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Week Later Returned

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Nori is adjusting his messenger bag when the fire engine speeds past, sirens loud enough to leave his ears ringing. He ignores it, uninterested in much of anything but supper and his bed, if he even makes it there. Dori will wake him if he falls asleep on the sofa, and might even feel bad enough for him to make him breakfast.

He's putting his earbuds in when another goes by, followed by an ambulance. It still doesn't register until he feels the heat on his skin, the oppressive and all too familiar feel of fire, a big fire. He pulls the earbuds back out, and now he hears it, hears the fire consuming a building, and there's people everywhere and -


He runs hard, his lungs burning in the hot, thick air, smoke watering his eyes, and no! “Dori!” he shouts, trying to be heard over the sirens and the people and the fire, pushing through them all as the apartment building burns. “Dori, where are you? Where are you?” The language switch is unintentional, an instinct. “Please, Dori, where are you, please, no, Dori! Ori!

A hand on his shoulder startles him, but the large man in full kit, oxygen mask around his neck, saying, “Calm down, you won't be able to breathe,” in the same language, one Nori so rarely hears outside his own home, is even more surprising. And he's right; Nori is already gasping in raspy breaths, his lungs full of smoke and heat. But he has to find Dori and Ori, he has to find them now.

My family was in there,” he explains desperately, at the same time hearing one small voice screech his name.

It's Ori, being restrained by a medic, and Nori doesn't give a damn about his own lungs, not when Ori needs him. He runs to him and scoops him up, his little brother shaking against him, face filthy and breathing hoarse. Nori holds him tight, thanking anyone listening to his prayers. He babbles nonsense, endearments and comfort in a mix of English and Albanian, Ori clinging to him. “Shh,” he tries, and his throat seizes. He coughs into Ori's hair until the medic takes him from Nori, Nori struggling. Ori cries louder, as heavy hands push Nori down to sit in the back of the ambulance and hold an oxygen mask over his face.

It's the firefighter from before, the big one, and he's speaking to Ori slowly in Albanian. His accent is different, but Ori is staring up at him in wonder at someone else speaking what he always calls their 'secret language'. “I know the mask is scary, but it's just giving him air. Lots of air so he can breathe, all right? He only needs to wear it for a little bit.” Ori burrows further into Nori's side, hiding his face from the stranger. “Is he your son?” the stranger asks.

“My brother,” Nori says, taking the mask off. His head feels clearer now. “One of them. My other one though, my older one...” He looks down at Ori. “Ori, where is Dori?”

“He went to help,” the medic says, wrapping a blanket around them both. “He said he was a nurse? He asked me to keep him here while he assisted.” That sounds like Dori. He'd want to be sure the badly hurt were treated quickly. He's all right though, and the pressure in Nori's chest eases. “Kid's done nothing but cry the whole time.”

The firefighter is still there, for some reason, but Nori's grateful because he scowls at the medic, and asks, “His home is burning down and he's scared. What exactly would you have him do?”

“At least speak English,” the medic retorts. “He keeps talking in that nonsense!”

“If you want to keep your teeth, you'll shut your mouth!” the firefighter warns. He takes Nori by the arm again, more gently. “Come with me, the pair of you.” When Nori struggles with Ori's weight, the man takes Ori himself, swinging him up with ease and leading Nori as well. Nori expects him to cry and fight, but Ori, for once isn't terrified of a stranger. It helps the stranger keeps speaking to him in Albanian, Ori looking at him cautiously.

The stranger takes them to another ambulance, this one occupied by a more cheerful looking man. “Bofur,” the stranger says, “keep an eye on them for me.

“No trouble,” he replies, taking Ori when the stranger gives him over. “Hello there. Nice night for some roasted potatoes, what do you think?” Ori shakes his head. “No? Well then, how about...” And like magic, a lollipop appears in his hand. “A treat?” Now Ori nods and takes it, Nori sitting gratefully in the new ambulance. He coughs again, and the stranger crouches in front of him.

“Your lungs aren't good, are they?” he asks. “Seen fire before?”

“Have you?” Nori diverts, meeting his eyes. He has a hard face, his short beard not managing to hide it, but the lines around his eyes soften them. He's only Nori's age, maybe a few years older. “It was my school. Breathed in quite a bit before my brother dragged me out.” Brave, unstoppable Dori, even then. “What happened tonight?”

