the time anyway.

Of course, all the precaution and the feigned calm meant nothing if the Goblin King picked somebody to start with and happened to pick the one Nori cared for the most on accident, just because Ori looked to be the youngest.

There was no time for Nori to feel fear over Ori’s immediate safety when Thorin stepped forward, foolishly. Knowing the company had their King among them would probably only make it worse on the long run. There wasn’t even time to worry about Thorin either, when a flash of light was knocking them all over, blinding everyone briefly but long enough for wizard to appear out of nowhere and call for the Dwarves to gather their weapons and run.

Battle made it easier to forget how he might have had to watch his son be tortured before his eyes. The sooner Nori could forget the image of the various devices the Goblins had dragged along, the better. He could push it out of his mind near perfectly as he let the image of his blade sinking into a Goblin’s back replace the forming memory.

In the rush of it Nori nearly thought they could get out. Even when they were cornered. Even if Gandalf’s brief fight with the Goblin King had the bridge they stood on crack and fall. Even when Nori was crushed under the weight of rocks and wood and a giant carcass pushing down on him until he could not breathe, he didn’t lose that glimmer of hope. How could he, when Dwalin was there to drag him out and carry him until his feet could support his weight once more and Dori and Ori were running ahead, both of them unharmed?

It was only when Nori had completely calmed down from the rush and thought himself safe on the mountainside with the setting sun above them, and the Wargs’ howls reached them that he felt the resignation of death on him. There really wasn’t a way one could escape from Wargs and burning trees and an abyss surrounding them. Not with their family hanging over that abyss clinging to a branch and his love screaming for her King with none of them able to do anything. Luck would run out eventually.

No matter how good you were at making plans and getting out of tricky situations, that was just beyond anything a thief could live through.

*

Nori was shaking as he watched the small stream they stopped at run along the rocks. It was about an hour before dawn and the Dwarves had only taken the briefest break before climbing down from the Carrock the Eagles had dropped them off at. There was no time as long as they were still in the Misty Mountains and didn’t know how quick the Orcs might travel.

It now had been about three days with only the barest amount of sleep, and Nori could feel the rush of the danger starting to not be enough to keep him going. He felt sick from the exhaustion and the lack of food that didn’t consist of dried meat and the few snacks they’d carried in their pockets. Not to mention the stress of being pursued and having to worry for his companions. For once he actually liked the people he was surrounded with, and wanted to see them through this just as much as he wanted to survive.

Daring a brief glance towards Dwalin was all Nori permitted himself as far as she went, but Dori sticking close to him was soothing for once, so he didn’t get tempted to search her out. When they had made it to the foot of the Carrock Dwalin had pulled Nori in one crushing embrace before letting go and then joining Thorin along with Balin, to make sure he could even walk and help him lead them out. Not that Nori minded that, even if he wanted her close. They couldn’t really show too much affection anyway, besides, she was a warrior and much more suited to lead them through this alive.

Clinging to Ori or Dori’s sleeve occasionally would be enough to keep him from feeling overwhelmed by his exhaustion for now.

At least they had the briefest break now, as Thorin and Gandalf had asked Bilbo to climb up some rocks and carefully look for any signs of Wargs or other dangers. These lands weren’t save, and Nori did not relish the thought of having to deal with unknown dangers.

He leaned against some rocks heavily, cupping his hands to let the water stream into them. They shook, they were dirty from climbing and fighting, but barely any water-skin had made it through the Misty Mountains, so Nori had not been able to drink since the last stream they’d found. Even the tiny sips he was able to take at a time seemed like the sweetest mead to him.

“Are you well?” Ori asked from behind Nori, nearly startling him.

If Nori was so exhausted that he couldn’t even register his own son’s footsteps, what chance did he stand against an Orc sneaking up on him? At least they tried to sneak, while Ori stepped over some loose rocks without even looking where he was putting his feet.

“What does it look like?” Nori asked with a crooked grin.

Ori rolled his eyes and kneeled down at the stream to peal off his mitts and take a drink as well.

“You look no better than any of us. Except for Thorin maybe.”

Nori snorted, thinking of how their King had nearly served as Warg feed earlier. None of the Dwarves had been able to climb over the crashing fragile branches of the last tree they’d stuck in, and only Bilbo buying them some time with his equally foolish behaviour had saved Thorin in the end. It was still a mystery to Nori how someone as inexperienced in battle as Bilbo had managed to get out of the Goblin caves on his own and without getting caught by an entire cave full of them, but right now that was the least of his worries.

He drank his fill and stayed as Ori took his time by the stream. He seemed in no hurry to get up after either, instead starting to inspect the inkbottles in his pockets. How they had survived at all was beyond Nori as well, though he supposed that a scribe would cushion their tools as well as they could just in case something happened.

There was no hurry so Nori didn’t try pull Ori up and have him follow to the rest of the company. It seemed like the others were also taking the time to rest briefly. Óin was sitting on a rock; carefully counting the supplies he hadn’t lost while glancing over to see if anyone needed his help. Both the princess were whispering to each other occasionally glancing towards their uncle who stood close to the wizard, all of them waiting for Bilbo to return. Bifur, who had sat down among a few rocks as soon as they paused seemed to be asleep, though he would occasionally twitch a little.

A part of him wanted to walk back and join the company, where Dwalin stood specifically. She’d helped him more than Nori would have expected, and she had watched him when she could, leaning up on her Eagle to be able to see him despite cursing and fearing the height, being there when there finally was a brief moment of quiet. But he couldn’t really do it now. Nori could see how Thorin was standing stiff from the pain, still talking to Dwalin in a serious expression. She was needed there, she would do her best to stay with her King if she could, and Nori knew that they all would benefit from Dwalin dedicating her entire attention to Thorin now.

Didn’t mean that he couldn’t yearn for a quiet moment to just cling to her and hold her close to make sure she was fine, and be comforted in turn…

“Say Nori…?”

Ori’s voice interrupted the train of thought, and Nori slowly turned his head to look down at him instead. He’d already dealt with his materials, setting them aside neatly with nothing looking broken. His dark brown eyes were staring up at Nori, searching him in an uncomfortably thorough way.

“What is it with you and Dwalin? There’s something… you knew each other from before, didn’t you?”

Nori tensed a little, various excuses and lies crossing his mind in a blur before he let out a sigh and let his shoulders drop a little. He had to tell Ori eventually anyway, there was no helping it. Perhaps he could even be proud to have sired a young lad who was perceptive enough to pick out the way Nori gazed at Dwalin all the time, or perhaps Nori was so tired he’d slipped and been more obvious than he thought he was.

“Am I that obvious? Yes. I haven’t seen her in decades before the quest, I didn’t even expect to see her again at times…”

Ori turned to look at Dwalin for a moment, before he leaned closer to Nori with wide eyes.

“Is… is she my mother?”

Nori nodded at that, unsure if he could speak through the lump in his throat.

“Yes. She wanted to stay, trust me, she loved you! I don’t want you to think less of Dwalin or anything. You know how she is by now, you know she had to go, you know she couldn’t have expected it to last for this long-“

Nori broke off his talk when he saw how Ori wasn’t angry or disgusted. Instead he’d craned his head back enough to throw a furtive glance at Dwalin. She stood with her back turned towards them, but Ori’s eyes were searching. He touched his own cheek lightly, letting his fingers run over his skin and over one of the braids that was still intact. He glanced towards Balin a few times as well, but for the most time his eyes were fixed on Dwalin.

Somehow Nori just knew what Ori must be thinking. Staring at Dwalin while trying to think of things that weren’t a trait he shared with Dori and Nori, or his grandmother. The way his hair was coarser than Nori’s, the way his skin grew darker in the sun much quicker than Dori’s and stayed darker too, the many subtle differences between them…

Nori swallowed hard as he tried to gather his courage for this.

“You’re not angry?” he asked cautiously.

Ori shook his head hard enough for his braids to bounce around his face.

“No why would I? I suppose I’m… glad? To know. And Dwalin’s not a bad person, I think. I always was a little afraid you know? Because maybe my mother was dead, or rough and mean, or maybe she’d always been strange – you don’t really have the best track record with the people you make friends with.”

Ori grinned as Nori snorted and reached down to ruffle his hair.

“Don’t exaggerate on that,” Nori muttered when he saw Ori opening his mouth again, no doubt to tease him about the exact occasions he’d misjudged a person in the past.

Ori’s smiled, but his expression sobered up a little.

“Really, I’m glad to know. And I’m glad it’s someone who’s nice to you as well.”

Before Nori could ask what exactly he meant Ori went on.

“She doesn’t know yet, does she? Dwalin hasn’t been treating me any differently so far, so I doubt it?”

He threw a look at Nori, who just shook his head.

Ori pressed his lips together, averting his gaze then.

“Do you think she’ll be happy if I tell her? Or would she not want to know it’s me of all people…”

“Dwalin will cherish you no matter what,” Nori interrupted that thought firmly. He couldn’t let his lies and inability to speak up when needed upset Ori as well. “She already likes you, and she’s loved her child all these years.”

Ori’s lips twitched into a smile, and he tugged at his mittens slightly, still staring at the stream before him. He’d taken it better than Nori had feared, even if he might need time to adjust. Perhaps it would go over well with the other instances of having to speak of this as well.

A call came from Bofur, who’d been watching the direction Bilbo had gone off. The Hobbit was returning with news it seems, and all Dwarves rose up from where they’d been resting. Ori stuffed his writing utensils into his pocket hastily and scrambled to his feet.

“Lets hear how it is,” Nori said with a tired smile as they went to stand besides Dori and wait.

The sky was starting to turn grey and pink now, announcing the start of the morning. Nori took a deep breath, and braced himself for another day on the run.

Chapter Text

The chirp of some early morning birds kept sneaking into Nori’s mind, keeping him awake as he tried to find some excuse to remain firmly asleep. His body ached and reminded him of every sore pulled muscle and every single scratch and bruise he’d gotten in the past days. He felt heavy and strangely exhausted despite the way he’d gotten to sleep through the night in a truly safe home, protected by their literal bear of a host.

Nori had first woken when the sky had started to turn from grey into blue gradually, too alert despite the knowledge that he could and should use the moment to sleep longer. His mind would not rest, and Nori already had resigned himself to not being able to truly drift off again. That didn’t mean that he would fully admit defeat by opening his eyes just yet.

The soft snore close to his ear nearly startled Nori into breaking his spiteful resolve. Dori’s body turned and shuffled near him for a moment, rustling over the hay, before his brother settled down again, still asleep. He must truly be dead to the world given that Nori somehow had managed to wake up before him.

Now there was mumbling too, and Nori could only catch a few of the slurred words coming from Dori’s mind.

Oh Maker no’ he thought as he realized that his brother was about to start babbling nonsense in his sleep. It was never fun to listen to.

With a reluctant huff Nori opened his eyes and looked around. He was still lying in the same position he’d fallen asleep in; rolled up in his blanket and curled in a pile of hay. A cow was watching him from a few feet away, but as the other animals she’d kept away from the Dwarves to let them rest. The little barn right next to the main lodge was filled with morning light, but every Dwarf still inside was snoring and catching up on sleep.

Nori threw one look at Dori to make sure that he was fine (albeit still mumbling nonsense), and got up from his bedroll.

The outside was near disgustingly peaceful and beautiful after all the ordeals of the past days. But it was relaxing to be in such a place after all that, and Nori felt as safe as he possibly could with his body still aching and the nearest mountains quite a bit away from where he was.

He raised his hand to shield his eyes against the sun, still a little too bright right after he’d come out of the dim building. Some of the Dwarves that weren’t inside were about, he could see that. There was Bombur, seemingly speaking to some chickens, and Óin, who must have gotten permission to move about Beorn’s garden to look for whatever medical herbs he needed to stock up on.

Nobody was by the small stream that ran through the area belonging to the house, so Nori made his way there quickly. The water was icy cold as Nori stripped off his shirt and sprayed some of it on his skin, but at least the sun made it bearable enough.

Taking the opportunity of not having to hurry anywhere or having to share a limited space near a small spring Nori unravelled the braids on his beard to undo them. His hair was messed up from sleep, and instead of fixing it Nori took out the clasps in it as well. It been awhile since he’d last gotten to take care of it nicely.

The comb he always kept in his pocket had survived all ordeals of the past days, which Nori was endlessly grateful for. There was little that comforted him as much as just having a quiet moment and getting to take care of his hair. Some had thought him vain for it before, but Nori couldn’t even pretend to care about that.

He worked out all knots and tangles in his hair and beard, brushed it until it shone like copper in the sun. His skin dried off in the sun as he worked the comb through his beard over and over, feeling its softness against his chest and familiar rustle of his hair. It calmed his tenseness a little, calmed his strangely disarrayed thoughts and the discomfort he’d woken up with. Nori had been on edge the entire time, even after he’d started feeling safe in the protection of the great shapeshifter.

The reason for that came into view, as Nori caught a glimpse of Thorin and Dwalin out of the edge of his eye.

Their King was still limping a little as he walked, trying to move in such a way that the cuts and massive bruises on his ribs would not sting. He looked rather confident though, now that the immediate danger had passed for the company. Dwalin at his side was radiating the confidence that Thorin was more subtle about too. She stood tall at her cousin’s side, chest puffed out, stance wide or threatening, depending on how close Beorn was at any given moment. She’d even brushed the crest of her hair and her beard out nicely.

Nori watched them quietly; saw how they talked about something, how Thorin made a joke and Dwalin threw her head back in a laugh that Nori couldn’t quite hear from the distance.

They moved on towards the bear’s lodge, and Dwalin paused for a moment, looking around at the surrounding small buildings, and the garden. Her eyes fell on Nori for a moment, and he could see a grin spreading across her face as she looked him over.

Nori’s beard was covering most of his torso, but it was clear that he wasn’t wearing anything there with his hair falling in loose waves…

The tension in his chest increased just as his heart sped up and his cheeks heated up. Even before Nori could decide what to do, Dwalin had already turned away from him and followed Thorin inside.

Nori sighed, the tension broken a little. He let his hand sink into his lap, put away the comb, and started at the stream for a moment. The running water wasn’t as calming as the hair brushing had been, but he’d done it enough already.

Without further stalling Nori braided his hair back up as neatly as he could without a proper mirrored surface, and put his clothes back on as well.

He would have to face it eventually…

Those Nori had left behind in the barn evidently still were sleeping in, and he didn’t feel like going in to check whether his brother wanted to get up and have breakfast at a reasonable time. There still would be food later, even if Dori might be miffed about not being woken.

Nori stopped a few steps past the door once he entered the lodge. Their host Beorn wasn’t there, but his strange and slightly unsettling animals were scurrying around. Several dogs lay on some pillows in a corner, while others walked on their hind legs, carrying jugs and plates of food to the long table where the Dwarves had settled to eat.

Nori’s eyes fell on Dwalin first, still at her King’s side as she and Thorin ate a cold meal of bread rolls and cheese. Dwalin and Thorin’s heads were close together as they spoke, just as they always did when there was a quiet moment, and their conversation seemed to be a casual one.

Glóin and Bifur sat a little apart, and seemed engaged in some counting game using a bowl of nuts, of which Bifur would occasionally take a handful to eat. The princes were there as well, with Ori in their middle. They were chatting about something as well, as if there was some secret. That is, Fíli and Kíli were doing the chatting, while Ori seemed to be lost in thought.

In the few moments Nori was watching him, Ori glanced up at his companions, and then subtly turned his eyes at Dwalin, staring at her from the side with a barely contained wide-eyed curiosity, with the same expression as when he was studying an object he’d draw later. His eyes moved on and met Nori’s then, making the little scribe freeze and look down sheepishly.

Nori suppressed a sigh and walked towards the table, trying not to think of how Dwalin’s eyes had turned to him now as well. He would have to settle all of this as soon as he could, before Ori grew too curious, or before Dwalin decided that she didn’t want to wait to preserve any peace between them after all. It wasn’t fair to either of them.

A dog quickly ran to Nori’s side just as he settled at the low table, with a jug of milk in their paws. He looked at their dark brown eyes as the dog waited for a few moments, and thanked them awkwardly. All of the dogs were so quiet, and so eager to make sure their guests were happy.

