Nori scowled as he made his way silently through Erebor's corridors. It had been eight weeks since the fight that had since come to be known as The Battle of the Five Armies. He snorted inwardly at the pretentious name. What fool had decided that that was the right name for what had happened? It should have been called something along the lines of a near brawl between men, elves, and dwarves that turned into an uneasy alliance against orcs, goblins, and wargs. Although he had to admit that that was a mouthful, so maybe Battle of the Five Armies was more appropriate.
Which led him back to his foul mood. Although Thorin had been cured of his gold sickness and now reigned under the mountain and all appropriate treaties had been hammered out thanks to Balin's patience. The dwarves were settling nicely into Erebor, even in they were also sheltering the people of Lake Town throughout the winter until they started rebuilding in spring. All of the company had miraculously made it through battle, mostly unharmed. Kili's bow arm had been broken and it would take several months to heal, but the young dwarf had ultimately been lucky as he was expected to recover fully. Gloin and Bombur had some new scars that they would get to show their wives when they arrived and young Fili's golden mane should have regrown sufficiently by the time his lady mother Dis made her appearance. At least, that was Thorin's ardent hope and wish. Most surprising of all, Bifur had lost his axe when he headbutted a troll. Although his head still ached at times, he was slowly regaining his ability to speak modern khuzdul and common.
But there was one of their company still unaccounted for. The brave hobbit lass had not been seen since she had helped Thorin defeat Azog. If it hadn't been for her intervention several times that day, it came out later, they would've lost the entire line of royal Durins. But after stabbing Azog and distracting him long enough for Thorin to defeat him, the lass had disappeared like she'd never been. At first they had feared the worse, but as days passed and her body was not found, hope slowly returned. Nori clung to the hope that she survived tenaciously, unwilling to bear the thought of the tiny lass he had come to consider a sister being gone forever. The Ri's had lost so much over the years, please, he begged Mahal, don't make them deal with losing Bella too.
Although the elves had been close mouthed as usual, Nori had managed to slip through their camp using all his skills and discover that she was not with the leaf eaters. That only left three options. One, she had truly perished that day and they might never know. Two, disgusted with the dwarves and in fear of her life from Thorin, she had fled back to the Shire. He considered this an unlikely course of action, remember the night watch they had shared in Mirkwood where Bella confessed that she couldn't return to the Shire because her reputation would be in tatters. She had whispered so quietly that he had to strain to hear of her hope that she might be able to find a life for herself in Erebor amongst the company who had become like family to her.
The third and final option was that she had mingled in with the men and dwarves and was hiding from the company while she bided her time until spring to do whatever it was that she was planning.
It was this option that he was desperately clinging to. Although Thorin had officially pardoned Bella, it had been kept quiet so as to not tarnish her reputation with rumors about her supposed crimes, which had been figments of Thorin's gold sickness. Instead, it had been announced that the company was searching for her and that there was a reward for any information leading to her whereabouts. Looking back, he questioned the wisdom of this declaration. Balin had worded it carefully as was his wont and if Bella still believed that she was banished, she could be thinking the worst.
It was the not knowing that was gnawing at Nori and weighing on the company as well. The scamps hadn't pulled a prank since the battle, the grey had increased in Thorin's braids and Dwalin, taciturn at the best of times, had spoken maybe a handful of words, clearly blaming himself for not stopping Thorin that day on the battlements.
But it was his brothers that were breaking Nori's admittedly jaded heart. Although Dori was in high demand as a tailor, his clothes had no life in them. They were simply sturdy clothes with none of the small touches that the refined dwarf loved to add. He hadn't seen Dori do any fancy work in weeks unless he counted the small coat that was carefully tucked out of sight that he kept fussing with when he thought he was alone. In the evenings when the brothers gathered in their suite of rooms, the older dwarf would cradle his cup of tea and stare off into the distance, his expression melancholy and unseeing, although he tried to limit it for Ori's sake.
As it was, both of the older Ri's were desperately worried about Ori. He was losing weight and there were deep, dark circles under his eyes. Nothing Bombur cooked could tempt his appetite and he pushed his food listlessly around on his plate. Nori hadn't seen him write a word in weeks. He'd been assigned to the archives but instead of the excited somewhat fanatical gleam that he got in his eyes when he got access to books, he moved through the motions mechanically. Despite Dori's best efforts, his hair hung lank and lifeless. Although Fili and Kili had tried to pull him out of his funk and lift his spirits, he merely nodded and headed back to the archives.
It couldn't go on like this. At this rate, his brother would waste away pining for his one, the tiny hobbit lass that had given everything to give their home back to them.