“Kitchen fire,” he answers. “Somewhere near the first storey. Got out of hand quick.” Ori laughs, surprising Nori, and he smiles over at him. When he looks back down, the stranger is looking at him still, intent in the firelight. “I'm Dwalin.”

“Nori,” Nori returns. “And this is Ori.”

Bofur whistles. “Dwalin, Thorin is on the radio. He wants you back over there.”

“Bofur will take care of you both,” Dwalin assures him. “And if I see your brother, I'll tell him you're both over here.”

“Thank you.” There's not much else to say; Dwalin is already leaving, running off to whoever Thorin is and whatever he wants. Bofur looks them both over, taking care with Ori. He's a good-natured man, and Ori takes to him as much as he ever does with people outside of the immediate family.

“I know you, don't I?” Bofur asks, as he's cleaning up one firefighter up. The tall woman only has some light scrapes on her face, but Bofur is still thorough with the antiseptic. “You work at the pub up the way, right?”

Nori nods, rocking Ori as he lolls against Nori's chest, his eyes half-closed. He still hasn't seen Dori, but he knows it's better to stay out of the way. “Don't remember seeing you.”

“I never order much,” Bofur replies. “Early days, long nights. Can never justify more than a pint or two.” Dori always says the same thing, but maybe the both of them would be more willing to indulge if it weren't for Ori. Ori needs them home and steady. “So where're your parents?” Nori shrugs again, but flicks his eyes down to Ori so Bofur understands. “Me and my brother were born here. Our parents came over with our cousin.” He tips the woman's head up to check under her chin. “All right, Adjoa, anything you think is wrong? Unusual ringing in your ears, eyes feel funny, throat hurting?”

“All good,” she says. “Think all I need is my bed.”

“I'd have a wash first, because you stink,” Bofur tells her cheerfully.

“Sod off, you wanker,” she drawls lazily and hops down. “See you at the pub quiz?”

“'Cause I suddenly got myself a proper social life,” he says sarcastically. So that's why he comes in. Nori's never thought much of the quizzes, uninterested in anything at work unless it earned him money.

Dwalin reappears eventually, as Bofur helps clean up another firefighter. But Nori hardly notices him; Dori is beside him, wearing a face mask, and that's what Nori sees. When Dori spots them, he hurries over, and embraces the both of them tight against his solid body. “Thank heavens,” he breathes against Nori. “Thank heavens, you're both all right.”

Bofur has Dori sit down so he can look him over, giving him eye drops that Dori uses liberally. Nori's back is starting to ache from Ori's weight, but there's nowhere else to rest. The fire is still burning, but it's been subdued by the hoses, and the fuss has died down. People have gone back to their own homes, their own beds, while the residents from their little building wait to see if anything is salvageable. It doesn't look as bad now that everything is under control, but what does Nori know?

“Our flat liveable?” Nori asks Dwalin, suddenly unsure of where they're going to stay tonight.

“Stairs will have to be rebuilt, and there's smoke damage. Pipes and wiring will need work.” That sounds bad. “You have somewhere to sleep tonight?”

“No,” he admits, despite Dori's glare. “We don't,” he says to his brother, shifting Ori in his hold.

Dwalin shifts, looking around. Some of his gear is gone now, proving him to be a bit less hulking than Nori thought before. He's still a big man, though. “Listen, you three can sleep at the station house tonight. Captain is one of ours, he'll allow it.”

Dori and Nori look at one another, debating. There's nowhere to go tonight, and whatever money Dori has for a room is likely in their flat. Nori only has around forty notes in his wallet, and a bank card that will only net him another two hundred. They might need that money over the next few days, and it's late, already close to dawn. Ori won't even be able to go to school at this rate, and how Dori will get through work, Nori doesn't know. They're all three exhausted.

“Thank you,” Dori finally says. “We'd appreciate it.”

Bofur drives them over, mercifully quiet while Nori and Dori rest against one another, Ori held between them, sound asleep. When they get to the station house, Dwalin is waiting with another man, tall like him, with sharp blue eyes and surprisingly long hair tied up in something like a bun. He's the Captain, Nori thinks. Must be, because he nods when Dwalin shows them in. The sun is starting to lighten the sky, as they climb the stairs, following Dwalin up to a large room with two rows of bunks. Some are occupied with sleeping bodies, but many aren't. Dwalin picks one near the end, one of the few without any pictures on the wall beside it or personal items strewn about. They're not the most comfortable beds Nori has ever seen, but a bed is better than the pavement.