There was food on the table, in several bowls and on plates, so Nori was left alone as he reached for a scone and an empty bowl of cream. He could still feel Dwalin’s eyes on him, but as he firmly ignored all but his breakfast she let it go and turned back to give Thorin her full attention.

Nori chewed at his scone, mouth dry and hands tense. He felt like he was in some seedy tavern with the certainty of owing at least two people in the room, rather in a nice sunlit house with only trustworthy Dwarves and strange dogs to keep him company. But even that just made him think about how he’d need to find a good and quiet spot to talk to Dwalin properly. It wouldn’t do to have anyone hear.

Bofur and Óin wandered in eventually, settling in to have food with the rest and Bofur cracking jokes despite looking half asleep still. Bilbo joined as well, quickly saying something about how he’d taken a walk with Beorn as he’d shown him the stretches of his land.

After a while Thorin rose from his seat, done with his meal, and Nori briefly glanced up to see Dwalin linger for a moment longer. She looked at him, as if she wanted to stay near him; but she’d long finished eating as well so she joined her royal cousin when she saw Nori still chewing on his own meal.

Once Dwalin wasn’t in his immediate presence Nori felt himself calm down a little. He could do this. He had to, as he knew he wouldn’t forgive himself waiting even just a day longer. Who knew what might happen to them in the near future after all?

Nori finished up his meal quickly after that, hoping that Dwalin wouldn’t be surrounded by her relatives all day now. Let her be the one to decide who should know and when, without awkwardly having to explain away things they might overhear before she was ready.

Nobody paid much attention as Nori got up from his bench and left as quietly as he could. Right outside the door one of the strange dogs was sunbathing, though they looked up as they sensed Nori’s presence. Nori glanced down at them for a moment, taking in the grey and sand coloured fur and those peculiar brown eyes. There was no one there to see him be weird about it, and Beorn’s animals seemed to be just as aware of everything as any of Arda’s people.

Nori bowed his head to the dog, who repeated the gesture subtly.

“Can you help me?” Nori asked leaning towards them.

The dog was still watching him, which he took as a yes.

“I need a quiet place, somewhere I can have a private talk with somebody else without anybody noticing and disturbing us. It’s very important you see…”

The dog looked at him for a moment longer, so Nori half wondered if they hadn’t understood him after all, before they got up and loped ahead. With no other option but to follow them Nori quickly hurried along, as the dog silently lead him around the main house. Their ears flopped in the wind and they made no noise, safe for the sound of paws on soft ground. They stopped at one of the side-buildings, opening a door that looked as if it led to a storage of some kind.

Nori peeked inside when the dog looked up at him expectantly. It was darker than in the main house, with only a small window near the ceiling, and Nori could see rows of barrels and milk-jugs as well as wheels of cheese and crates along the wall. The dog had led him to the buttery, which seemed to be far enough from where the Dwarves ventured. It having a door as well was more than Nori could have hoped for as far as spots went, as it would give them some privacy, even if Nori felt like anyone could sneak up easier that way.

“Thank you! This is exactly what I could have hoped for,” he told the dog. He reached out, but paused as he didn’t know what the polite way of thanking a dog of that kind was. Petting their head would be weird with any other creature.

The dog solved that problem by touching their paw to Nori’s hand briefly, before turning and running of to do whatever the dogs did in their free time.

Nori watched them go and carefully closed the door behind him. Now he just had to get Dwalin there without being noticed.

It didn’t take long to find Thorin, standing with Balin and the giant of a Man, Beorn. They looked like they were discussing something important, or maybe Balin and Thorin always made an impression of seriousness. Either way, Dwalin wasn’t with them, which made it more likely that she would be on her own.

And really, he found her leaning against a tall tree, enjoying the cool shade and relaxing with her arms pillowing her head. She smiled when she saw Nori approach.

“Can we speak in private?” Nori asked, quietly despite nobody being within earshot. He carefully didn’t look around to see if anyone was looking their way, his stance as nonchalant as he could.

Dwalin raised her brows, her lips twitched in what was either a hidden smile or just a grimace.

“Of course,” she replied, and Nori waved her to follow him.

At least this probably wasn’t as strange as if he’d asked her to come along somewhere on the road, hiding between trees and bushes. He was merely showing her something interesting he’d seen on Beorn’s grounds after all, just as most of the Dwarves were sitting around in groups.

It was strange to have Dwalin’s looming presence behind him, both a threat and a pleasant company. She walked right behind him the entire time as they made their way towards the buttery, and Nori didn’t see anyone pay them more attention than a passing glance. Nobody was there to see when they reached the door and Nori held it open for Dwalin.

He saw her smirk when she followed his lead, and Nori quickly followed and shut the door behind them.

The room was spacious enough, even with the shelves of stored goods, though Nori supposed it might be a small for Beorn to use. It was good enough for two Dwarves.

The moment the door fell shut and blocked out the world around them Dwalin turned and wrapped her arm around Nori’s waist.

“I’m so glad to see you whole,” she said, one hand coming up to cup Nori’s cheek and leaning down to rub their noses together. “That’s what I wanted to say for several days now.”

Nori sighed at the touch, his own hands wrapping around Dwalin’s hips. The tenseness he’d felt all day melted away under her touches, and for a moment he wanted to do nothing more than to hold her, and be comforted as well.

The same thought must have crossed Dwalin’s mind, as she held him tighter and kissed his lips briefly. It was so nice in that moment that Nori nearly missed the glint in her eye and the grin she gave him as she pulled back.

“A nice enclosed room for privacy? Can’t wait to hear what you want to speak about.”

Nori winced, cursing himself that he hadn’t even considered how this situation must seem. He truly must have been having a weird day to not even notice how good a place this was for a tumble.

“I do want to speak to you,” he said quietly, and Dwalin’s grin dropped a little.

At least she didn’t pull away entirely and still looked as if she would listen.

Nori’s tightened his hold on her; painfully aware of how the entire topic would pain her, and him at that. Not something he’d want, if the situation were different…

“It’s about our child. I want to tell you all I can.”

Dwalin’s smile disappeared completely, and Nori could feel her stiffen and shift away.

“I thought we agreed not to mention this for the sake of peace on the quest,” he said, voice tight.

“Peace? We could die at any moment, and we nearly did so many times in so few days. And what then? What if you survive and there’s nobody there to tell you, or what if I lose everything knowing that you don’t-“

Nori cut himself off as his voice grew more and more agitated. He took a deep breath and Dwalin’s hand stroked over his shoulder in a comforting gesture. At least she didn’t protest that.

“When you left I tried to hold on for as long as I could,” Nori started, looking at where a few strands of Dwalin’s beard stuck to her collar, so he wouldn’t have to look her in the eye. It was already hard enough to gather his thoughts. “I really tried, but I didn’t even last for as long as I thought the war would take. There was just too much going on, with things getting harsher. I couldn’t just steal or trick myself into getting what I needed for us, and then there was the others. I was alone and unprotected and I couldn’t run or risk anything happening to me to take care of my child either.”

Nori took a deep breath to collect himself, feeling the familiar panic of being chased by worse Dwarves than guards. Dwalin growled at his words, but he went on.

“I took all I could carry and I ran from the town. There wasn’t really anything I could do on my own and there was nobody I trusted to help me who’d be able to. I went home… I told Dori and Ma everything. I begged them not to ask too many questions, to just help me, and they did-”

His words were speeding up, nearly a rush as he tried to get it out as Dwalin was frozen under his hands.

“I was so scared about my reputation and my age and you not being there impacting on our child in some bad way, so I… Ma didn’t go out as much as she’d used to, nobody would question her. Dori promised to lie and come up with some story or something and he named our son, he just… He just named him my mother’s child rather than mine.”

“Your mother’s…?”

Dwalin’s voice sounded so small as Nori looked up at her, biting his lip. She looked so lost at his words, stuck on them and unable to speak.

“Ori son of Kori,” Nori said quietly. “Or rather… our son…”

Dwalin shook her head hard. She stepped away, out of Nori’s reach and he let her, though she only went as far as the nearest crate to sit down on it.

“That can’t be,” she said firmly, her eyes still wide and confused.

“He is.”

Again Dwalin shook her head.

“But he’s… He’s a bit older than Fíli, isn’t he?”

Nori raised his eyebrows.

“No. He’s like Dori in this, looking more mature with his beard and sharp nose than his years would suggest.”

Dwalin leaned her head against her hand, staring straight ahead with her lips moving and no words coming out. She didn’t shift away when Nori knelt down before her and placed his hand on her elbow gently.

“Tell me everything then…” she begged quietly.

So Nori did. He spoke of how hard he’d tried to stay in that small town where they first met, how afraid he’d been that the thieves whose territory he’d been lurking in might kill him or render him unable to take care of a child, how he’d tried returning to no avail. He spoke of trying to make sure that Ori would grow up a fine lad, and wouldn’t lack a thing in his life.

“I told him that I’m his father when he was old enough and my mother had died,” Nori went on, Dwalin not making a sound as she listened to his tale. “He didn’t take it well at first, but in the end… I told him that his bearer is a warrior, and that she loved him and truly didn’t think she’d end up not being around, that she… that you had left and been part of the war.”

He swallowed hard, leaning into Dwalin as she wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

“I thought you were one of the dead for the longest time.”

Nori reached up to trace the scar over Dwalin’s face, shivering at the thought of how it might have killed her. How any of the scars that hadn’t been there before might have taken her away for good.

“I nearly did die,” Dwalin admitted, shoulders dropping. “I wanted to turn back and leave even before we reached the Misty Mountains, I just wanted to go back and find you again, I wanted it the entire time, I hoped for it through the war when I thought I could die, when my friends fell and then my father…”

She swallowed hard.

“So many were dead and then I could find you. I went back to where we met. I asked around. I joined caravans and listened to thieves and thugs but the only ones to ever mention anyone like you were those who’d love to poke you with knives.”

Nori let out a sad laugh.

“None of us would talk about somebody we like and wouldn’t want to be found by guards.”

Dwalin sighed, not even bitter joy in her face.

“Does… will you tell Ori?” she asked, sounding scared.

“He already figured it out from what I told him about his mother and from how he saw me react to you.”

This time his laugh wasn’t as sad.

“I might not have been a good father to him, but our lad’s grown to be sharp and clever under all those layers of softness.”

Dwalin hunched over more, shivering. She was close enough that Nori dared to gently touch his forehead to hers, and she didn’t pull away from that either.

“I tried looking for you,” he said sadly. “All those years… But I didn’t know if you were alive, or where exactly to look for you. I was worried that I could harm you by asking around too much; a scoundrel looking for a noble family’s daughter, tainting your reputation or getting you in trouble. I didn’t know what you wanted to be known so…”

Dwalin let out a whimper like a wounded animal.

“I didn’t tell anyone in my family,” she confessed, guilt thick in my voice. “I came back and so many were dead, my father leaving my Amad with only us, and then Thorin’s family, the princes’ sire… I only told Lady Dís because I couldn’t keep it in anymore, but how was I supposed to admit to my entire family to what I’d done? How was I supposed to tell them that I would leave my own child behind with no means of finding you. What kind of mother does that on purpose?”

Dwalin wasn’t crying, but the way her shoulders shook made Nori guess that it was a close thing.

He wrapped his arms around her as well as he could in their position, pressing closer.

“You’re not… you’re not bad for this. You did the right thing and everyone else went even if they had children too. It’s my fault for putting you in a position where you have to chose in the first place!”

“What would… what does Ori think of me…?” Dwalin asked.

“He’s not displeased. He’s just shyly trying to watch you I think, if you noticed. Ori’s more concerned about what you would think of him if you knew.”

Dwalin squeezed her eyes shut, breathing at a deliberately calm pace.

Nori watched her for a few moments.

“Will you be alright?”

Dwalin nodded and curled up on herself a little.

“Yes just… can you leave now? I want to think for a while.”

Nori nodded sadly and got up to his feet. He couldn’t demand to stay here, and he knew how Ori had needed time as well… Dwalin would come back to the company when she felt like it anyway.

He left the little buttery, closing the door behind him and taking a moment to rub his hand over his face. Now that Nori had left Dwalin on her own he felt strangely drained. At least he’d told her…

It seemed that the entire company was up and about, but Nori paid them no mind. He would find some quiet spot to sit and not think of anything for a while.

“Oi, Nori!”

He looked up slowly, to see Glóin and Bombur stare at him.

“What?” he asked, trying not to sound too tense.

“Have you seen Dwalin around?” Glóin asked, and raised his eyebrows as Nori’s tone didn’t escape his attention.

Nori shrugged.

“She’ll turn up if you wait.”

He saw how Glóin’s brow furrowed at that, but he shrugged as well, turning to go away and picking his conversation with Bombur back up.

Nori didn’t stay to watch them as he moved on. Some of the dogs from the main lodge were lying near the stream, glancing up at him as he passed. The one who’d shown him the buttery was there as well, so Nori sighed and sat down by their side. None of the dogs seemed to mind, and while they were extraordinary none of them could or would try and speak to him. Which was just what he needed for now.

Chapter Text

Dwalin didn’t permit herself to stay on her own and grief for what could have been for long. There was no sense it that, and there was nothing she could do to change things she’d decided seventy years ago. Nori wasn’t angry with her for what he’d been forced to deal with, and he’d promised her that neither did Ori… their child.

It was still such a strange thought to be able to place both a name and a face to the images she’d thought up in lonely moments; herself with Nori and the little one just happy together. Especially since she already knew Ori, and was fond of the lad as well.

Not much time had passed when Dwalin finally emerged from her hiding spot, and her absence had been noticed but not seen as weird enough to really take note of. It was easy enough to put on a calm face, showing her default gruffness for anyone who’d look too closely.

Nori was nowhere to be seen, and Dwalin was a little glad for it, as it probably would be too painful to be near him for now, with the wounds they’d torn open in each other.

Nobody else was there for Dwalin to feel like she should join them, and only Bofur told her that Glóin had been looking for her. They were trying to make sense of what weapons they still had, and which ones just needed some repairs. It didn’t seem urgent to Dwalin, given how her cousin must have started on his own even without her help, so she just thanked Bofur for telling her and went off to hide somewhere on her own.

With her back leaning against one of the lodge’s wooden outer walls Dwalin remained on her own, undisturbed, most likely making the impression of taking a nap. A few chickens clucked around her, ignoring the massive threatening presence of a strange Dwarf, and once a dog approached her to look at her for a moment before leaving again.

Only when the sun started to approach the surrounding treetops in its descend did Dwalin get up to find something for dinner. She didn’t really feel any hunger; especially after having had a good breakfast and having grown used to not getting much as they were escaping the Orcs, but there was no reason to waste food now. Not showing up for that would probably seem suspicious after all.

The company and the wizard sat around the table or on cushions close to it, eating and joking as Beorn sat at the head of the table, towering over everyone and making sure that his guests’ cups ere filled with mead or milk. There were some dishes left over from breakfast, but also freshly baked pies, filled with vegetables and cheese, along with potatoes and turnips served with cream. As soon as Dwalin approached them, Bofur and Óin waved her over and scooted apart to offer her a seat on the bench.

Surprisingly enough it wasn’t hard to walk into the hall and see Nori there. The vague heartache she’d felt all day didn’t grow more intense as her eyes fell on him sitting a little away from the table where the rest were gathered. Nori was chewing on a bit of pie while absentmindedly scratching the head of a dog who’d stretched out by his side. Bifur sat near him, cracking nuts and placing every second one on a pillow next to them, as the hound watched with big brown eyes.

Nori looked up at her for just a moment, as Dwalin sat down with the others, worry and sadness flickering over his face for a brief instance, barely noticeable. Only Bifur was looking at the thief that moment, and he placed more nuts on the pillows in what seemed to be a gesture of comfort.

It pained Dwalin that she couldn’t walk up to him and quietly offer her comfort as well, but she knew that Bifur was strangely efficient in soothing people when he put his mind to it. The dog at Nori’s side seemed to distract him as well.

The evening went on uneventfully, as Dwalin spoke each time she was addressed and even managed to laugh at jokes without having to force herself to do so. If she was quieter than usual on such merry gatherings, then everyone would assume that she was still strung-out.