Determined to fix this, Nori started scouting through the people residing in Erebor. If Bella was alive, she was clearly avoiding the company. If she had seen their sorry state, she wouldn't have been able to hide but would have come out and scolded and coddled them back into proper shape. However, there was no way that the lass could survive outside the mountain. Just a week after the battle, the first blizzard of the season had swept in, giving them just barely enough time to get everyone into shelter inside either Mirkwood or Erebor.
So if she were still here, and if she wasn't he'd eat Bofur's hat, then she had to have disguised herself somehow to be part of a work crew so she could eat. She wasn't among the injured. He inspected the injured and healers every few days, making sure to keep his schedule irregular to make sure that she wasn't among them or hiding amongst the healers somehow.
When he started his search, he eliminated all the groups that came into the contact with the company on a regular basis. If she'd seen any of the company she wouldn't have been able to stay silent and all of the company watched those that they came into contact with for Bella, although their hope was fading more with each passing day of her returning to them. So that left him with two options. She was either hidden with the men or she was in one of the cleaning crews that were helping to make the mountain habitable again. After all, with all the dwarves from the Iron Hills present, it would be easy for her to slip into one of the groups without much fuss, with her knowing as much about Dwarven culture as she did.
A couple of weeks after the battle when things had calmed slightly, the company had taken Bard aside and discreetly shared the whole sordid story. Although unhappy about the circumstances, Bard had promised to keep an eye out for Bella and inform the company if she were alive, although he would promise no more than that. The company had wanted to protest, but knew that they were lucky to get any reassurances from the man at all. Since Bard appeared to be a man of his word as well as a devoted father, Nori knew that if Bella were hidden among the men, even disguised as a child, it would be a matter of time until she was discovered and it was reported back to them.
Which left him with the dwarves to search. You would think that a tiny beardless lass would prove easy to spot, but his respect and admiration grew as the days passed and there was no sign of her. His frustration and heartache grew at an equal pace as well. The lass had proved to be an apt student and quickly picked up everything he taught her, much to his pride and Dori's dismay. Although the lass was comely, he had been surprised when his feelings had shifted to a more protective brotherly type. It became more clear when he noticed how much Ori was pining over the lass but unable to gather the courage to speak with her. After stealing the lad's journals and reading them, something that didn't bother him in the slightest, he discovered that Ori believed the hobbit lass to be his One. However, due to his low position in both the company and as a scribe, he didn't dare speak with the lass. Shaking his head and rolling his eyes at his youngest brother's thickheadedness, how many dwarrow dreamed for years and years of finding their ones, Nori had promptly told Dori and the two had put their heads together.
Nori felt a small smile quirk the corners of his lips. Although Dori came across as a prim and proper dwarf, he had a deviousness that made Nori envious. Together, they had worked hard to throw the pair together, something that the rest of the company had noticed and gleefully joined in on. They had started off on getting the wee lass to talk about cultural differences. The young scribe's natural curiosity came to the fore and his awkwardness disappeared as he peppered her with questions, scribbling frantically to make sure that he didn't miss a word. This went on for several days and by the time Ori realized what was happening, the two had formed an easy friendship that he was loathe to break off.
Satisfied that his work was done, Nori had stood back and watched amused as their relationship progressed slowly. However, that didn't stop him from intervening when Bofur and then Fili had said something about possibly courting the lass. Bella was his baby brother's One and he made it quite clear that any dwarf that tried to interfere would have the entire Ri clan after them. Bella hadn't questioned Nori when he'd claimed kinship rights, not understanding the full depth of what it meant. But the other dwarves did and amicably backed off, although there was some grumbling from the Ur clan that they had wanted to make the lass kin.
So here he was months later, trying to track down a lass who had boasted about being unbeatable in hide and seek, something that he was quickly finding to be true. Although Thorin had appointed him spymaster for Erebor, he was having trouble concentrating on his duties, too worried about his family. He'd been slowly working his way through the cleaning crews, but hadn't had any luck. He was making his way back to the main area after his latest search, traveling through the back ways as he fidgeted anxiously with a piece of knotted rope. There were only a few crews left, what if the lass hadn't joined with any of them?
He was cutting through a cavern that was currently closed off until architects could verify if it was safe or not when something caught his eye. Pausing, he turned slowly and looked closer. Sitting on the edge of a walkway over a deep cavern, a small figure was perched with their feet dangling over the side. Their large feet. Their large, bootless, hairy feet. Nori sucked in a quiet breath, suddenly feeling lightheaded. Closing his eyes, he counted to ten, praying that he really saw what he thought he saw and that it wasn't a mirage brought on by his desperation.