He puts Ori in the bottom when Dori says he's going to have a wash and some coffee before going to work. “Can't miss a shift now,” he says, sighing wearily. “Only an eight-hour run today. I'll manage. Keep Ori with you today unless he seems like he can go to school later. It's not good for him to miss, and he can get a meal there.”

Nori nods, trying to think around his own work shift and the time spent outside their burning building. He's so tired, all he wants to do is sleep, but his heart is still racing with the adrenaline from old memories, a childhood full of fire and smoke and danger. He knows there's nothing to worry about, but he's still tense, waiting for the next attack. He sits on the bed, rubbing his face with the inside of his shirt, mindful of his dirty hands.

“It's all right,” Dwalin says, surprising Nori. His hand is heavy on Nori's shoulder, fingers long and thick, with dirty fingernails from the fire. “They're not coming back. It's morning. You know they always leave in the morning.”

He means it for comfort, but Nori recoils, insulted. “I'm not a child. I know where I am.”

Dwalin sits beside him on the little bunk, Ori, and even Nori really, so small it hardly matters, despite Dwalin being so big. “My brother and I were soldiers.” Either he's older than Nori thinks or...or worse. Dori had protected Nori from that, and somehow himself as well. “My brother, he was in the worst of it. Sometimes...he forgets. I tell him that, and he sleeps better, until he can remember the war is over, at least for us.” Nori busies himself securing the blankets around Ori instead of answering. It still feels a bit odd to him, more like he's mimicking Dori than an actual instinct of his own. Ori sleeps on undisturbed, so at least there's that. “My Captain, his nephews are around his age. My brother and I, we fled with my Captain, and his family. Boys are like my own nephews.”

The sun is coming up through the windows, so Dwalin gets up and pulls dark, thick curtains. It's night again, as easy as that, and everyone in the room stays asleep, as far as Nori knows. He wants to sleep. He has to be to work by four, as well. “They always left in the morning,” he says, closing his eyes. “Thank you.”

Dwalin leaves them alone, and really Nori should wash up, but it's so much easier to wrap himself around Ori, above the blanket, and stay close to his little brother. Ori was born here, in England, not there. Ori was never, ever there. He's always been here, always been safe in England, far away from bullets and car bombs and fire, until tonight. But kitchen fires weren't set, weren't made worse with petrol. It was just an accident, and Ori would never have to be afraid like Dori and Nori had been.

But it's not his bed, and it's a foreign place, so he wakes up disoriented. He vaguely remembers Dori brushing his hair back from his face and telling Nori when he'd be back, and Ori getting up to use the loo, but it's a blur of restless sleep, and an ache in his back and his chest. He wakes up fully around one, alone, and he panics, his heart back at breakneck pace.

“Ori?” he calls, getting out of the bed. “Ori, where are you?” The room of beds is empty, so he hurries down the steps, and into what must be a lounge, also empty. He rushes into the next room, terrified, but there's Ori at last, sitting at a long table with several firefighters and Dwalin, the one familiar face amongst the lot. One, a ginger, works at the stove. There's a pan full of eggs and a griddle with pancakes cooking on the counter. Blessed mercy, there is coffee. Nori's never gotten a taste for tea. Coffee though, coffee is wonderful, and this is good coffee.

“Nori, look,” Ori says, waving as Nori pours himself a cup of coffee. “Mister Dwalin brought me a colouring book, and crayons, and books, and -”

“Clothes,” Dwalin adds, meeting Nori's eyes. “Our Captain's sister's boys are the same age. She sent some things for him until you can get into your flat.” Again, a fear in Nori abates. Ori needs clothes, and now that's handled. One more thing taken care of. He is wearing something different, now that Nori looks. A shirt that hangs a bit big on him, and jeans he wasn't wearing last night. Even his shoes are different.

Nori inhales the coffee. “Thank you. Thank her, please.” That's what Dori would say to say, so that's what Nori says.

Dwalin smiles, and had their home not been on fire last night, Nori might be a bit charmed by it, might flirt. When he stands, Nori does get that warm burn in the pit of his stomach, because Dwalin is tall and wide in the shoulder, his biceps as thick as Nori's thigh, and he's exactly what Nori likes. But he's one of theirs, and Nori doesn't date his own. When they're his age, there's a good chance they're like Dori and him, and that's too close for Nori's comfort.