The one thing that Dwalin couldn’t stop herself from doing was to glance over at Ori once in a while, where he was busy discussing something with Balin, which Dwalin couldn’t hear from the distance. She couldn’t help but try to spot similarities in his face, in the hook of his nose that wasn’t quite the way Nori’s curved, in the way his hair was sticking out in all directions.

Had Nori despaired over trying to keep it neat when Ori was still a small Dwarfling? Brushing and braiding it to stay in place and remain as fancy as the Ri seemed to favour? Had he ever considered stitching patterns into Ori’s clothes to echo Dwalin’s own preferences? Had Nori told Ori stories about her, making her seem so much better than she was?

The pain of having missed out on seven decades of this hurt, but the faint glimmer of hope that she could have it somehow glowed stronger than it had in too long.

Perhaps she could…

Such thoughts stayed with Dwalin and would sneak back into her mind each time her attention wandered for the rest of the evening. It made her wish that Nori hadn’t said anything a little. It was distracting now, but surely it wouldn’t start getting in her way as the company set out once more. At least it had removed the underlying tenseness of uncertainty that had plagued her for so many years now.

As the company went to settle down to sleep Dwalin passed by Nori, for just a moment, as they returned to the places they had set out the night before. Their eyes met, and there was nothing but a mutual understanding about how this would work out, somehow. There was no anger there anymore, not even the slightest trace of ill will or the worry of having to watch their tongues as not to breach an uncomfortable subject.

Yes, this truly had been for the best after all.

That night Dwalin took ages to fall asleep, the images she used to have of her potential family now clearer than ever, with an actual proper image of her child there along with Nori.

The next few days were better, and Dwalin didn’t feel worse or more distracted than she had before knowing. She didn’t try to get close to Nori anymore, hesitating to use the time they had in safety for hiding away with him to even just talk. He seemed to feel the same way at least, lost in his own thoughts most of the time.

Only on the very last night at Beorn’s safe home did they meet for a moment. The company had packed supplies to last them through the next portion of their journey, and had stacked the packs and weapons in a corner of the lodge. Dwalin had gone over the weapons once more, as she was supposed to make sure that everyone was as protected as possible.

In the dark it was easy enough to look over what she needed, the moonlight pouring into the dark house enough to see by. There was no sound to warn her, but when Dwalin’s eyes wandered around the silent house she didn’t startle when she noticed a familiar shadow close by.

Nori didn’t say anything as he waited for Dwalin to be done with her inspection, and when she stepped closer to him he met her halfway. They held each other for while, as Dwalin pressed her face against Nori’s soft hair and he leaned his forehead against her shoulder.

The brief comfort in a strange house didn’t last long, and Dwalin let go of Nori eventually to return to where everyone else slept as he moved past her to check something in his own pack.

Once they set out the next morning things were a little easier. There was nowhere to go, the company was always there and everyone was riding in a row of two side by side for the most part. It wasn’t possible to avoid Nori, if Dwalin had wanted, and it wasn’t possible to drop any secrecy either.

With everyone else around Nori and Dwalin would talk normally, as they had tried to before, even if it wasn’t much. They let each other be, with nothing they wished to tell each other meant for anyone else’s ears.

It was a little awkward with Ori, as Dwalin desperately wanted to speak to him as well. She didn’t notice anything too different to the start of their journey about him, though by now he already knew who she was to him, even if he probably didn’t know that Dwalin knew as well. Dwalin had barely spoken to him as much as to some of her other companions, always content to watch and listen when he was talking to somebody else. Now wasn’t much different, though Dwalin made more of an effort to be within earshot.

She wanted to get to know him more, wanted to catch up, and she didn’t know how.

Despite those issues Dwalin was very nearly at ease the entire time. The quest was nearly the same as it had been at the very start now, even though the ponies and their saddles were entirely different. She nearly forgot that there was a forest looming ahead.

Once the company reached the edge of the Mirkwood, things changed though. The wizard left once more, as did the ponies, and for the first day Dwalin felt like this would work out, along with everyone else.

How hard could it be to cross a forest, even one as strange and dark as the Mirkwood?

The oppressive nature of the wood started to bear down on everyone soon after the company set out on the narrow path between the trees. There was no ray of sunlight that reached the damp floor covered with decaying leaves, no wind to move the branches and let the leaves rustle slightly. There wasn’t even a single sound coming from around them, making the forest seem completely dead and abandoned, more devoid of life than the oldest mountain cavern or abandoned broken tunnels.

All noise that seemed to be lacking in the daytime was made up for in the night, as the company would huddle in tight circles fearfully. It was entirely too dark, with even the Dwarves’ eyes not being able to see beyond the closest trees, and the noise of hidden creatures so loud and disorienting that Bilbo’s hearing couldn’t make any sense of it either. There was no use to try and set a watch, or try and light fires when the branches they found burned with foul smoke and gave out a pale light. Dwalin doubted that anyone rested easily with the chance of uninterrupted sleep either, as she herself couldn’t make sleep take her.

There was something in the air that made breathing hard, something that made everyone grow quieter and quieter, until no words would be spoken during the time of travel. It felt a little like the sticky heat of a summer’s day that made one’s head ache, only without the actual heat to back it up. Thoughts slowed down and time stretched out, and though Dwalin knew they were following the path and must be making good time it felt as if the forest would never release them.

And then the nightmares started.

She wasn’t the only one to have the noises around them turn into something different at night, to hear how the creature’s chatter turned into the howling of Wargs and the laughter of Orcs. She wasn’t the only one to wake up in cold sweat and gasp for air as the night morphed into the tunnels of the Misty Mountains where she’d fought for so many years, if Thorin’s stiff form and Balin’s slight trembling was anything to go by.

The nightmares were only battledreams for a few nights after they’d started, not unlike what Dwalin had experienced before. There was no relief with daylight now, and the dreams would come back over and over.

The warriors of the group weren’t the only ones to have their dreams turn sour with the forest’s influence.

Bifur was deadly quiet now; his hands still no matter who tried to speak to him. Dori would curl up and sit as if he was wounded every morning, and Bilbo would quietly lean against any Dwarf who was close by, looking so much like a small child the way he made himself seem tiny that Dwalin sometimes had to remind herself that he wasn’t.

It took Dwalin by surprise when sleep would bring worse memories back as well, once nobody was acting their usual self at all.

The day she’d up and left Nori with their child in his arms would play through her head over and over, adding new things from what she had found out later.

Dreams of those Dwarves who’d mentioned Nori years later, cutthroats and thugs and all getting to feel Dwalin’s wrath, only now she wasn’t truly there, as she watched them hunting someone through the streets, as she saw Nori hiding and trying his best…

It was worse when she started thinking over it in the days as well. It was hard to even focus on the road before them, or the quest ahead when all Dwalin would think when her thoughts wandered was how she couldn’t make up for any of it.

Nori might have forgiven her, might even believe it, but could anyone forgive in the first place? She’d done too much… He had every right.

Those thoughts got bad enough that they seeped into her actions as well. When everyone was forced to try and climb over some slippery roots to stay on their path, Nori’s hand touched Dwalin’s arm for the briefest moment, not doing more than searching for support as he tried to balance, but Dwalin staggered away as if he’d hit her with all his might.

The look of confused hurt on Nori’s face when she did it was enough to snap her out of it for a while at least, even if it did nothing to improve Dwalin’s wellbeing otherwise.

Funnily enough it was a very real danger that made everyone sober up a little and regain some clarity of mind.

Both their food and water supplies were starting to thin out, with no way of replenish either in the forest, and the few meals they had being cold and bleak. Dwalin wasn’t the one responsible for their food, but she did notice Thorin’s concern as he spoke with Bofur and Glóin about the matter. At least three weeks had passed since they had entered the forest, and there really wasn’t a way to tell how close they were to the other side of it. Food and water was rationed more heavily, which nobody complained about. The lack was noticeable though, as everyone grew even quieter than before.

Even the attempts to cheer each other up during night-time ceased by then, and Dwalin couldn’t bring herself to try and make it better. She’d never been good at that anyway.

“Does anyone know when we’ll be out of this forest?” Kíli asked weakly as everyone sat around trying to eat the meal of cold vegetables and dry biscuits for the night.

Nobody replied, all still looking around as if in a daze.

Slowly everyone curled up on the ground to sleep, or at least attempt to. Kíli lay down closest to Dwalin, with Fíli and Ori at his side. Though there was no real need for it, Dwalin was still up, still checking whether the axe in her lap was in prime condition.

She was so lost in her thoughts that she barely heard Kíli’s voice when he spoke to her.

“Auntie Dwalin… Would- would you sing a lullaby?” he asked, and Dwalin raised her eyebrows, sure that she must have misheard.

“A lullaby?”

“Like you used to when we were really small.”

Dwalin had never done more than hum tunes when Kíli and Fíli were little, her voice not quite able to make a lullaby sound right when sung out loud. She hadn’t done so since before the princes even turned twenty though.

Looking at Kíli now it didn’t seem like such a strange request. He looked pale and tired, his cheeks hollow and his face so much more adult that he was supposed to look. There was little Dwalin would have refused to do, if it just gave him a little bit of solace in this damned wood.

“I’ll try,” she said, suddenly aware of how dry her throat felt.

Immediately Kíli scooted closer with his bedroll, followed by Ori and Fíli with only a little hesitation. It didn’t matter that the audience had grown, but Dwalin’s heart clenched a little as she thought of how Ori might have known the way she tried to lull a child to sleep from personal experience, if things had gone better.

It took a few moments for Dwalin to actually remember something as simple and soothing as a child’s song, but once she managed to recall Dís singing it was easy enough to start humming and singing the tune wordlessly.

Fíli went still at the familiar memory, looking as if he was asleep immediately in his bedroll, while Kíli took some time to settle down and make himself as comfortable as possible. Dwalin noticed how Ori was watching her though, listening with most of his face hidden by his blanket.

It was too dark to see his expression properly.

By the time Dwalin was done with the tune, her throat aching more than before, it seemed as if none of the company were awake anymore. Everyone was just lying where they’d sat down, as if they’d passed out from the day in the forest, and Dwalin couldn’t blame them. At least it looked like Kíli was more at peace than before, his face relaxed in his sleep.

Dwalin sighed and settled down more comfortable position, hoping to catch some sleep as well.

The rustling of Ori’s blanket was nearly drowned out by the forest’s noises, but Dwalin still heard it when he spoke quietly.

“If we die-” Ori started, so serious that Dwalin didn’t feel like she could try and contradict. It was a possibility.

“If… well I just want you to know that I’m glad I met you.”

Ori didn’t say anything else after that, and Dwalin started out into the dark for long enough that he might have fallen asleep already.

She had no tears left in her, only a strange hollow feeling in her body.

“I’m glad too,” she replied after a while, and in the darkness and the threat of death all too real this was the most comfort she’d felt in a while.

Chapter Text

The hunger and the helplessness were grating Dwalin down more and more with each passing day.

What use was she as a guard for the company if there was nothing but the never ending feeling of dread of the dark and an empty stomach to protect her charges from? What use was her strength or experience in travelling outside of mountains, and what use where their weapons and arrows when there was nothing to hunt down that wasn’t strange and rotten, and what good were tracking skills when they couldn’t leave the path and search for fresh water when even that was poison in this forest.

The stale tasting water in their supplies was rationed more and more, as everyone feared how it might run out before they reached the other side of the forest. Not an issue Dwalin had ever had travelling before either, as she knew of ways to get to fresh drinking water in near any region. Usually a forest was the easiest, as trees and plants could serve as a source if an actual stream wasn’t near. Nobody really trusted the ancient twisted trees around them to try that either though.

Any last temptation to try and drink from the streams they came across was dashed when the company tried to cross a larger river. Bombur, exhausted from dehydration and the weight he carried on his back, lost his footing on the damp ground by the river bank, and fell into the water with a splash. When he was dragged out he was unconscious, and nothing would wake him though he seemed to only be asleep.

There was nothing left to do but divide their supplies anew and take turns in carrying their fallen companion through the forest with them. It was hard work dragging a large weight through the narrow and slippery path that already was hard enough to master with nothing but a bag on their backs.

Bifur seemed even more withdrawn after that, and the fear and worry for his little brother made Bofur look uncharacteristically glum.

Dwalin’s throat ached for water all day, the air around her and the knowledge of being in a forest making it so much worse than it was. She’d gone with little food and water for extended periods of time before, but this somehow was different. Not one of the Dwarves were doing any better at least, and Bilbo was staring off into space as if he’d just been dragged out of bed and hadn’t yet regained his wit.

It was impossible to walk as quickly as everyone wanted under these conditions, leaving everyone to drag their feet over the ground to at least try and walk from morning to when they assumed sunset to be.

At the end of the day everyone was exhausted and hungry and yearning for fresh cool water, but sleep would not come easy at all. They would all sit down where they stood, leaning against each other and the thick roots rising over the ground, quietly hoping that this would be over soon.

Dwalin usually tried to block out everything when she was trying to rest like this, but when Nori sat only inches away from her, his breathing irregular and his face twisted in pain, she couldn’t help but take note. He was struggling with the food rations and the pack he still carried all the way through, with more things being loaded into his supplies as others carried Bombur’s unconscious body through the forest. Nori had muttered something about losing all but the food and running if he were on his own before.

“This’ll be over either way soon,” Dwalin said, when she saw his misery and felt like he needed some form of comfort.

He threw Dwalin a dirty look, but she would not try to sweet talk him any more. They would either die, or they would get out of the forest on time. Of course she would not give up and fight her way through those cursed woods until her last breath, but Dwalin had long learned that a warrior had to be prepared to face the chance of death as well.

Thieves must know of that outlook on life too, as Nori let out a dry laugh and tried to settle back more comfortably. He looked less tense at least.

“All those years ago, when we met…” Nori started, his voice quiet and rough from dehydration. “Did you ever think we’d be on the same side of a quest like this? As… as companions? Most likely about to starve side by side?”

Dwalin couldn’t even muster the energy to snort at that.

“No. It’s the last thing I envisioned when I first met the scoundrel that you are.”

Nori’s hand crept over the forest floor until his fingers brushed against the edge of Dwalin’s knuckledusters.

“Never thought that haughty little sell-sword would try to comfort me when we’re in a situation like this.”

Dwalin’s fingers wrapped around Nori’s pinkie gently. She wanted more comfort than this, wanted it for herself and for him as well, but there were too many others too close by, even if it didn’t seem as if anyone was paying any attention at all.

The guilt she’d felt return to her with the forest’s nightmares was tugging at her mind again, and Dwalin suddenly felt the need to speak to Nori about this.

“They say you will be able to settle any issues with other Dwarves you have more easily in the Halls of Waiting,” Dwalin said, feeling Nori’s eyes on her. “I don’t want to take my issues there though.”

He was still quiet as he waited for Dwalin to go on, so she carefully tried to gather words to say what she wanted without having anyone who overheard guess at what she meant.

“When we parted ways. For decades it’s been a weight on my mind, and now I have nightmares about battles and death and that day-“

Dwalin took a deep breath, her hand curling around Nori’s.

“I don’t want this to be left unsaid, I don’t want there to be any doubt about how sorry-“

“There’s no need to apologize in this,” Nori said quietly. “For neither of us. It’s in the past and we’re here now so lets just not think of it. Lets think of whatever good there’s in this situation we’re in.”

At that Dwalin did let out a short bark of laughter.

“Has there ever been something we were both involved in that didn’t end badly?”

“One thing turned out perfect, yes. And maybe this will end well yet.”

They clasped their hands together, and sat side by side as they waited for sleep to give them just a few hours of relief.

*

Dwalin didn’t know how the fight started.

Angry accusations of having lost the path after all, about being led astray by a meddling wizard and of losing food or water were thrown around and before she knew it Dwalin was holding back fistfights that threatened to break out.

Thorin stood as if in a daze, staring at his company dissolving in yelling and insults. Dwalin acted on instinct, keeping her body between any two who tried to attack each other or looked like they might.

She saw Dori and Bofur yelling something incoherent at each other.