Opening his eyes, relief flooded him as he saw that she was still there. She appeared to be fiddling with something small in her hands. As he watched her, he caught small snatches of a hummed tune, something so soft and sad that it made his heart ache. Abruptly, fury filled him. This all could've been solved weeks ago if she hadn't run away and hidden from them. Deep down, he knew that his anger was irrational and misplaced, that it wasn't her fault for being scared of Thorin and the fact that he might still want to kill her and that she was most likely suffering just as much as they were. But he pushed that aside, his brother's wan, worn face swimming through his thoughts.
He moved carefully, noiselessly, through the cavern, pausing any time the wee lass shifted even slightly. But he knew that hobbits lacked the dark vision that dwarves had and she seemed oblivious to his approach. She screamed when he pounced on her, scruffing her like an angry kitten. She kicked violently at him while trying to fumble Sting loose. Moving them away from the edge of the walkway and deftly avoiding her kicks, He growled, "Enough, Little sister. Don't want you hurting yourself. It's just me."
She froze, her screams abruptly dying off. She whispered, her voice hoarse from disuse, "Nori?"
"Aye lass, finally found ye. And a merry chase you've led me too."
Releasing Sting's handle, she pleaded, "Let me go. Please. I promise that I'll leave as soon as the weather permits. Please, I'll never bother you again. Just let me go. I'm sorry I took the Arkenstone, I'm sorry for everything. Just please, please Nori. Please let me go and you'll never see me again."
Nori sighed and gentled his grip, his anger fleeing at the terror in her voice. He abruptly noticed how thin she was and the absolute tangled mess that was her hair. Her clothes were much too thin and her skin was like ice. Setting her gently down, he kept a tight hold on her wrists. "I'm afraid I can't do that, namith. We thought you were dead."
Looking at the ground, she shook her head. "I'm not, I'm sorry that you thought that. But you had to think that, you had to not look for me. How did you find me anyway?"
Nori chuckled humorlessly, "You didn't make it easy, lass. I've turned about every stone over in Erebor and was just about to start on the journey back to the Shire. So no matter where you went, I would've found you."
She drooped upon hearing this. She whispered, "Why, why can't you just let me go?"
Nori sighed, smoothing a curl from her face. "Because, we can't. C'mon, the company needs to know that you've been found."
Her face became more terrified and she started struggling against his grip. Instead of arguing, he picked her up and tossed her neatly over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes. The sooner everyone knew that she was alive, the better it would be. And he could put her fears to rest after Thorin apologized properly to her. After all, she wouldn't believe a word he said until Thorin said first that he actually forgave gave her. He growled quietly, feeling slightly guilty when a tremor ran through Bella. Thorin shouldn't be forgiving Bella, he should be apologizing and begging for her forgiveness.
He thought quickly and realized that the company would most likely be gathered in the room that they had commandeered for their meals. Although Bombur had been doing his best, his heart had not been in it, worrying about the missing lass. Although all of them ate the food, no one truly enjoyed their meal. He smiled as he realized how much one tiny hobbit had changed a group of hardheaded dwarves.
Making his way swiftly through the mountain, he was careful to take back ways where he wouldn't be seen. Although there were few that would question one of the company, the rules on how to treat women were ironclad. Bella could take his beard for the way he was hauling her about. But he knew with a gut deep certainty built by decades of living by his instincts that if he put her down, she would be gone and he would never find her again.
Eventually her struggles stopped altogether and she just lay limp across his shoulder, a fine trembling running through her. He made a mental note to speak to Dori as soon as possible to get a warmer wardrobe made for her. Hobbits didn't have the internal forge that all of Mahal's creations did and Erebor was much too cold for the tiny creature.
Finally drawing near to the company's room, he was able to make out the low murmur of voices. The boisterous parties were a thing of the past without Bella. Listening closely, he could make out the sounds of all the members of the company. Good. The food should be ready, which was a good thing because Bella needed to eat and soon. Best of all, they wouldn't be expecting him since it was never certain whether or not he would be able to attend these dinners, busy as he was with his duties at times. He knew it was petty of him, but he was looking forward to the looks of shock and surprise on the other dwarves faces when he returned with the wayward hobbit in tow.
Pausing before the door, he let Bella down. She tried to bolt but he just grabbed her by the nape and pushed the door open, dragging her in with him. Scanning the room quickly and ignoring the shocked silence, he located Ori. Pulling her with him, he marched over and deposited her unceremoniously in front of the stunned scribe. Ori's eyes widened impossibly wide and he reached out hesitantly to touch Bella's cheek. When he established that she was indeed real and not a figment of his imagination, he collapsed to his knees, wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her stomach, silent sobs shaking his frame.
Bella looked at Nori in shock and he nodded sharply as if to say, "Now, you see?"