Besides, Dwalin is a firefighter. Highly unlikely Nori is his type, so to speak.

“Thank you,” he says again, as Dwalin approaches him, Ori content with his new colouring book and crayons. They're nice crayons too, a big pack, not what Nori and Dori would indulge on. “You don't have to be so nice.

Come upstairs,” Dwalin replies, walking up.

Nori won't pretend he's not disappointed, not in his own head. Dwalin had been so nice last night, and he really is Nori's type. In any case, he follows Dwalin upstairs. No point in not being properly grateful.

He admits he's surprised when Dwalin hands him a pair of trackies and a shirt once they're in the dorm again. “The trackies are Thorin's, they're more likely to fit you, but you'll have to pull the strings tight. Shirt is mine, it'll hang on you.” He's giving Nori clothes. “I don't know if you'll like any of it, but you're welcome to use whatever is in the showers. A little too much Lynx rubbish in there, but everyone said they didn't mind. Bombur has the nicest stuff, mostly because he's married and his wife buys everything. Adjoa and Gilah are our resident ladies, they have some nice things too, if you like theirs better, with hair as long as yours.” He digs around in the things, and then gives Nori a toothbrush still in the package. “Dís sent this too.”

Dwalin's being very nice. And he doesn't seem to want anything from Nori.

He's giving Nori clothes, and a shower, and not asking for a thing.

The heat from the fire leaves his skin sensitive to the soap and warm water, but it's good to be clean and wash the smoke out of his hair. He leans against the smooth tile and watches the water go down the drain, his long hair dark and wet and sticking to his skin, obscuring the tattoos on his arms. If his mother had ever seen them, she would have had a fit. Tattoos, for mercy's sake. Bad enough he is what he is, but tattoos as well? Good thing she died before she ever saw them.

He uses one of the body washes without flowers on the label, and washes his hair twice. Once he's out and dry, he gets dressed and finds Ori, taking him up for a wash of his own.

Ori is unhappy when Nori tears him away from his new friends, but Nori thinks Dori would disapprove of the game they're playing, since it seems to consist of one of the women tossing him on the sofa repeatedly. Ori is laughing, but all Nori can see is a list of potential injuries. Dori never seems as concerned as Nori, but being a parent comes easily to Dori. All Nori thinks about is how he's going to bollocks it up.

“You need a haircut,” Nori tells him, as he combs out Ori's hair.

“You don't get haircuts,” Ori protests.

“That's different,” Nori snaps, finally working Ori's hair into something respectable. “I'm an adult, I can have long hair if I want.”

“Kids at school think you're my sister,” he says waspishly.

“The kids at your school are idiots.” He doesn't even look like a girl. “If I was a girl, I'd be a very ugly girl.”

“You would be,” Ori agrees solemnly, following Nori back into the dorm so he can look him over one more time. “Do you have to go to work soon?”

Nori checks his mobile. He's lucky he had his charger in his bag. “Yes, very soon. Do you want to go to the Library and wait for Dori?” It's all Nori can think of. He cannot bring Ori to work with him, his boss wouldn't like it. Ori certainly cannot go to the hospital. Nori can't leave him here. Ori doesn't really have any friends, so there's no options there. Nori doesn't know what else to do. “You can sit and read.”

Ori shakes his head furiously. “No,” he says firmly. “I don't want to be alone. I want to go with you.

You can't,” Nori insists. “I need you to be brave right now.

“No!” Ori shouts, running off from Nori, too quick to catch.

“Damn it!” Nori scrambles to his feet, following after him, but by the time he gets downstairs, it's too late; Ori has disappeared, and Nori doesn't know how many places there are to hide around here. “Ori, this is not the time! Come out, now!”

He doesn't answer Nori, the little brat, so Nori starts looking, the back of his neck burning as the people in the station watch him. What idiot can't keep track of a six-year-old, he asks himself. “Ori,” he calls again, desperate.

“Little one ran into the garage,” the ginger cook says, now working over a large pot of soup. “He's a quick one, isn't he?”