She saw Fíli and Kíli move towards Ori as if they were about to lunge on him, and Ori’s face twisting in a sneer as he wouldn’t back down until Nori pushed them apart, looking so haggard and tired of it all…

They blamed each other for the tiniest mistakes that had brought them into their current predicament. Everyone was ranting about some nonsense, things that Dwalin knew to be false words born from hunger and exhaustion, and yet it all seemed worse than that.

She didn’t see where Glóin came from all of a sudden, but she heard Nori’s surprised yelp just in time to turn and see her thief being thrown against some roots.

Nori’s back hit the damp wood hard enough to knock the air from his lungs, and he braced his feet hard against the ground to keep himself from sliding down. He glared up and Glóin was there again, his hand clenching in Nori’s collar.

“What have you done?” Glóin hissed, giving Nori a shake.

“Nuthin’!” Nori hissed back, eyes flashing with a fire Dwalin hadn’t known he still had in him this deep in the forest.

“Get your hands off me!”

He batted at Glóin’s arm, but the merchant wouldn’t release him.

“You knew Dwalin from before, don’t you? From before Azanulbizar? I heard you talk.”

Nori froze, and Dwalin could feel her own heart stop for a moment.

“I know something happened to her, though she never told,” Dwalin’s cousin went on, the anger the forest was waking in everyone somehow different in him, making something he must have thought of before emerge. “A thief, or someone like that. Someone harmed her and she’s been hunting them down on caravans. It was you, wasn’t it?”

Dwalin crossed the distance in two quick steps and tore Glóin away from Nori, who’d not made a single move to defend himself or try to deny the accusations.

“Does Nori look like he could do anything to me and live?” Dwalin growled at her cousin, too worn down to feel gratitude for how Glóin had been concerned for decades now. He had drawn the wrong conclusions anyway, and the Mirkwood was no place to discuss this at all.

“Leave him alone and go help the others figure out how to brave this forest.”

For a moment Glóin looked as if he was about to snap at Dwalin as well, but then decided to back up after all. Few people tried to argue with Dwalin when she glared them down like that after all.

She threw a look at Nori, who hadn’t moved at all even after Glóin walked away.

“Lets not dwell on this,” Dwalin told him with as much encouragement as she could muster up, and Nori nodded quietly.

Behind her Thorin was finally putting the company back together He wasn’t quite yelling as he spoke too quietly for that, but his voice harsh as he reminded everyone that they couldn’t afford stalling for a petty little fight like this. Everyone was shrinking away under the words, bowing their heads in shame.

“Come on,” Dwalin said and clapped Nori’s arm. “Lets hope we get out of this mess as quick as we can.”

The company set into motion slowly, a wary silence settling among them once again.

The path under their feet was broken and covered with rotten foliage and roots, and Dwalin no longer was sure if there was a way out at all.

Chapter Text

Everything before Nori’s eyes was blurring and dissolving into red as he stumbled over damp hard ground and onto stone. It took him a moment to gather the strength to even move his arms, let alone try and heave himself into a sitting position, and by that time the cell door had slammed shut behind him.

He couldn’t quite remember what had happened. The forest had started to become worse when water and food ran out, and then the smell of frying meat and fire had carried over and then there was a light, and then…

Nori cursed softly as he dragged himself around to lean his forehead against the cool twisting metal bars of his prison.

They had moved towards the light, in a desperate attempt… They didn’t even have anything left; all had been lost in the webs. They would have died if Bilbo hadn’t managed to draw those spiders away, how, Nori didn’t know.

Weakened and starving as they were, there was nothing they could do to harm anyone at all, but when they’d reached the source of light and food and hope of drinks was gone, replaced with cruel faces with glowing eyes and arrows pointed at them. They hadn’t stood a chance.

Nori groaned and leaned his head harder against the bars, hoping to somehow push the migraine away. Sitting still was already helping with his vision at least.

Elves in armour that covered everything but their hands and eyes moved past Nori’s cell, leading other Dwarves between them. Nori didn’t see everyone from their company, but then he didn’t know where each cell was positioned either.

He nearly cried out in relief when he saw Dori being dragged by and thrown into a cell that was within view of Nori’s, across a chasm in the floor. His brother’s hair was in disarray and his feet were dragging enough for the Elves to be the only thing that supported him. None of the others would look any better right now.

There was no sign of Ori, and he had to force himself to remain calm about that, force himself to remember how it would be impossible to see each of the Dwarves from how the cells were positioned judging by the few glimpses Nori had managed to take. Perhaps Ori had been in front of him, or was in a cell right next to his.

It didn’t take long for the Elves to be done throwing each of them in a cell of their own, and Nori could hear the clang of metal against metal and sharp foreign words everywhere one of the company still had the energy to protest and yell, as if the guards were hitting the bars with their weapons to silence them.

Across from Nori’s cell Dwalin was one of the livelier ones, snarling insults at the Elves, and Nori couldn’t help but smile as he saw her refusing to hunch up before them.

Before long even the attempts to find an angle to see more of the company ceased, as dizziness took hold of Nori once more. He couldn’t do much but lean back and carefully try not to move. His headache felt worse than the most vicious hangover Nori could remember having, and there was nothing in his stomach to throw up, should it come to that. Dori’s worried face was the last thing Nori saw before he squeezed his eyes shut in hopes of stopping the way everything seemed to move before his eyes.

It didn’t take long for that fragile peace to be interrupted by an Elf stepping to the bars. Nori blinked up at them, and then saw that other Elves were moving from cell to cell with trays. The one before him kneeled down and slid a large mug of water to him, as well as a bowl with some sort of murky liquid and a hard piece of rusk.

Nori squinted at it suspiciously, his throat was as dry as parchment but his stomach protesting the idea of accepting anything at all. Not to mention that it might be poison for all he knew.

“Eat this, you need it,” the Elf said; a woman, if Nori was judged right based on previous interactions with her kind. She looked young somehow, though one never knew with Elves.

“This will help with the spider’s poison. We use it when our own guards are attacked.”

Nori stared at her for a moment longer, then carefully reached for what she’d brought. He chose the soup first, hoping to calm his stomach before trying to chug water much as his thirst hurt him. It was a strange salty liquid, with herbs Nori couldn’t place. As soon as he took a mouthful he could feel the nausea retreat though, and the Elf smiled before moving along.

With one last suspicious glance Nori emptied the small bowl carefully with slow deliberate sips. Next he took a tiny bite of the rusk, chewing thoroughly. He didn’t trust himself not to wolf it all down if he didn’t pay full attention to it, and being sick from eating too much after nearly starving once was enough to teach him never to make that mistake again. Judging from the coughs and curses from nearby cells not everyone had been as careful, and the dry rusk was easy to choke on.

In his current state there was no sense in attempting to plan a way out. Nori still felt too exhausted from the past ordeals, and from experience he knew that he would need to be rested if he was to try and get out of an unpleasant situation. Only emergencies were good cause to run head over heal when feeling like he did now. Besides, he wasn’t alone and there was no way of telling in what state his companions were.

Were he on his own, Nori might have slept the dizziness away. In the cells of the Woodland realm there was no peace though. As soon as it seemed as if the guards had settled into the usual circles, with those who had shoved the Dwarves into their cells so unkindly and those who had brought them food leaving, voices picked up.

Curses flew through the air as the Dwarves complained about their treatment and growled about the unnatural twilight and monsters of the forest. Between the outrage Nori could pick up the familiar sound of a head count going round. Injuries were counted and family members reassured each other that everything was alright with voices echoing in the strange damp caverns.

Bilbo was missing, Nori noticed as he strained his ears to pick up as much information as he could. A glance towards Dori revealed that his brother was signing, the words he told Nori in inglishmêk unnoticed by their guards.

Nobody knew where Thorin was, and Bilbo was gone though no word would be spoken of it, just in case he was alive and somewhere nearby. No need to alert the Elves about one of their group missing, in case they saw that as a threat somehow. Ori was uninjured, but he was on the same side of the cells as Nori, so there was no way for them to see each other or communicate directly, if they didn’t want their guards to hear.

Tell Ori I’m fine as well,’ Nori signed towards Dori, mustering a reassuring crooked grin though Dori wouldn’t be fooled by that. ‘Tell him not to drink too much at once.

Dori nodded and shifted in his cell for a better view of where Ori was, and waited to get his attention discreetly.

Nori settled against the wall more comfortably, feeling a strange patience wash over him. It had always helped him in situations like this, for a time, as he was restless at heart. He could nearly feel at ease, given the circumstances.

His eyes fell on Dwalin, who was staring right back at him.

How do you feel?’ she signed, and she must have seen some of his conversation with Dori from where she was sitting.

Like an axe split my skull,’ Nori replied.

She moved as if she snorted at that. Then her hands moved a little quicker, inquiring about his state as Nori had kept quiet earlier. He replied that he felt like died and returned to the living, though there was no pain or injury worse than scrapes and bruises. Dwalin was in the same condition.

Do you think you can get out of here?

From a dungeon filled with Elves, with a company of loud warriors to care for and an endless forest filled with overgrown spiders all around us? I would feel honoured to be part of such an escape.

Some of the tension in Dwalin’s shoulders eased, and Nori could see her beard move a little. Usually that meant that she was smiling slightly, and he felt a little better knowing that he’d eased her mood as well.

Rest,’ he advised her, as he stretched out on the floor, too tired to crawl over to the little cot in the cell. It was too tall anyway.

Dwalin glared slightly, but at least she settled down for now. The way she was scowling at the bars in front of her made Nori wonder if she’d try to break them down. Dori was not one to try and destroy things on purpose, so Nori wasn’t sure if his brother would attempt to do the same. If anyone were to find some weakness in the structure of those bars, it would be one of those two.

Nori eyed the bars and the walls surrounding them, trying to find some flaw in them himself. With his sight still recovering from his bout of sickness, there was little to pick up on.

Instead Nori’s eyes found their way back to Dwalin, watching her quietly as his body slowly started to calm down from being poisoned.

*

In the following days Nori felt his health return slowly. Even the blur of the spider poison and the fog of the forest were clearing up in his head, leaving his mind sharper than it had been since they entered the Mirkwood. Something inside the Elven caverns was keeping the sickness of the forest at bay, and Nori suspected that he might have liked them if he ever got the chance to explore, even if they weren’t solid rock everywhere.

They were given food and enough water to drink and even a quick wash up over a shallow basin every day. Compared to things Nori had to get by with in the past, the food was downright delicious, and most likely part of what was being cooked for the guards anyway. There were small slivers of meat in the broth sometimes, and unlike what delicacies their hosts in Rivendell had given the Dwarves this was actually filling.

It amused Nori for a while, to think about how Elves seemed to think that good food was only suitable for prisoners and warriors, while esteemed guests received delicately cooked scraps. The hospitality of Tall People had never been something Nori understood.

With nothing else to do Nori sat in his cell and observed all he could see from his position against the bars. The metal itself was solid enough that nobody would be able to break them apart by force without any kind of tool, the rock they were set in would not break so pushing the bars out of their setting was out of the question as well. It was near impossible to reach the lock from inside the cell, as the strange winding pattern the bars were assembled in was arranged in a mesh Nori couldn’t squeeze his hand through in that part, so he gave up on that.

He would come up with something eventually, if he just had the time and managed to memorize the guard patterns. Hard to do without knowing how the winding tunnels of the prison were arranged, and what part of the paths were visible from other places. Nori had no way of knowing where sentries stood and how high up the levels of cells went.

At least he wasn’t alone. The Dwarves soon developed a system of communicating, as everyone was in sight of at least two other Dwarves. They yelled random stories towards each other, or insulted the Elves that passed them by. Anything important or private conversations were signed with inglishmêk, either directly or through whoever could see both of those having a conversation. Loud talks or meaningless chatter at the same time covered up the fact that the Dwarves were speaking, as utter silence would be suspicious.

Some even found something to pass the time and try to ease their worries. Bofur told the others of small pieces of wood that he tried to shape into small toys with nothing but a pebble he found. Ori had unravelled one of his spare mittens and was knitting something with two long pieces of wood he’d torn off the small cot that served as a bed in the cells.

Dwalin didn’t tell the others what she was doing, and Nori suspected it was because she did exactly what she would do when there were longer periods of rest. Nori could see her pacing in her cell, not with anger and impatience, but rather with precise practiced movements, pausing stretch and go to her knees to push herself off the ground with her arms over and over. She had nothing to serve her as a weight or weapon, but Nori recognized her forms and the way she moved as if there were Orcs before her to be mowed down.

He envied her for being able to sit out the imprisonment with no more than disdain and growls at the Elves around her. Even at the distance there was an easy patience radiating from Dwalin, like a predator just waiting for the right moment to lunge. The way Dwalin acted one might think that she was merely sitting in some tent at the edge of a battlefield, waiting for a command.

He could not tear his eyes away when she worked herself into a sweat, and the few times Dwalin let her eyes move and saw him watching she smirked at him. It was cruel to be so far from her when she did that.

What pleased Nori more about their cell’s positions than being able to watch Dwalin like this, was that they could sign directly to each other.

In the evenings when their last meal had been brought, but their forced inactivity made it hard to go to sleep when the moonlight filled the cavern. There was simply nothing to do but sleep and sit around, and there was only so much sleeping one could do.

During those times Dwalin wouldn’t try training, which was understandable too. Instead she would sit against the bars and look towards Nori, and with her hands she would sign a request for stories. He’d always had the best after all.

He would tell her of things he had stolen and placed he had seen.

In turn she would describe the roads she travelled. Most of the time Nori’s stories would make Dwalin laugh, while Dwalin’s made Nori watch in awe as she described the most amazing sights to the south of Ered Luin and in the far north. She’d not travelled in the same areas as him, and hadn’t really left far from the new settlements of their people, but the way Dwalin described it all made it seem like faraway lands.

On one night, when they had told each other stories until the moon passed its zenith above the forest and Dwalin had settled down to try and sleep, Nori remained seated where he was. He yearned for a pipe more than he had in weeks, and his eyes roamed the now familiar sight of the cavern. He didn’t notice Dori’s bright stare on him until a few moments passed, and then he was sure that his brother must have watched him for some time now.

Is Dwalin the one?’ Dori asked and for a moment Nori tried to pretend that he didn’t know what was meant.

She’s the one you met all those years ago? Does Ori know? Does she know?

Yes. I told them both,’ Nori signed back ‘There was no opportunity to tell you.

Dori didn’t seem to mind that part, as he merely nodded with a compassionate expression and turned away to sit more comfortably against the bars.

*

Days passed in the cells, then one week, then two.

The appearance of a little Hobbit between guard rounds startled everyone.

One moment Bilbo wasn’t there, and the next he was rushing past the cells to assure himself that everyone was present.

“How did you survive?” Nori hissed when Bilbo was near him.

He looked exhausted, dark bruises under his eyes telling of how little sleep he must have gotten, and his cheeks were still sunken in much the same way they had been in the forest while the Dwarves had recovered a little.

“I managed to sneak in behind you when you were captured and I’ve been hiding in the palace ever since,” Bilbo whispered with a tired smile. “I’m looking for a way out, but I needed to know if you would be able to run if I find one.”

Bilbo was gone as soon as he had arrived, only staying for long enough to make sure that everyone was able to travel. He promised them to get them out within another week or two, as he was waiting for the right opportunity to sneak everyone out. He had found Thorin in a remote cell as well, much to everyone’s relief. They had heard some Elves talk about what could have been a meeting between Thranduil and their own King, but nobody had been sure.

From how Bilbo spoke Nori was sure that there was the first seed of a plan in Bilbo’s mind, but he didn’t try to push the matter. Most likely it would take too long to explain anyway.

It was hard to keep their excitement at bay after finding out that Bilbo was still alive and that they had a chance to escape somehow. The Dwarves chatted more loudly, insulted their guards as more, and waited with baited breath. Time passed quicker now that there was an end to this in sight.

As the days went on and Bilbo worked on whatever his plan was, Nori started to notice that something was happening in the soundless conversations outside of his line of vision. Dwalin didn’t look towards him for an entire day, while Dori gave him the same sad looks he had received decades earlier, when his grief was still fresh.

There were rumours around him, stories told, and Nori could feel them crawling under his skin. Secrets were revealed, that much he knew, and of the spoken conversations more and more were directed at him and Dwalin. All meaningless, but Nori had been mostly quiet so far.