“Unfortunately,” Nori grits out, heading out the door and into the garage, where the big fire engines sit waiting. “Ori, if you don't come here right now, I'm telling Dori first thing!” He cannot believe he's come to the point in his life where threatening Ori with Dori is normal. He misses when Ori was a toddler and sweet. And obedient. He's inherited enough of Nori's nature that Nori feels sorry for what he put through Dori through when he was little.

“Over here,” someone, not Ori, calls, and Nori comes around two engines to see Dwalin sitting beside it, and Ori beside him. Ori won't look at Nori, his face blotchy and his nose running. “Lad says you told him he had to be alone?”

That makes it sound awful. “I said he was going to have wait at the library until Dori finished at work. Ori, come on, I have to leave for work soon. You like the library!”

Ori makes a protesting noise, his heels dug in, and Nori wants to cry.

“How about I ring Dís, and Ori can play with her boys until Dori is done?” Dwalin suggests, and Ori's shoulders mercifully relax a little, as he looks up at Dwalin sceptically. “Don't know how well you'll get on with her little demons, but you won't be alone.”

Nori doesn't know Dís, and he's sure Dori wouldn't like him leaving Ori with a stranger, but it's better than the alternative, and he needs to leave soon or he'll be late. “Let me call Dori at the hospital,” he says, giving in. He just needs to finish today, and hopefully Dori will have worked something out about where they're going to stay.

The nurse at the desk tells him she'll leave a message for Dori, and that's the best Nori can do. Dís comes quickly enough with two boys in tow, one blond, one black-haired, both loud and excited to be in the fire station. Their mother is a calmer force, but Nori ends up having to promise Ori that Dori will be there as soon as possible to convince him to leave with her. Nori feels the weight of what might be a bad decision, because he doesn't know Dís from the Queen, but Ori isn't scared of Dwalin and Dwalin seems to trust her.

“Do you want a lift?” Dwalin surprises him enough he starts.

“What?” he asks, even though he heard the question. “A lift where?”

Dwalin frowns down at him. He's too big. It makes Nori want to flirt, and now isn't the time. He has to worry about Dori and Ori. Dori certainly isn't thinking about this sort of thing. “To your job,” Dwalin answers, and Nori likes his voice too. Whenever he came over, he ended up in the North, and it shows in his English. “I'm on my way out. Dís asked me to run to the shops for her, get something for supper.”

“I'd love a lift,” Nori says, because he would.

He drives a pick-up truck. A real pick-up truck, like a period piece on the BBC. Nori's rarely seen one in real life, and he's certainly never known anyone who drove one. It's old, very old if Nori had to guess, but there's no sign of age. It's immaculate, down to the old-fashioned radio with a lever to navigate stations. Dwalin must be used to explaining, because he says, “When we first came over, we worked for a farm up north. This was sitting in a barn, wasting away. Thorin and I spent five years getting it in proper working order. We call her Minty. 'Cause of the colour.”

“Not for the smell,” Nori comments dryly, crossing his arms over his chest. It smells old, like leather and metal and oil. “Why in the world did you keep it?”

Dwalin shrugs. “Because we didn't have anything else to keep.” That's more than Nori wants to talk about, so he keeps quiet, but Dwalin's next question is worse. “Ori is...a lot younger than you and your brother.” Too much younger, Nori knows. Dwalin's not stupid. “He Dori's? Or yours?”

That's not what Nori wants Dwalin to think, of him or Dori. “If he was my son, or Dori's, we would claim him.” The truth isn't pretty, but it is what it is, and what it is isn't any of Dwalin's concern. It's awful. Not for them, never for Dori and Nori, Nori who can't imagine loving anyone more than he loves his brothers, and Dori, who has always put them first. But they don't want Ori to know. Maybe one day, when he's older, if he asks, they'll tell him the truth. “Not likely I'll have children.”

“Me neither,” Dwalin replies, catching Nori's interest. There's a lot of reasons their people don't have children, not just Nori's sort of reason. “Is he always like that? Hiding?”

“It's usually the linen closet,” Nori admits. “We usually just let him be. Lad can always find the oddest places to fit himself, though.”

It's starting to rain, so Nori is grateful for the protection of the truck. Showing up wet and bedraggled isn't going to earn him any favours. He might not be straight, but women like him for some reason, and his boss likes that women like him. It's safe flirtation, and easy money. His boss knows he won't be interested in making trouble for the place, the ladies enjoy themselves, and Nori gets the hours he needs. “Do you drink?” he asks Dwalin.

“Yes,” Dwalin says, concentrating as he finds parking outside the pub.

Nori is favoured enough he won't get in trouble when he offers, “Come in, have a pint. On the house. Least I can do.”

Think I will.

“We always call it our secret language, to Ori,” Nori admits. “He's too little to understand the whole of it. Hell, Dori was barely old enough to understand it.”

“The war is over.” Dwalin is relaxed, easy in the driver's seat. “At least for us.”

“Thought it was all over.” The conversation is too serious for two people who hardly know another, even with what they share. They're both too young to know what it all meant, and they obviously both left the whole of it behind. Nori can see that Dwalin has tattoos too, in any case, matching ones starting in the middle of his forearms and disappearing into his sleeves. However they were raised, they've both left it behind.

Dwalin shrugs. “My brother says a war isn't over until the last veteran is dead.”

Nori unbuckles his seat belt. “Come in. Have a pint.”

Chapter Text

“Nori, there's someone asking about you.” Nori puts down a case of beer, frowning. “Looks like one of your broken hearts.”

“What's that mean?” He's getting a crick in his back, and worse, his hair is coming undone, but he only has another half hour and he's done for the night.

His co-worker shrugs. “You know, tall, face like an axe, looks like he could crush you, tattoos. Scowling. Your type.” Nori would argue if it weren't true, and unfortunately, he can think of a few who might get in the mood to track him down. He never seems to end things on a good note.

He peeks out, looking where his co-worker nods, but once he sees who it is, the fear unwinds in him. “He's just a friend,” Nori says, smiling at Dwalin when he notices Nori hiding. “He helped us after the fire.” His co-worker raises an eyebrow, but doesn't say anything.

Nori finishes what he's doing, and goes back out, filling the new orders before he goes to Dwalin. They're not the sort of pub people go to for a margarita, so it only takes a tick, and then he brings Dwalin a beer. He likes dark beer, Nori's found out. Not Nori's own taste, but it seems he's more shallow than he thinks, because he's willing to forgive Dwalin based on his shoulders alone. “Aren't you on shift?” he asks, hoping he's not.

“No, just finished mine.” He look up at the daily menu written on the blackboard. “Any of that any good?”

“It's decent,” Nori allows. Their cook can't do anything much more complicated than a sandwich and soup. “I'd stay away from the fish though. Cook is still working that one out.” Dwalin looks sceptical, and Nori doesn't blame him. “Can you not cook?”

“Never got a chance to learn,” Dwalin replies carelessly. “Did you?”

“Our mother hated the idea of us being dependent on other people.” Hated was the best way to put it, because really, she had railed against the very notion of Dori and Nori needing someone beyond themselves and one another. “Not saying I'm some great chef, but I manage. Ori actually likes it quite a bit. Well, he likes cracking eggs.”

Dwalin smirks. “How's he taking to the inn?”

It's been a week since the fire, and the three of them have been staying in an inn near the pub. It's a proper enough place, run by one of his mother's old friends, and with Dori and him working such different shifts, they make one room with two little beds work. If they can't, Nori shares with Ori, the pair of them small enough they're not too uncomfortable. It is a bit rough in the morning when Nori's only had four hours of sleep and Dori wakes for work, but he can usually fall back asleep until it's time to get Ori up for school.

“He doesn't hate it,” Nori says, which is the truth. He balances himself against the bar, rocking up on his toes, the motion stretching his shoulders out nicely. “I think he'd rather be at Dís' again. He likes her boys, and your little niece.” As it turned out, Dís hadn't minded having Ori underfoot because she usually had a small horde of children in her house, not just her own two. Dwalin had four nieces and nephews of his own, the youngest being a rather bossy little girl named Kiri who ran the smaller children like a general.

To Nori's surprise, instead of his usual self-imposed solitude, Ori had fallen in like a duckling. Dori had been delighted to see Ori actually playing with other children, so Nori supposes he should be too. “Your Kiri, she's a bit intimidating.”

Dwalin chuckles into his beer. “Takes after her mother, that one. Better than Bae. Balin and Estelle are ready to wring his neck. Teenagers, always so bloody dramatic.”

“Because you weren't?” Nori teases, despite himself. “No, I suppose we were all a little busy trying not to die.”