The rumour of your and Dwalin’s… situation is out,’ Dori told him one night.

Nori wasn’t entirely surprised really. With how he and Dwalin had acted in those last days in the forest, and with snippets of their signed conversations being seen by others the rumour mill started grinding. From how sheepish Ori’s voice sounded when he spoke to Nori directly he also suspected that some details might have come from his son as well. He didn’t blame him, though Nori felt apprehensive of what Dwalin might think of it all.

There was no way to speak freely about these matter either, which Nori would have preferred to get it over with and make sure that the rumours didn’t get out of hand. Presuming they ever made it out of the damned dungeon, they still had some way to travel to the mountain, and Nori didn’t relish the thought of having all eyes on him for such a personal reason.

Dwalin didn’t speak of it, but from her tense look Nori was sure that she had caught wind of it all as well.

There was nothing either could do to stop it, so they didn’t mention it, and quietly pretended that nothing was wrong in their limited world of a prison.

Chapter Text

Of all the stupid plans Bilbo could have come up with, Nori had to admit that waiting for the guards to be drunk and escaping in empty barrels across a river was surprisingly sneaky.

It’s cleverness didn’t change the fact that his lungs burned with ice-cold water and his coughs shook his entire body as he tried to breathe actual air. Or that he was completely soaked and didn’t know when he might get to warm up again or find some clothes to prevent freezing to death - if there would be such an opportunity at all. Or that he didn’t know if Elves weren’t pursuing them even know, this time aiming their arrows rather than hoping to let them rot in prison.

At least everyone else was there; still alive if any of his attempts to count them all had given Nori the right result in his disorientation. His hands clung to the edge of his barrel so hard his fingers hurt, and before that they’d clung to Bilbo, who somehow had fallen out of the barrel he’d picked for himself. Nobody else looked any more at ease than Nori did at least.

Sliding out of the barrels into the relative calm water of a natural bay strangely felt better than to just sit and cling. For one the current somehow felt warmer to Nori, and a part of him wanted to let the water carry him away so he wouldn’t have to deal with the wind and the cold again. It was so much calmer than the constantly bobbing and turning barrels too. Staying in the river wasn’t an option though, much as Nori didn’t want to deal with figuring out how to survive under the current circumstances.

His hands found little purchase in the loose rocks of the riverbed, and it took him all of his energy to fight against the water’s force to get to land, where he broke down and heaved for air. Nori only permitted himself a brief moment of rest before he got up once more to try and see where he could help. Others might be in no condition to fight the way to dry land on their own.

Bifur was stuck in his barrel and required his cousin’s help, as he was too dizzy to find a solid foothold or the right angle to tip over his barrel to slide out, and Dori looked deathly pale and very close to throwing up. Nori helped him find his feet again, and heard his brother’s distressed mumble.

Before Nori could wade back out into the water to try and find Ori, he saw Dwalin all but carrying him out of the water. The poor lad looked as if he couldn’t stand on his own, with his waterlogged clothes weighting him down too much. He didn’t fall when Dwalin placed him on solid rock and turned back to help Óin find his bearings though.

Soon enough the entire company was assembled at the shore, shaking from the cold and the violent ride down the river. Families stuck together, and everyone was breathing hard now that there was no danger of filling their lungs with water.

“Well that was something,” Kíli said, the first to laugh when the realization of being free hit him.

“Well done Master Baggins.”

He clapped Bilbo’s back, nearly knocking the Hobbit to the ground, with how wobbly his legs were from the ordeal.

Hesitant laughs sparked up here and there, but most knew that there was no time to relax. It still was daytime, but it wouldn’t take long before it would be unbearably cold. They had no food or shelter, should the weather change, and no way to defend themselves should some wild animals, or even guards and Orcs catch up with them.

The uncertainty of the situation had the older more experienced warriors urge the group on, only lingering for long enough for Óin to make sure that there were no injuries that needed his urgent attention. No protests from the younger and more exhausted Dwarves would dissuade Thorin from his demands to press on.

Nori didn’t say anything, glad that at least they had some safety in numbers, even if they were exhausted and weapon-less.

What little warmth they could steal from the sun was brief, as the day turned to evening and night was creeping closer mercilessly. Nori didn’t know if they would have survived the night without the town of Men that stood on a lake, and the lone boatman who agreed to take them the rest of the way to that place on his barge. For a handsome sum of the last coins that could be scraped up among the company.

The short way over the icy lake was the first true rest Nori had gotten in longer than he could remember. He wasn’t safe yet, he knew that well enough, but his body simply wouldn’t remain in his alert state.

Nori let his gaze wander, as the only noise to be heard was the gentle splash of waves against wood and the Man’s occasional steering. For the first time he registered that the company had split up in groups, noticeable by how they sat together and how they had walked before. Dori and Ori sat cuddled close to Nori, of course, exhausted as they were, but Bofur and Bifur had also sat down closer to Nori as well. They seemed slightly wary, of what he wasn’t sure at first.

Then he noticed the way Dwalin’s kin had subtly arranged themselves in a ring around her, nearly blocking her from view with help of the empty barrels on the boat as well. Nori stared just long enough to notice how there were strange prying and sometimes unfriendly looks thrown his way. His and Ori’s.

Ah. That would explain it just fine.

Nori closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wood with a sigh. He didn’t wish to deal with that, not now at least. Dwalin had been speaking to Thorin when he looked her way, so he wasn’t sure what she might think of this, if she had even noticed.

He wasn’t sure how many rumours had made their rounds, and how much had been Ori and Dori giving up information when pushed for it, and how much was guesswork based on careless words between him and Dwalin. If anyone had seen their conversations in the cells they would know for sure that they had met decades ago. And Nori honestly couldn’t remember if he’d let anything slip as they wandered Mirkwood, with his mind clouded and tongue left unguarded. He couldn’t regret the quiet signed conversations in the cells though.

Of course they would all assume that something had gone horribly wrong between him and Dwalin, and had only mended recently, even if they only knew how Ori related to them both. That much was true after all, and they had seen some of it. Why not assume that he had done something. He already was a thief, it never was too hard to conclude that he was worse than that still.

It explained Bofur and Bifur’s behaviour too, and how nervous Bombur looked. They glared at the group of nobles, easily siding with Nori as long as it wasn’t clear what had happened exactly. Growing up in the poorer refugee villages and settlements of Ered Luin taught you to stick with your kind after all, and the two cousins liked Nori enough to side with him either way. Bombur, ever trying to avoid conflict if it seemed unnecessary, was keeping out of it because nobody but Nori and Dwalin did know the details. Nori couldn’t fault him for that.

The Man helping them didn’t seem to notice anything amiss with the company, or if he did he had the good sense not to show it. He steered the boat to a small dock near a strange town build completely out of wood and on platforms over the water, standing solid despite how precarious such building conditions looked to Nori.

There were few other townsfolk around, all staring with wide eyes as they noticed the Dwarves, but thankfully there weren’t enough to cause a fuzz.

“Let the Master know,” the boatman told a young child who was closest to them, prepared to help tying the boat securely.

There were whispers as the Dwarves were led over a long pier towards the actual town, Thorin at the front, people wondering what Dwarves were doing in these parts again. Just before they reached the gates the King threw a glance back at everyone else, frowning slightly.

I expect you all to act as a company. Any issues you might have will wait until we are all in private.

Nori nearly flinched away from the quickly signed command, feeling strangely as if he might have put the quest in jeopardy, before he remembered that any foolish behaviour within the company wasn’t his doing after all. He might be the reason for some discord, but it all had been brought on by the others.

Bilbo glanced between the Dwarves, sensing the sudden sheepishness or seriousness between them all, but not knowing what might have caused it.

There was no time for him to ask them about it as the sound of trumpets filled the air. More and more Men were streaming into the narrow streets or watched the Dwarves from windows, whispering among themselves. Shivers ran over Nori’s back as he felt like an imprisoned animal being paraded before so many. He didn’t let it on though, and instead walked on, following his brother as he always did when he wasn’t sure what else to do.

Whatever Nori had expected the Men to do with them; it surely hadn’t been the warm welcome the company received.

The Master of the town welcomed the company, greeting them as if they were heroes and not a bunch of tired shivering Dwarves. There was music, with a fanfare and musicians who must have done a mad dash to fetch their instruments and assemble as they did, and food was brought, all cold pickled things and fish, though Nori was sure more was being prepared even as the company was being pushed towards a hall for a celebration. They even received coats and furs to wear for all of it, so they wouldn’t grow cold, and fires were lit to warm up next to.

It really was strange to be welcomed like this, with so many excited voices chatting on and on about what a blessing this was, how the Men wanted to retake their town of old as well, Dale, lost as it lay directly at the foot of the mountain and thus was too close to the Mountain. It had been a while since the Dwarves had anything but disdain thrown at them during this journey.

Perhaps there was more important things said that night, but Nori couldn’t be bothered to listen once he was handed a hard bread crust filled with steaming fish stew. There was nothing that couldn’t wait when there was food and drink being offered after so many months of not being able to eat until he felt completely satisfied.

Dori ate deliberately slow, though most just stuffed their face and cheered when Bofur started singing, much to the townspeople’s delight. Ori didn’t mind how much fish there was in the food, though he’d often refused to eat it if that was what Dori had cooked, and Nori couldn’t help but tease him for it relentlessly.

There even was mead to be had, with a strange sour aftertaste that wasn’t too unpleasant. As Nori drank it he could nearly forget that there was a problem to be dealt with as well.

He was reminded of it soon enough when Glóin moved over to sit across from Nori at the long banquet table his cheeks red from the heat of the fire he’d been warming himself next to before. He stared at Nori for a few moments before saying anything to him.

“I’ve been wondering about you recently,” Glóin said, drawing out his words slightly.

Nori narrowed his eyes, and a little away he could see Dwalin’s head turn to them, her brows furrowing in anger as she rose from her seat.

“What did happen; we’ve all wanted to know this. Did you take your… did you take Ori and leave? Was it all too much?”

Nori stared at Glóin for a moment, feeling a weird twist in his chest.

“Is that what you think I’d do?”

Glóin shrugged.

“I wouldn’t condemn you for something like that, you were young after all.”

“You can bet I’d have done the opposite if I could,” Nori growled in reply.

Behind Glóin Dwalin was moving, intending to join them as Nori thought, but being blocked off by the long table she’d been sitting at.

“Aye, I’m sure he would have,” Bofur’s voice came from behind Nori, cheerful and carrying the sound of one who’d drank a considerable amount, but when Nori glanced back there was something hard in the miner’s gaze as he started at Glóin. “I’m sure a young lass like Dwalin might have been the one to up and leave as well. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Glóin bristled at the insult to his cousin, but instead of replying in anger he made a dismissive hand wave and turned just in time to see Dwalin stalking towards him. They met halfway, and Nori watched Dwalin quietly tell her cousin something. They were too far away for Nori to hear anything, or even make out whether she sounded angry or no.

He turned to Bofur, who was still watching Glóin with some disdain.

“That’s not what happened,” he said quietly, and the miner raised his eyebrows at Nori’s sour expression.

“I didn’t want to listen to people accuse you like tha’” Bofur said with raised hands.

“What exactly did you say about… this, when we were in the cells?”

“Only that you and Dwalin obviously had some history, and that your little brother’s actually your lad. Dori didn’t want to talk much, and Ori said he doesn’t know and we let him be.”

Nori sighed and refrained from asking what the theories were, as he was certain there were a few wild ones. He had only just gotten to warm up and eat properly, he didn’t have the energy to try and deal with the rumours as well. Not before talking to Dwalin about it, in hopes of hearing about what her own family was saying.

The warrior was carrying herself proudly, head held high in defiance, but Nori wasn’t so sure about whether she truly felt confident in this situation. She had always feared her family’s reactions after all, and now they all knew…

Whatever Dwalin had said to Glóin, it made him stay away from Nori for the rest of the night. There were still some curious glances thrown their way, but perhaps nobody was in the mood to deal with this right now, exhausted and full of good food for once.

The feast didn’t last much longer, as the company was lead to a warehouse that didn’t seem to be in use. They could stay there, for as long as they needed before heading towards the mountain, and Balin spoke with some Men about what supplies they would need the soonest. All that and more was promised, and then they were left alone.

Nori briefly wished Dori and Ori a good night, and slipped away before they could even ask him if he was all right. It might be selfish of him, and perhaps he should have stayed with his family, but Nori didn’t want to be anywhere near the other Dwarves for the night, just in case someone decided to try and talk to him about things once again.

There was a stack of dusty crates, some with splintered wood, but Nori found that there was quite a bit of space between them and the wall, completely blocking anyone from view if they were to step behind them. He grabbed a few blankets that felt rough under his hands but would keep him warm in the night, and laid some of them out on the floor.

Nori stretched out on his back and sighed, watching the dust before him dance with the disturbance of the air. He only lay there for a little while before he heard heavy steps, and Nori was ready to snap at anyone trying to look for him. Then Dwalin came into view and he relaxed again.

“Mind if I join you here?” she asked, and Nori scooted over slightly, to give her room.

It was a bit of a tight fit, but not uncomfortable when Dwalin lay down beside him. Their arms where pressed together, and after a few moments Nori reached out to wrap his hand around Dwalin’s fingers, and she squeezed his slightly.

“I didn’t want to stay there and hope nobody says anything,” she said after a while, and Nori arranged the blanket so that it would cover them both. “I just… I don’t want to deal with this, not now. I don’t know what I expected, I knew I would have to tell them eventually, but now…”

“I feel the same way too,” Nori told her.

“Lets not deal with this right now then,” Dwalin said, her voice tired but Nori saw her smiling at him from the corner of his eyes.

“Lets ignore them.”

Their hands clasped together, they lay quietly, watching the moonlight pour into through a boarded shut window above them. Nobody came to bother them that night.

Chapter Text

When Nori woke up cold air was brushing against his exposed skin and the building was filled with dim light. Displeased he curled against Dwalin, chasing some warmth as the morning’s cold was trying to drag him to consciousness fully. She had barely moved in her sleep, a solid source of comfort and warmth, not even stirring when Nori tried to burrow further under her blankets to try go back to sleep. He deserved it, after all he’d suffered just the day before.

There was no use in trying to go to sleep once again though, the cold wouldn’t let Nori relax, and there was a distractingly close sound of water hitting wood gently. The house was build above water, and only thick beams held it up in the air; a thought that made Nori uncomfortable to think about. At least boats were meant to glide over the waves and float, but a house shaped thing?

He sighed in displeasure when he realized that this and similar thoughts would occupy his mind too much to sleep, as he always grew restless when he started wondering over something too much. Dwalin stirred a little at that, evidently not as fast asleep as Nori had thought.

She squinted at Nori for a moment, then shifted under her blanket and grunted when she noticed the cold.

“Good morning,” Nori told her listlessly, and tried to suppress a smile when Dwalin pulled him closer.

“’s too cold to be morning,” Dwalin grunted, but her scowl made Nori think that she must be at ease after all.

He hadn’t always been right next to her in the mornings when everyone got up, so he couldn’t say for sure that she hadn’t been grumpy then. But he knew that she often was when they were safe in a settlement, sharing a bed with only Dwarves around them for miles. It seemed that Dwalin only hated mornings when her rest had been good.

“Didn’t you once tell me how cold it is around the Lonely Mountain?”

Dwalin didn’t say anything for a while, before she sighed deeply.

“True. Lets find some food and see if we can get a look at the peak from here.”

Nori hummed in agreement and rubbed his nose against Dwalin’s, smirking when she pulled a face at how cold it was.

The strange peaceful atmosphere broke as soon as the two Dwarves left the shelter behind which they’d spent the night.

The warehouse was divided by several walls, though not all really connected to make an enclosed room. There were also some ladders leading up to an attic that Nori promised himself to explore later. For now there were only few Dwarves awake that he could see, and he couldn’t tell whether all had gotten up and were up and about somewhere else or even outside.

Dori was there, helping Bifur mend some clothes and go through a pile of old rags that would keep everyone warm if the need arouse. Bofur sat next to Bilbo, who was wrapped up in a thick blanket and looked as if he might fall asleep once more. A pile of potatoes stood before them in a bucket, and a little knife lay in his lap, though only Bofur was working on peeling right now. Bombur was already getting busy examining various little boxes and buckets, all filled with food for now, or for the journey - Nori couldn’t tell.