“Did seem to occupy my thoughts,” Dwalin agrees, grinning. He's a handsome man when he smiles, and Nori wants to flirt very much. Would it hurt, really? Well, in all likelihood, yes. Even if he's Dwalin's sort, he's from home, and Nori isn't interested in being reminded of home, not in the slightest. “Are you going to let another flat, or find a proper house?”

It takes Nori a moment to realize what he's asked, but once he does, he answers while pouring another round for someone waiting. “Dori wants a house this time. We always meant to buy, but kept putting it off. Now he thinks he's found one we'll like.” The flat had been comfortable, and there had always been something that needed doing before they could look at houses. “He has me looking tomorrow, even. My day off.”

It's rather boring now that he's said it aloud, but what else is he supposed to talk about when he has nothing else on his mind but finding somewhere to live?

“Better you than me,” Dwalin says, his beer half-finished now. “You almost done for the night?”

“Almost, just as soon as Ali is ready.” And not a minute too soon. Nori thinks he's getting old, because everything hurts after sleeping in the bed at the inn. His lower back hasn't ached like this since he first started working. “I'd kill for a proper bed, really.” Not one where he couldn't fall asleep fully because Ori was beside him, and the instinct to stay alert, just in case, was apparently still deeply ingrained in him. “I'm useless right now, I swear.”

Dwalin shrugs. “Look all right to me.”

“Quite a compliment,” Nori sneers, not seriously. He's too tired to be serious. In any case, Dwalin doesn't seem to care, so it's all right. Dori's always telling Nori he needs to learn to be nicer to people, but Nori's never developed the knack for it the way Dori has. Case in point, the annoyance he feels when he sees Ali at last. “And there he is,” he says, to Dwalin, but turning towards his relief. “Ali, you're late again.”

“I got kids, Nori, sod off,” Ali replies, pouring a beer for a customer. “My sister took her damn bloody time showing up, like she always does.”

“That's not my problem,” Nori reminds him, walking past him.

Ali swears at him, but there's no real dislike in it. They get on well enough, except when Ali is Nori's relief. He has two children, Nori thinks, and supposedly his sister helps him take care of them, but she's not all that reliable.

He's here now though, so Nori grabs his things from the back, intending to leave as soon as possible, before someone has an emergency or something. Surprisingly, Dwalin is still there, but standing now, like he's waiting for someone. Maybe Bofur or someone else is coming in, Nori reasons, but he smiles at Nori, not the door. “Thought I'd walk with you, at least part of the way.”

“No truck?”

“Thorin has it.”

There's no reason to refuse the company. Nori's not fond of walking by himself at night anyway. He usually handles himself all right with one or two little weasels, but someone Dwalin's size will keep the little gang of skinheads that fancy themselves hard from following him. They've never done anything to Nori, but they've hurled some insults and tried to scare him.

He hates that they've been successful. Stupid bloody kids.

Nori shoulders his bag. “If you're that desperate for my company, all right. Been a long time since anyone was.”

“What, last week is a long time?” Ali scoffs. “Careful with this one, you,” he says to Dwalin, still eyeing Nori. “He's a heart-breaker.”

“Shut it,” Nori hisses, more annoyed with him than ever.

Dwalin isn't put off at least, so Nori supposes he doesn't have any issue with the implications. He still goes out with Nori, surprising Nori when he holds the door for him. People don't usually do that sort of thing for Nori. Something about his manner, he guesses, because they do for Dori, and he can't remember anyone not holding the door for his mother, even when she wore a headscarf.

It's cold enough to startle Nori for a minute, and he tightens his scarf.

“That's an interesting pattern,” Dwalin remarks.

Nori snorts, holding it up so Dwalin can see the pattern of bees on it more clearly. “Dori let Ori pick it out, and I couldn't very well say no to him.” He can do a lot of things easily, but saying no to Ori isn't one of them, and not for something so small as a silly pattern.

“Dori made it for you?”

“He likes to knit, or do needlepoint. Learned how in the shelter. Helps him calm down.” It had been quite a few nights Nori had dozed on a camp bed in the shelter while Dori knitted, or, after a few lessons, worked on a needlepoint pattern of mountains or fields, and when he got better, verses. Their mother had Dori's first successful one, Surely, Allah loves those who place their trust in Him, surrounded with a pretty assortment of geometric patterns not unlike the stained glass in a mosque framed, and it had been the very first decoration in their first flat here in England. “I can knit well enough myself, but I've never had the talent for it like him.” Never had half Dori's talents, really.