“Morning, you two gorgeous Dwarves, you,” Bofur called to them, so cheerful in the cold grey warehouse that Nori could do little more than give him a dirty stare.

“Is there anything ready to eat?” Dwalin asked, peeking over Bombur’s shoulder, as if she was hoping he was hiding porridge somewhere.

Bombur shrugged slightly.

“There’ll be something later but for now…”

He gestured towards a few small boxes that were half hidden by the folds of Bilbo’s blanket, who sat right next to them. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be dry crackers and a box of strangely coloured stiff fish. Dried and pickled, from the smell of it.

“That’s the best we can do without already having to cook,” Bofur joked. “We won’t have a shortage of fish here, that’s for sure!”

Nori grabbed a handful and gave half to Dwalin, who sniffed at the food, the corners of her mouth turned down. Whatever had been done to the fish had given it a strange scent that Nori wasn’t sure was healthy as far as fish went, under normal circumstances, and it was strangely rubbery as he bit off some of it. At least the fish still tasted like fish.

As Dwalin sat down to watch Bombur work and wait for the inevitable request for help in moving things around, Nori wandered through the warehouse and eyed the things still there. It was mostly dusty broken planks of wood and boxes of metal scrap where they were, with the occasional broken furniture. It seemed like the warehouse was like some sort of communal storage, for things that were useless or might be needed some other time.

The shutters of one window close by had been opened, revealing a view across the open lake, in the opposite direction of the Lonely Mountain. A heavy fog wafted over the icy dark water, obscuring any sunlight that might have made its way to the ground at this time of day and wrapping everything in a grey oppressive light.

Nori pulled a face at it, knowing that this might be the ideal weather to stealthily get away, but the worst when one had nowhere to go and resided right over cold water. If he at least had the security of knowing that Dwarves had constructed the Laketown to last…

With nothing else to do Nori picked up the closest dusty piece of cloth that might serve as a blanket and wrapped himself in it before climbing up on the windowsill to make himself comfortable and stare out into the mist.

Behind him he heard the sound of more and more Dwarves moving around, passing by Bombur for food to then walk off somewhere else, before him he heard water against wood, ever present, and some distant voices as some fishermen drove out further into the lake, unseen through the mist. Nobody approached Nori or called him over for help, so he chewed on the fish and watched as the view became lighter but not any less grey at that.

When Nori finally glanced back over his shoulder for the first time he saw that Dwalin had been roped into preparing the food alongside Bofur. Dori had joined Bilbo and both were enjoying something that might pass for tea, Nori doubted either would be picky now and he hadn’t seen proper leaves among the items around Bombur. The ginger cook had already put up a cauldron and had started cooking something, which had then pulled some of the others closer as well, hoping to be the first to get some when the food would be done.

Even at the distance Nori could see that Dwalin looked rather tense and closed off. The reason was clear, as both Óin and Balin were nearby, glancing at her with strange expressions. It didn’t seem like anyone had tried to approach her over the recent revelations at least, and Nori wondered if Thorin had insisted.

Their King obviously would want the company to keep it together and avoid any possible rift. He might be as worried and curious about the matter as the rest of Dwalin’s cousins, but Nori knew how close the two were. If anyone would manage to respect her decision to tell everyone everything when she was ready, it would be Thorin.

It took Nori a moment to notice both of the princes, and when he did he felt a wave of shame as he realized that the two were following Ori around, sticking close and making sure that none would approach him. Ori looked closed off, avoiding most of the company as much as he could, and occasionally he would throw a grateful glance at his friends.

Uncomfortable with the attention, and uncomfortable with the assumptions and the unasked or asked questions. Because of course he was as affected as Nori and Dwalin with this family secret bubbling up, if not more. It was easy for Nori to blame himself for that.

For just a moment Nori wanted to jump out of the window, grab some jut on the outer wall and scramble away from all of it. It passed in a heartbeat, and instead Nori shifted his weight so that he could slide off the too high up windowsill as quietly and gracefully as possible. He moved to where the three youngest of the group were trying to keep their distance from everyone. Nori was met by Fíli and Kíli’s gazes, weary and a positive glare respectively, before Ori tugged at their sleeves and turned towards Nori.

The princes let off their task of keeping Ori shielded from awkwardness and discomfort (which they pursued with commendable dedication, given how they even regarded Ori’s named family as a potential threat), leaving Nori to do what he wanted.

There wasn’t anything Nori could tell Ori to make the moment better, really. So instead he reached out to squeeze Ori’s hand, reassuringly, he hoped.

“It’ll blow over,” he promised and Ori snorted so loud that Nori could see Dori furrow his brow from the corner of his eye.

“I just want them to stop assuming, or thinking I can tell them anything,” Ori said and pressed his lips together.

“We’ll handle it.”

Leaving the princes at Ori’s side Nori moved on to where the rest of the company was. He could feel several pairs of eyes on him, could practically hear the questions that burned on everybody’s tongues, only kept in check by Thorin’s command.

Nori settled down on a little crate, close to where Bombur was busy ignoring everyone and cooking. Dwalin had finished whatever tasks she’d been given, and now stood with her back to one of the warehouse’s beams. Any conversation still going on felt forced, apart from the one between Bofur and Bilbo, who probably felt too miserable to really care about some weird family secrets that didn’t concern him in the slightest.

Everyone was there now, at least in earshot, and Nori was waiting for anyone to ask them. He wouldn’t be the one to break Thorin’s request for some peace and order within the company, and neither would Dwalin, judging by her stubborn expression.

Curious glances were thrown, Óin pretended like he didn’t care for the mood but his eyes kept moving from Dwarf to Dwarf as he waited for someone to make the first move, Bofur feigned a relaxed posture that didn’t quite look natural, and Glóin’s eyes were fixed on Nori though he looked as if he wasn’t actually seeing him. Balin sat quite still with his lips thin as he tried to ignore the unpleasant situation, while Dori sported a similar expression, albeit one that was meant to conceal anger rather than awkwardness.

In some strange way Nori felt a grim satisfaction in having caused that now, as none of them truly had the right to bother him or Dwalin. In some sense it was their own fault too.

Finally the mood broke as Thorin straightened his shoulders and glared back at his company.

“This won’t do,” he said, his voice gruff, and silence fell immediately, only disrupted by the bubbling of Bombur’s cauldron and the fire underneath.

“If you can’t keep things going as usual, then get this over with,” Thorin went on. “Talk, ask what you want. If they agree.”

There was more silence as Thorin stepped back to stand at the edge of the company, watching quietly. Nobody spoke as Nori waited for anyone to turn to him, sudden sheepishness and uncertainty dominating their expressions. Still none would be the first to speak, until Balin sighed, and looked from Dwalin to Nori.

“So, if you would – how did this situation come to be?” he asked, his voice gentle and calm.

Dwalin and Nori glanced at each other, the stubbornness in Dwalin’s face wavering a little. She was still tense all over, and Nori doubted that she would relax easily, or manage to keep her composure should anyone say anything off.

“There’s not really much to say,” Nori started in her stead, keeping his expression neutral as everyone’s eyes turned to him. “I was young and wandering around looking for work in small settlements, and so was Dwalin. We met, we got together, took precautions but you know… Then this happened and Dwalin and I lost each other. Didn’t see each other till a few months ago, but not for the lack of trying.”

He shrugged, his throat feeling tight from forcing the words out calmly. It seemed wrong to summarize what had been between him and Dwalin in so few words to explain it. At the same time he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing it to all at once. At least Nori felt certain that he would trust each and every one of the Dwarves around him with the information, and even Bilbo who looked mildly uncomfortable. He just couldn’t speak of it in front of a crowd easily.

“Lost…?” Glóin asked, his brow furrowed as he looked at Nori.

“We got separated and never managed to meet back up. I didn’t know where to look,” Nori said with a sad little shrug, and Glóin pulled a face in pity.

“But how?”

“Azanulbizar got in the way,” Dwalin answered in Nori’s stead, turning everyone’s attention back to her.

There were compassionate mutters at that, and Nori turned his head away, remembering his worry at the time, his uncertainty over whether Dwalin had survived. He wasn’t the only one who would have lost someone in the Misty Mountains after all.

Thorin’s expression was unreadable to Nori, but he did notice Glóin’s compassion as he looked to him. No trace of accusation or suspicion left. And how could he, without blaming everyone else who had suffered from that battle indirectly through loss or separation?

“But why,” Balin finally spoke after a while as the silence stretched on between them, and turned to his sister “didn’t you ever tell us?”

Dwalin stared ahead, her eyes wider than before and her jaw tense. She was visibly uncomfortable at the question and Nori was sure that this was because it was too much for her to confess the guilt she’d carried in her for too long to those she kept it a secret from. At least not to all at once.

“I did tell Dís,” she finally muttered, her expression darkening again.

Before her brother could inquire further Dwalin pushed herself off the beam and stalked away, her forceful movements enough to keep anyone from trying to follow her. Before anyone could reconsider Dwalin was already out the door of the warehouse and out in Laketown. There were some looks thrown to Thorin, who looked as if he wished to follow his friend, but in the end Thorin shook his head.

“It’s her decision,” he finally got out, looking very much as if he was fighting to be reasonable like a King ought in such a situation, instead of reacting like he wished to as Dwalin’s friend and cousin.

Eyes started to turn to Nori now, looking for an explanation or maybe his side of the story. Thankfully Bombur spoke up just then, to declare that the porridge was done. Getting some warm food in their bellies outweighed any desire to know more in its urgency, so Nori was left alone, thankfully. He quickly got one of the Man sizes mugs that was part of their mismatched dishes to have Bombur serve him a decent scoop of the porridge and then moved away from the group.

Bilbo was quietly asking Bofur about what was going on as they ate, as he hadn’t been part of any Mirkwood gossip. Ori was still with the princes, looking visibly upset, but as neither of them shot any angry glares at Nori he suspected that it might be due to the story and not their current awkward situation. Dori caught Nori hand as he tried to walk by, briefly squeezing it and watching his brother silently, before letting go as Nori shook his head slightly. He appreciated the offered comfort, but he doubted that it would do any good with everyone else around.

There was a walkway outside the building, that lead halfway around it several feet above the rest of the town’s plank roads. It could be accessed from the outside, but also through a small door with a broken lock which Nori found as he searched for a place to eat his meal in peace. It was cold, with wind blowing over the lake, unbroken by the buildings of Laketown, and the fog still hadn’t lifted to let any sunshine reach the ground.

Nori leaned against the tall railing and ate quietly with a too big spoon, cradling the cup that was chipped here and there. As soon as he finished it he would go search for Dwalin to make sure that she hadn’t gotten lost in the twisted uneven paths the town consisted of, and see if she needed him. It would probably take a while for her to even want anyone to be around her though, so there was no reason to hurry just now.

When he’d eaten every last bit he could scratch up with his spoon Nori wrapped his coat around his shoulders tighter, as the wind was starting to bother him, and placed the cup on the railing. He would bring it back later, but for now he still didn’t feel like returning back inside just yet.

Only a few moments passed before steps on the wooden planks alerted Nori to another Dwarf’s presence. Even without turning he recognized the heavier, slower but careful steps Balin took, and given that he’d just finished his meal he suspected that the older Dwarf had watched him from some distance to wait for a good moment.

“May I join you for a while?” Balin asked kindly, and Nori nodded once. He didn’t particularly feel like having any company, but he also couldn’t think of a good reason to get rid of Balin without seeming unnecessarily rude.

Balin stepped next to Nori, still slightly more than an arm length away from him, not crowding. They stood for a few moments, as Balin remained silent while Nori wondered what he wanted from him.

Finally Balin sighed and turned to look at the thief.

“I came to say that none in our family blame you for anything that might have happened. It was foolish to assume any ill intent given how we’ve gotten to know you quite well, and from what we know of Dwalin.”

At least he cut right to the chase.

“There’s nothing you could try to blame me for,” Nori replied, not in the mood to let anyone feel better about themselves for anything.

“Regardless, I would like to apologize on behalf of my family,” Balin said with a slight bow to Nori. “I suspect some of the others might apologize to you as well, sometime today.”

Nori suppressed his urge to roll his eyes but returned the gesture.

“Apology accepted.”

There was some silence between them for another while.

“I must say, I was very fond of Ori before, and though it is a surprise, I am glad the lad is my sister-son. He is bright and shows great promise in anything he tries to learn.”

Nori couldn’t help but smile a little at it. Only a fool would feel anything but pleased at having Ori as part of their kin.

“You have Dori to thank for that. I had little to do with how Ori turned out in the end.”

Balin made a hum of polite disagreement but didn’t contradict Nori out loud. Again silence stretched between them, though now Nori was starting to feel the need to get away. He didn’t know what Balin might ask him next and the mood to answer truthfully was draining away.

“I understand that you tried to find Dwalin once more?”

“I never knew who she was exactly,” Nori replied “and I didn’t know if she’d want her family to know she had a child with someone like me. Not without being warned before.”

“That would make things difficult,” Balin agreed. “Both of you were quite young at the time, too much so to be completely on your own with the burden of raising a child and losing each other like that. From what I see you get along just fine on the quest, but at the time things might have gotten rather more difficult even without Azanulbizar.”

Nori stared at Balin for a moment.

“Why would they?”

“Well,” Balin started kindly. “You were both barely past maturity, if even that. A youthful relationship might be very well and agreeable, but once a small child is involved it might be rather difficult to still want to keep it that way…”

Nori snorted quietly.

“You think that thing Dwalin and I had was just… a fling?”

“I don’t judge you for this, I merely think that it’s natural to have casual relationships not meant to last at that age.”

“It wasn’t casual in the end,” Nori said, thinking back to being young and foolish with regret. “If I could have at my age, I would have married Dwalin.”

The look of complete surprise on Balin’s face might have made Nori laugh at some other time, but now he didn’t feel like even smiling.

He took his empty cup and the spoon before returning into the warehouse, leaving the old Dwarf standing. Both dishes were placed near Bombur’s cooking spot and then Nori slipped past everyone still around and out of the main doors.

Following Dwalin’s example Nori left the company behind, walking out towards the maze of Laketown’s paths. For now Nori wanted to either be with her, or walk among Men who knew nothing of who he was or what had transpired so many decades ago.

Chapter Text

There was no hiding among the people walking over the wooden ways. Every Man passing by Dwalin made way for her, excited whispers and open curiosity followed her wherever she went, making any attempt to just walk and calm down without being bothered by anyone futile. At least they didn’t try speaking to her all too much, all too nervous or excited to greet her, or whispering because nobody knew what to do with a Dwarf in their midst. Dwalin tried not to scowl too much, but her tall tuft and the scars covering her arms and face gained her some respect from the people whose children were often taller than her.

Though anonymity wasn’t possible it did help to walk through Laketown. The air tasted strange and the smell of fish clung to everything and the buildings were stacked together as if no planning had gone into constructing them and there were ropes and planks between the actual walkways over the water, creating precarious looking shortcuts. The unfamiliar place made Dwalin watch her surroundings with a cautious gaze, always ready for an attack or tense situation when she was in a town of Men.

It eased Dwalin’s mind of her other worries, if only by a little. There was no room to think of the all too familiar ache of guilt while trying to make her way through the town, looking for what, she didn’t know. It did pain her to have kept a secret for this long, though she had her reasons and would have done so again if her situation was the same. But knowing that her family might feel betrayed besides processing what she’d done wasn’t easy to brush off.

None of the Men around her noticed that Dwalin was a woman of Dwarves, too focused on her beard and her gruff demeanour. She never bothered to correct them, as she knew it would only get her more questions and curiosity than her scars and the bearing of a warrior already did.

Dwalin was only occasionally interrupted in her thoughts by Men. They were asking her if the company needed anything in terms of weapons, or if she wished to come to the armoury later, assuming correctly that this was her task. At least that gave her something to do that would both distract her and actually be of use to the company, so she wasn’t wasting time entirely. After Dwalin started glaring at nothing just a little bit angrier she was left alone entirely.

Time went on and hours passed without Dwalin running into anyone who might try and bring her back to the warehouse. After a while she started to regret having stormed off before proper breakfast, and soon her stomach began to growl. She could have asked any of the Men around her for food or directions to where it could be acquired, but she wouldn’t want any of them to interrupt their work for her sake. There might be questions about why she didn’t just go back to where the Dwarves had been given everything they needed anyway.

She sighed and stopped at a quieter part of the walkways, right where it branched out to a pier without any boats docking there for the moment. There was a railing to lean again, encircling a small area where pigs stood, eating without paying any attention to Dwalin, and some chickens moved around to peck at the wooden floor. There weren’t many Men passing by right there, and it was a welcome place to take a break.

The fog that settled over the entire lake didn’t seem to have any plans to disappear, and only the lighter shade of grey spoke of how the sun must have risen high behind the clouds. Looking through a gap between buildings Dwalin couldn’t see the lake’s shore, and somewhere several miles to the north the Lonely Mountain was barely more than the hint of a shadow, with its peak sometimes visible when the fog moved a little.

Seeing the half hidden goal of their quest made Dwalin’s heart clench. She didn’t know if they’d ever even manage to get inside, or whether the dragon was still alive and just waiting for them with his maw wide open to devour them whole… Either way Dwalin would fight for it, would not go without dealing a good deal of damage to Smaug as well. It shouldn’t matter if she actually would get to live in Erebor and be at peace; what mattered was that Thorin took back what was rightfully theirs, and give their people back a safe home and prosperity as he had once vowed.

How different would her life have gone if Erebor had never fallen in the first place. There wouldn’t be any memories of any war clinging to her mind, though perhaps there might have been some other conflict anyway. She wouldn’t know the loss of those who were closest to her, and wouldn’t know how it was like to see the ones who lived broken by grief. Unless fate would have been unkind to them even with the mountain secure.

Would she still have met Nori then? Despite all the grief that Dwalin had gone through because she met and lost the thief, she couldn’t imagine not doing all of it again, if she just could have the certainty that all would be well in the end.

Perhaps things would have been easier in Erebor. Perhaps Nori wouldn’t have been a thief but rather just a troublemaker. If their carelessness and Dwalin being with child had happened in Erebor, then maybe they would have had their families right there to help, and they could have stayed together with no duty calling to war…

All wistful thinking, Dwalin knew that there was little use in imagining how things might have been different. All that mattered was thinking of how she could change their future.

The creaking of wood close by alerted Dwalin to the fact that someone was stepping closer than the Men around her had before. Turing she half expected it to be one of her company, looking for her to bring her back to the warehouse, or ask her more than she wanted to speak about. What she didn’t expect was to see Nori there, watching her and keeping a cautious distance as he tried to decide whether Dwalin even wanted to be approached.

“Are they talking?” Dwalin asked, thinking about how her family would surely be talking about the situation in her absence. Nori might have overheard.

“Wouldn’t know, I left only a little while after you.”

Deciding that Dwalin wouldn’t object to his presence Nori stepped closer, right to the edge of the walkway. The sleeve of his borrowed coat brushed against Dwalin’s arm, and she knew he wouldn’t step any closer than that while they weren’t in private. And certainly not with Men around, even if nobody was near or looking their way right now. Having the Men react badly to Dwarves getting too friendly with each other was the last thing they needed, and Dwalin was not about to explain her being a woman to avoid that sort of situation.

“Did anyone say anything to you then?”

Nori didn’t answer right away as he reached into one of his roomy pockets and pulled out a few scones, which he handed over to Dwalin. She accepted gladly, wanting something to eat and not wishing to return even now. They most likely had been handed over to Nori, but even if he’d nicked them somewhere Dwalin found that she didn’t care.

Neither said anything as Dwalin ate and both looked out towards the Lonely Mountain. When Nori finally spoke his voice was quiet enough that Dwalin had to strain to hear it at first, but was in no danger of being heard by any Man unless they stood as close to Nori as Dwalin did.

“Balin did come to me, asking about what happened. Whether I really tried to do my best with everything back then. He also apologized for assuming the worst of me before.”

Dwalin snorted, even as she felt another wave of regret. Nori had done nothing to deserve scorn in the first place, not from her family at least. It was partially her fault that her brother and cousins had assumed that a thief had done something to her that warranted a desire for revenge, and that this thief was Nori. They couldn’t have known that her scorn was directed at anyone who had heard of Nori and double-crossed him, at those who’d forced him to run. Why else would a warrior search for a thief if not to catch and incarcerate them after all?

“I should speak to him eventually,” Dwalin said, hoping that she could avoid it for just a while longer still. “There’s no use in hiding from my own guilt for lying like that.”

“He didn’t make the impression as if he was upset about you doing that,” Nori told her. “They probably all feel like one can’t blame someone who’s made our mistakes at that age.”

They stood quietly as the noises of the town around them went on near unchanging.

“Balin also made some assumptions about troubles we would have had if things hadn’t turned out they did. Asked me how I felt about you really,” Nori said, smirking. “You might have Dori approach you with similar questions.”

Dwalin looked at the mountain for a few moments longer, before turning to Nori, her heart strangely heavy once more.

“What did you answer?”

The smirk dropped and as Nori’s gaze met Dwalin’s he looked lost. She didn’t expect the sudden vulnerability in his wide golden eyes, the sudden uncertainty. Nori parted his lips but didn’t say anything more.

It took Dwalin aback for a moment, as she couldn’t imagine what Nori might have said besides hinting at the truth. He wasn’t one to speak about his feelings openly, and certainly not about his feelings regarding Dwalin in front of her older brother. She wanted to know the cause of that strange expression, but she knew that this was no place to talk about things like that.

“Lets return to the warehouse,” Dwalin said with a sigh and Nori’s face fell back into his usual calm watchfulness. There was no need to try and drag the time before she inevitably would have to speak to her family again.

Chapter Text

Everyone was busy by the time Dwalin and Nori made it back to the warehouse, and none had time to spare to pay any attention to the two, safe for a call from Bofur about needing some help sorting through the winter clothes they’d been given. Somebody must have delivered what the Dwarves had asked for, to aid them on that last stretch of their quest, and nobody wanted to lose any more time sitting around idly when work could be done.

Dwalin could practically taste the tense anticipation as everyone was carrying things back and forth, trying to decide what was needed and who should carry what. All useful work, no doubt, though Dwalin was certain that the way she and Nori were subtly ignored was deliberate just for its own sake. Nobody wanted to make things awkward now that there was something to do, and most probably just decided to make an effort to uphold some semblance of normality. She felt some gratitude for that, glad of the brief respite and the chance to now approach her family in her own time. She knew eventually they wouldn’t be able to hold their tongues anymore, but for now it was enough.

Ori was the first to actually turn to them properly, face brightening with some relief as he spotted both his parents together and not looking to grim about the situation either.

He came closer to Dwalin, his hands clutching at a ratty old notebook nervously.

“Would you help me with the weapons, please?” he asked, looking up at her. “The Men have given us some, and I would like to make a detailed list before we hand anything out, for better overview. Only I’m not familiar with most of it at all.”

His fingers were rubbing over one of the yellowed pages, stiff from water damage and probably just meant as jotting paper to not ruin his miraculously intact journal. The way he was glancing at Nori sometimes, too nervous to look Dwalin in the eye properly, made Dwalin think that he had looked for some pretence to speak to her before coming across a task that actually required her assistance.

“Of course,” Dwalin replied, her heart clenching a little at Ori’s beaming expression.

A soft wave of guilt washed over her, once again reminding Dwalin of how she had missed out on decades worth of spending time with her son. It was easily dismissed though, replaced by the simple desire to spend time with him now.

Before she could take a step to follow Ori to the stacked weapons, to examine and try out, she felt the brief brush of fingers against her wrist. She didn’t need to look back to know that Nori was giving her one last reassuring touch before they parted to go about their tasks, and she quickly turned her hand to return that touch as well.

There was a decent pile of metal where Ori led her to, weapons that seemed big and clunky and a little strange to Dwalin, but she could tell that these were good tools at first glance. Or rather, as good as the Men of this town could provide, and though she could have wished for better, she was also sure that this was the same quality as the guards were carrying.

She tested each piece diligently, swinging to judge how they would be in handling and to see whether it would withstand the hard grip of a Dwarf’s hand, much more powerful than a Man’s, whether they would be of use in a fight. Each passed her test, though some would need more experienced warriors to wield them, and each was marked down on the scarps of paper Ori had gotten, along with suggestions of who should carry what, based on what Dwalin had seen in sparring matches and the fights during their long journey, or which ones should be packed away to carry along in case of need.

Their conversation was scarce, with Dwalin only describing the weapons and her suggestions for them in few words, while Ori was not speaking at all as his quill scratched over the paper. Not really something that could be considered a moment of bonding, in anyone’s eyes, but Dwalin couldn’t help but feel a little calmed. There was no talk between them, but Ori seemed content to draw up his list without that. Dwalin supposed that just working side by side was good enough. She’d often felt at peace when her and Thorin just worked on their crafts with no words exchanged between them as well, would it be so strange for this to apply to others as well.

When they were done there wasn’t really any reason for Ori to linger, or for Dwalin to trail along and be at his side while he worked on the tasks he surely had to see to. Much as she wanted to get to know him better, it might have to wait for a better opportunity than a quest such as theirs, this close to the end.

She thanked him for his help, and Ori insisted that it was Dwalin who needed the thanks. It made her chuckle, and she placed a hand on his shoulder gently.

“You’re a good lad,” she said. There were other things Dwalin wanted to tell her son, that she was proud of him no matter what, that she loved him, that she wished she’d have been there for him. None of those words wanted to come to her lips, and it did not seem like this was the place or time to do so.

Ori looked up at her, smiling as if he knew how much Dwalin left unsaid.

“Thank you,” he said simply, reaching up to touch Dwalin’s hand on his shoulder briefly, quickly dropping it again as he seemed even less sure of how to act than Dwalin.

With a little bit of luck there would be time to grow close soon, and time to fix the distance between them. Dwalin could only pray for that chance.

Ori bowed slightly, and hurried on to see where else he was needed, leaving Dwalin behind. She permitted herself to savour the moment for just a little bit longer, before shaking her head and turning to go see what she could help with as well.

Before Dwalin could do so her eyes fell on her brother, standing on his own and drinking something hot and strange smelling. She should talk to Balin as well, she knew.

“Ah, Dwalin,” Balin said as soon as he noticed her approach and determined look, and he didn’t protest when she gestured to one of the areas of the warehouse where some broken furniture was scattered in a way that made the company avoid the area in their preparations.

“Can we talk privately?” she asked, and Balin nodded, putting away his mug and following her at once.

By rights she should have gone to Thorin first, to talk to him, explain how she would stand firmly by her decisions thought she wanted them all to understand and accept what she had done in her past either way. He was her closest friend, the one she had shared all but her deepest secret with, he was her King. Balin was her brother though, and Dwalin knew that it was her family first and foremost who needed to know. With her mother absent, Balin was the one closest to her, so he would be the first.

“We have to talk about… this…” she said slowly, when they were out of the company’s earshot.

Balin gazed up at her, sadness written in his eyes, the lines on his face deeper, brow furrowed in sorrow, making his face look like ancient rock though he wasn’t that old yet.

“I know we should, but please, don’t feel like you must explain anything to me, little sister.”

He sighed, shoulders slumping.

“This is partially our fault as well. My fault. If you hadn’t felt like there would be horrible repercussions, or shame in admitting to having a child, we would have been able to help you search. And it was our fault for there to be a need for that in the first place, to make you think that it was your duty above all else to go join us in that futile war. You were too young, and we’ve all lost too much.”

Dwalin wanted to protest, tell him that neither Balin nor the rest of the family was to blame in any way. But she had spoken about it with Dís, and the princess had demanded that the age of entry in case of a campaign should be raised, and that families should be shown more support in ways that would have helped Dwalin and Nori before. Taking responsibility, making sure this would not happen to anyone else.

“It’s in the past,” she said instead, clasping her brother’s arms in the gesture they had shared so often, in greeting and reassurance both.

Balin sighed heavily and returned the motion, clasping his sister’s arms.

They knocked their foreheads together, and neither pulled away, just sharing their breath for a moment.

“I must say, I should thank you as well. I never thought to have children of my own, and never felt like I ought expect you to give me nieces or nephews. To find that I have such a find lad to call my family is a pleasant surprise after all. You should be proud.”

Dwalin let out a harsh laugh, not expecting the warmth in Balin’s words as he changed topics slightly.

“I am prouder than I ever thought I could be of anyone. But it’s not really my achievement.”

For a moment Balin looked as if he was about to argue that point with her, though then he just shook his head gently.

“I hadn’t known what to think of Nori, and I am afraid to say I treated him less than kindly due to my assumptions…”

“You apologized though,” Dwalin threw in.

Balin nodded again.

“And I will have to make my amends to him more. Whatever else he did in his life, he is responsible for my sister-son having grown up a healthy and clever young lad.”

He paused for a moment, regarding his sister with a look Dwalin couldn’t decipher.

“Do you know that he would have married you if you both had been old enough for that?”

Dwalin’s heart clenched at the thought, fantasies of no war, no separation and just her little family being in one place, as they ought to crossing her mind. Her expression did not change, but she felt the sudden urge to go find Nori. He had wanted…

But did he…

“I know,” she whispered.

Balin regarded her for a little while longer, and sensing her distraction bowed slightly.

“Good. But now would you excuse me? I’m sure there’s something left for me to do here.”

Dwalin watched him go but her eyes wandered over the hall they were in until they found the familiar starshaped hair. Nori was securing a few ropes to stash away in their packs when Dwalin approached.

“Come along,” she whispered at him, and he rose with no protest, following her immediately.

Dwalin twined her fingers with Nori’s, their hands out of sight of the company as she walked quickly but not too hurriedly. Nobody was in the line of sight of their little hideout from the night before, so Dwalin let Nori crawl behind the furniture first, before flowing. Nori sat down on the floor, comfortable, and Dwalin sat across. As soon as she settled Nori’s hands found hers again, squeezing encouragingly.

“I’ve been thinking…”

She paused, looked up at Nori’s eyes, so beautiful and bright gold even in the dim light of their hideout. They were the same as she had remembered them to be, even if there were many more lines and wrinkles and tiny scars over his face now. Still the same as the day Dwalin had fallen in love with him.

“Do you still sometimes think about how it would be like to get married?”

Dwalin felt Nori’s hands tense slightly and he parted his lips as if to speak.

“I used to think about it, sometimes, how it might have been like, but now I don’t know anymore. Not with the dragon… we set out tomorrow after all.”

Nori’s fingers clenched around Dwalin’s and he lowered his gaze, thinking.

“I would have wanted to,” he whispered “and I still want-“

He broke off, looking up at Dwalin’s eyes again.

“Do you think we could, after the dragon?”

Dwalin thought for a moment. Considered how it would be like to go into fight by Nori’s side, and try to reclaim their home, get to see it once more…

“I want to marry you before the dragon,” she said, voice firm though she felt like she could barely get the words out thinking about the possibility of there not being an after.

Now Nori’s mouth fell open.

“You want to do it now?”

“Why not? How knows if we’ll have the opportunity after this, or when. I truly can’t tell if we will all survive this, but I would rather go into battle with my husband by my side, rather than still carry this hurt of having all these decades with you stolen from me.”

Nori let out a shivering breath and pushed closer against her, until Dwalin let go of his hands to hold him in her arms instead.

“I want that,” he whispered against her shoulder. “Truly.”

They sat like that for a moment, clinging to each other as if they had just found each other again after all those years. Nori’s coats felt cool against Dwalin’s touch, but she held him tighter in response.

“Do we tell the others?” Nori asked after a while, muffled against Dwalin’s shirt. “We can do it on our own of course, but that would make it more official.”

Dwalin thought for a moment.

“I don’t know. What would you prefer?”

Nori shrugged.

“I want to tell Dori at least.”

“Then we do it together. Thorin won’t deny me this if I ask him to perfrom a small ceremony.”

Nori looked a little sceptical when they pulled apart, but he didn’t protest when Dwalin squeezed his hand and rose up to pull him back to the rest of the company.

Most of what they needed for the last section of their journey had already been distributed among the packs, and Bombur had made some broth for everyone to eat while resting from the brief but intense work. Everyone still pointedly didn’t stare at Nori and Dwalin’s clasped hands, and it wasn’t difficult to track down Ori and Dori.

Dori looked tired when Nori approached him, with a whispered request to talk in private, while Ori fixing a hole in one of his mittens nearby, looking too pointedly innocent for there to be any doubt about him planning to try and listen in.

Dwalin didn’t want to interfere in the talk, and instead went to find Thorin and Balin, who were the ones whose blessing she wanted. Balin followed her with no protest when she asked for a quite talk, and Thorin clasped her arm when she approached him, more than willing to give her a minute of his time.

“I am truly sorry for having kept this a secret,” Dwalin told her King and oldest friend, gesturing back to where Nori was now talking to Dori. “But I am not sorry for what I feel for him.”

Thorin nodded, lips twitching in a smile.

“None of us should be sorry for such things. I just regret that I couldn’t help you before.”

“You can help me now though. I won’t ask for permission, but I will ask for you to give us your blessing.”

Thorin raised his eyebrows at Dwalin’s words, and understanding dawned on Balin’s face. He looked at his sister with a sad smile, though he also looked happy as well.

“We might not live through tomorrow,” Dwalin said, bracing herself against that idea. “So I wish to marry Nori today, and I would prefer to do so with your blessing, with you bearing witness for our people and for Mahal.”

Thorin stared at Dwalin for a moment, and then he let out a small laugh.

“Of course it would be you to end up married under such ballad worthy circumstances, ever the warrior.”

Dwalin wanted to protest the comparison, but Thorin stepped closer and leaned his forehead against hers, making her return the gesture as well.

“I will witness for you, my shield-sister,” he said, and Dwalin couldn’t help the wide grin his response caused.

Balin smiled up at her as well, nodding in approval.

“I doubt you would find a better match if you’re still so sure after decades of knowing that Dwarf. I wish you and Nori all the happiness in the world, and may the Maker provide you with many days of content togetherness.”

Dwalin’s eyes burned a little as she thanked them for their support, and as she turned to glance back at Nori she found him already looking back at her as well. Dori was sporting a sad smile behind him, gently dabbing at his eyes with his sleeve, while Ori just looked excited about what he’d just been told. She nodded at him, and Nori cracked a faint smile.

Then there was nothing left to do but to gather what they would need for the hasty ceremony.

So close to the mountain most would have preferred to wait and have a ceremony in their ancient halls, and Dwalin heard as much when the message spread among the company. But nobody actually approached Dwalin to say that to her face, and every time she caught somebody looking at her they looked happy for her, if nothing else.

There was no time to make any of the necessary items they would need, and nothing to adorn their hair with to look their best. There was no need to find pretty simple tunics either, as the clothes they had were as humble and simple as one could get already, and it would be too cold to shed the many coats they had.

Somehow Dori found some old cloak he deemed worth it, and though Nori told him there was no need to put any effort into it, he wouldn’t let anyone dissuade him from stitching their family crest into the material. Such a cloak would normally be commissioned specifically for the wedding, or fashioned out of a family hair loom or some other significant material. It was more than Dwalin could hope for in their current circumstances, and she looked away quickly when she realized how Dori’s eyes were suspiciously bright as he worked.

Óin and Glóin found an old lamp somewhere, half broken and made from cheap metal, but with a little tinkering and a rag to polish it the thing looked shiny and nice. Dwalin’s younger cousin embraced her when the two handed it over, and she could hear Glóin rasping out something about how happy he was for her, despite what he might have indicated before, while Óin kept nodding without saying anything at all.

Dwalin wasn’t really paying attention to what everyone else was doing, though she saw how Ori was writing in his journal as quickly as he could without smudging the ink, and Bofur was saying something about finding some spices to try and make mulled wine for the occasion.

The sun set and soon it was time for the little ceremony. Nobody wanted to waste much time for the occasion, especially as most were also nervous about the following day. Dwalin couldn’t blame them, though somehow she felt more unease about being made to stand in the middle of the warehouse, with the entire company standing in a semi circle, waiting, and Bilbo looking on with curiosity.

Thorin stood before Dwalin, tall and emitting a sort of regal celebratory calm, despite how tired he still looked. He was Thorin II, son of Thráin, son of Thrór now, her King more than her childhood friend, and for a second Dwalin wanted to call it off, feeling how ridiculous it was that the King of Longbeards should be the one to officiate her wedding in some old abandoned warehouse in a fishermen’s town.

The moment Dori and Nori approached her worries were gone though. Nori had brushed his hair out, though he’d done it up in his usual peaks rather than tying it in a simple queue as she suspected he would have done had this been more traditional. He reached out for Dwalin’s hands, and she grasped them near hastily.

His eyes shone as bright as molten gold, and they didn’t look away from each other as Balin stepped forwards and draped the cloak around both their shoulders with Dori’s help. Nori looked as if he might cry, so Dwalin squeezed his fingers gently, trying not to choke on her own overflowing emotions either.

Ori stepped forwards, the lamp in his hands, and Fíli besides him with two long mismatched lit matches. They handed the lamp for Dwalin and Nori to hold together, fingers twined, and then Fíli handed Ori one of the matches so they could light the small lamp together, two families coming together to give a flame to something new, though that gesture was redundant in Dwalin and Nori’s case, she felt.

A soft glow came from the little thing, painting Nori’s features gold and making the little space they shared under the cloak seem cosy and intimate as if they were all on their own despite the company.

Dwalin was vaguely aware of Thorin’s deep voices speaking up, but for once she could not focus on his words. He was calling for their Maker to look at their union, to bless them and help them forge something new, that she knew, but she found that she didn’t quite care.

She had been through so much, and still she loved Nori with all her heart. Perhaps it had been Mahal who had pushed them so that their paths crossed once more and they might reunite, steady as two magnetic rocks. But either way Dwalin felt as if she didn’t need for Mahal to forge her and Nori’s life together. They would not separate ever again, no matter what.

She nearly missed it when Thorin asked them to hand him the lamp, ending the ceremony. There were some sniffling sounds, though Dwalin wasn’t certain which ones of her- their relatives had gotten emotional. She felt as if her body was numb, overwhelmed by the situation, not letting her feel anything but the thundering of her heart as she leaned forwards and Nori reached towards her face with shaking hands. They leaned their foreheads together, sharing breath as a married couple for the very first time.

“My wife,” Nori whispered as Dwalin barely managed to get out a soft “my husband.”

Cheers erupted from around them, and Dwalin saw more than felt Thorin clap her and Nori on their shoulders.

“I congratulate you both,” he said and bowed his head to Nori. “Welcome to the family, cousin.”

Nori stared at him, speechless, and then glanced back at Dwalin who nearly let out a laugh. This all seemed a little ridiculous, considering their past and how they already had a son who was near maturity and that they would go off to face a dragon.

Cups were passed out, but Dwalin didn’t even try drinking the sweet smelling hot wine. She felt weirdly jittery now that the ceremony was over. Somebody slid the cloak from her shoulders and she would have protested if she had known how to use her words.

Given how this was still the eve of the last section of their journey, there wasn’t too much as far as celebrations went. Everyone drank wine but ate their food mechanically before Thorin announced that everyone should rest before the next morning. Not everyone would follow his advice, with the wine unfinished, and nobody said anything when Nori took Dwalin’s hand and pulled her away from it all.

He grabbed their cloak that had been draped over one of the packed bags, and then moved towards their little hideout. With both of them having been the centre of attention for the evening, it wasn’t surprising that eyes were following them, and jokes were made. Under other circumstances Dwalin would have been embarrassed, or would have glared until they backed off, but now it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was Nori’s, and Nori was hers before the eyes of her people. Nobody would ever question anything between them again, with the King having officiated the union as well. And if they did, well, then nobody would be able to blame Dwalin for letting her fists speak for themselves.

Nori didn’t say anything as he pulled Dwalin into their little hideout once more, this time lying down. He didn’t have to ask her to join him as Dwalin wrapped her arms and the cloak around him so they were shielded from the world, hidden by old wood and a tattered cloak. It was more than enough.

“I’ve dreamed of this sometimes,” Nori admitted, his fingers running through Dwalin’s beard, working out any tangles.

Dwalin kissed him, in lieu of trying to find any words to express what she was feeling at that moment. Nori sighed against her lips, content to kiss back, chastely and sweet as if he was a young lad once more and this was his first.

They held each other, touching and basking in each other’s warmth, with no hurry as if they truly had all the time in the world. It really did seem that way to Dwalin, and she couldn’t bring herself to care for just a little while.

As she held her love close she could only wish that this truly would never end. With all that Mahal had denied her with her Nori, this was the least he could grant her.

Chapter Text

Water lapped against their boat as Bifur and Glóin let it push through the lake with hard thrusts of their paddles. The fanfare behind them was slowly fading, some of the musicians stopping in what they were doing, but the cheers of the Men of Laketown did not grow any less enthusiastic.

Nori’s eyes were fixed on the deep black surface of the lake, his hands clenched around the boat’s rail. It was one of the bigger ones he’d seen in the town, and like everything else it had a vague smell of fish clinging to it. They were headed towards the mountain, cutting the travel time short with the straight line. He couldn’t quite bring himself to look at it, nor could he watch the small town that had welcomed them grow smaller once they were past the last houses.

Before them lay a dragon, and almost certain death, behind lay a place they surely had only been welcomed in for declaring that they would get rid of said dragon. It was too late to run away now, Nori knew that, but he felt more apprehensive with each few yards the boat came closer to the mountain.

The wind picked up after a while, when the boat was out on the open lake and they could no longer hear the sounds of the town. Nori was glad for the cloak he had worn the day before, at the night of his wedding, as the old material was providing an additional layer of warmth. Most of the others were wrapped in blankets they’d taken from their packs, but Nori liked to think that none of those were as comfortable as the cloak.

After some time had passed the paddles were passed on to the next Dwarf. Everyone was gazing towards the mountain, looks set with wonder, hope, determination, and a little apprehension among the younger Dwarves, who had only ever heard the glory of their halls described by elders full of nostalgia.

Nori couldn’t bear to look at anything but the water and his hands.

Whatever hopes of riches and a perfect home he had were dashed as soon as he thought them up. For the first time in his life he felt like he had anything he could ever ask for, and like he wouldn’t mind returning to Ered Luin to live there, even if it was in the poverty of his youth rather than the relative comfort just before leaving. What could he want more in life anyway? He had his wife, and his son had his mother. It had taken six decades for all of them to be reunited properly again, and this time he wore the braids to prove that he belonged with Dwalin.

They had brushed and braided each other’s hair gently the night before, just before going to sleep. It was nearly startling to look up at Dwalin and see the small braids in her wiry dark hair, put there by his own hands. Nori could barely believe that this was all real, that he truly had married Dwalin in some old forgotten town of Men.

It also brought fear to Nori’s heart when he thought of how easily they could be parted now. He didn’t trust battles anymore, not even if the odds were so much better than theirs on their way to slay a dragon.

While dying with Dwalin’s braids in his hair was significantly better than having to live parted from her, Nori would prefer having both the braids and his life. If it weren’t too much to ask. Married for a day and then falling in battle was the stuff of ballads, and while it might have suited Dwalin, it did not really suit a thief and good for nothing Dwarf like Nori.

He took a deep breath and glanced back to where Ori sat at the very back of the boat, his journal open on his knees, quill hovering over the paper as his eyes would not leave the mountain before them. He wouldn’t even look away when Fíli said something to him quietly, and he didn’t look at the prince as he replied either.

There would be a better future awaiting both of them, if they reclaimed Erebor. If they lived. It was a strange feeling to dwell on all that could go wrong now that they were nearly at their goal. Especially as so much of what Nori had always wanted was finally in his grasp. Though maybe that was the issue as well. He had been given so much of what he’d been denied over the years, surely there would be a price to pay for it?

The boat shifted a little as the weight distribution shifted briefly. Wood creaked as Dwalin stepped to Nori’s side and sat down next to him, arms crossed over the rail as well.

“We’re nearly at the end,” she said, looking towards the mountain, her body radiating warmth this close to Nori.

“I wonder what the price to enter the Lonely Mountain is,” Nori said, a little bitter as he thought of all the lost campaigns he hadn’t been part of. Nobody but Dwalin heard him, as there were other muttered conversations and he spoke quietly.

He could see her turning to look at him from the corner of his eye.

“You think we’ll fail?”

Nori glanced up at her, and then back at his company.

“No,” he said after a while. “I just don’t know how many of us will live through this.”

He didn’t add his fear of somehow being separated from Dwalin, and losing any hopes of a future together. He didn’t need to, judging by the look she gave him.

Dwalin’s hand wrapped around Nori’s shoulder and she pulled him closer against her warm side. He relaxed a little as he closed his eyes and leaned against her. Whatever else happened, he had Dwalin by his side and safety for the rest of the day.

“We will all live,” she said, voice firm.

Nori wanted to believe it, but the worry was still there, and Dwalin must have noticed how he tensed up again.

“Stay by my side,” Dwalin whispered, her voice quiet but the words a soft rumble Nori could feel in his chest. “Whatever else happens, I won’t let anything part us again.”

“What if we die together? One fiery breath and we’re gone.”

Dwalin shrugged.

“We would die fighting. And we would enter the Halls of Waiting side by side, you a warrior and me proud to wear your braids.”

Nori looked down at the water, slowly turning more blue than black as the fog eased off and let a little more sunlight reach them.

“I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t know if the Maker would let me keep this. There’s… there’s a price for everything, right? You just don’t get handed nice things and fate doesn’t suddenly turn kind to you.”

Dwalin didn’t say anything for a while and Nori closed his eyes, just letting himself enjoy her body pressed to his. The world turned to a warm red glow even through closed eyes, and he didn’t need to look to know that the sun had finally fought its way through the clouds.

“If so much was taken from us for so many years, then maybe Erebor is the gift to make up for it,” Dwalin said after a while. “It’d be about time.”

Nori rubbed his hand over his face, sighing. He had thought of it that way before, but now it was harder to trust in it, with the mountain in sight. He cracked open an eye to glance at the Lonely Mountain, now bathed in sunlight where the clouds had parted. With his vision still a little blurry from rubbing at his eyes it looked as if somebody had dipped the mountain in honey.

“Do you really think it works that way?”

“You said something bad will happen because we were given good fortune recently? How’s that different from getting good fortune cause we got dealt shit for years.”

Nori let out a strangled snort, not able to keep his laughter quiet fully.

Some of the conversations behind his back stopped, as he was no doubt stared at, but Dwalin’s chuckle made the others return to what they were talking about, deciding that it was just some joke between lovers.

“I suppose that’s true,” he said, now gazing directly at the mountain. It would be amazing to live free of any worry, now that he already had so much of what he wanted.

Dwalin’s hand rubbed over his shoulder until she pulled him closer yet, so she could press her forehead to his.

“We won’t be separated,” Dwalin told Nori, her words a promise, and it was easy to believe her, with her voice so full of determination and her blue eyes burning into his. “I promise you this. If we go to the Maker’s Halls, then we go together, and I won’t wait for the Second Song to be reunited with you.”

The fingers of her other hand twined with Nori’s, firm and rough, familiar and cherished.

“If we go to the halls,” he muttered, looking at their hands for a moment before turning back to the mountain. “I will personally break into Mahal’s rooms and hold my knife to his privates to demand to know why we’ve been dealt a bad hand like this.”

Dwalin snorted.

“I’ll guard the door for you if that happened.”

For a moment both of them snickered like they were young again, amused by their own inappropriate jokes, before sobering up a little and turning to the mountain with sombre expressions. Nori lips curled just a little in a smile, as he thought about what lay ahead with much less trepidation than before.

He had stolen much in his life, perhaps he just had to get used to being given something. Perhaps he had to get used to be in the right for fighting for what was his.

With a smile Nori pulled the cloak closer about his body, and squeezed Dwalin’s hands. Whatever was to come, he would not be parted from her. He would hold her hand, and have a real family with her, and no dragon or army would ever change this again.