“Like I said, I ended up being taken in by a farm,” Dwalin says, and it's so odd to speak of this. Nori isn't sure he likes it, the easy openness they have from shared history. He's almost positive he doesn't. He hates when people know too much about him, and if he's honest with himself, it's why his relationships always end so loudly. “Do you like England?”

“I'm used to it now,” Nori admits, even though it feels like a betrayal of his origins. “I didn't know how to feel about it at first. It's so different here, you know?” Not a bad different, and that had seemed traitorous too. “Once we had a place to live, things seemed so much easier. I liked it more and more by the day. No one cared if I wore my hair long, or if I couldn't be who I was supposed to be at home. I could fancy lads here, and no one was going to throw me out. Could even get tattoos.”

Dwalin laughs, his breath making a cloud, and now they're walking too close, like they're friends. “Felt the same way, I hate to say. Even Balin, my brother, he liked it better here. Met his wife three days after we got here, and the pair of them were married before the year was out, if you can believe that. Estelle was one of the doctors who volunteered with refugees. She helped Balin finish his own education.”

“He's a lawyer, isn't he?” Nori asks, even though he knows.

In any case, Dwalin doesn't answer, because the skinheads are hanging about on someone's front step, possibly one of their own. One sidles up to Nori's empty side, grinning in that nervously hateful way they all do. They can't even be proper little bastards. They're waiting for approval for their stupidity from someone, who knows who.

“Hello,” he says to Nori. “Who's your friend, eh? Your boyfriend?” The words are fine enough, the tone of it is the problem. “You got another boyfriend walking you home then, you red-faced -” And here Nori would keep walking, say nothing, because Nori can handle himself against two, but not a whole pack.

But Dwalin grabs the skinhead by the front of his shirt and lifts him bodily, shoving him against the bricks. The boy, because he can't even be sixteen, is dangling, his toes just brushing the ground, and his friends are frozen, afraid. Dwalin is a big man, after all, and they all know Nori is armed. “What'd you say?” Dwalin asks, in careful English. He's angry enough he's forgetting, like Nori does sometimes. “Whatever you say to him, you can say to me, can't you?”

The boy is mustering up some courage, Nori thinks, so he slips his hand in his pocket, wrapping his hand around the fan knife he keeps there. Illegal it might be, but if it gets tossed in the river after he sticks one of them, who's to say? It's worrying over nothing though, because the boy looks at the ground, and Dwalin lets him go.

None of the rest of them come forward, and Dwalin and Nori continue on their way.

“Wish you hadn't done that,” Nori says, keeping distance between them. “They'll be worse tomorrow.”

“He doesn't have the right to talk to you like that.” Dwalin's not so good-looking when he's scowling. “We've all been here long as those little shits have been alive, longer even, and they want to act like we don't belong?”

“Not like they're shooting at us.” Nori appreciates that about England, he has to say. “Stupid kids are stupid kids.” He walks a little faster, trying to put some space between the pair of them.

What's wrong?” Dwalin asks, catching up easily and actually grabbing Nori by the shoulder.

Nori jerks away forcefully, feeling his braid snap. “I don't like fighting.” He keeps it to English, keeps distance between them. “I'll do what I got to do, but I don't want nothing going near my family.” Because that's what Nori has, the one home he's ever known. Dori and Ori. His world revolves around them, even when he wants to bash Dori's head in, or scream from Ori's refusal to be like other kids.

At this point, Dwalin should swear and leave Nori to it. That's how it goes. Someone tries to take care of Nori, he pushes them away, and they leave.


Of course he's gone off-script. This is the last thing Nori needs, really, it just is. Their flat is destroyed, Nori hasn't been sleeping well, and Dwalin isn't doing what he's supposed to, he really isn't. “Stop being so bloody reasonable!” he shouts, not caring about the quiet street. Likely no one will tear themselves away from their programmes anyway. “What do you want? Why are you trying to be so...” He can't find the word in English, a lapse he hasn't had in years.

Dwalin looks confused, his breath showing in the cold air. “You know, not everyone has an ulterior motive.”

“That's your life, not mine,” Nori snaps, bitter over a hundred and one things. None of them are Dwalin's fault thought, and he feels the sting of embarrassment creeping up across the back of his neck and jaw too quickly. “Sorry.” He's acting like an idiot, he really is. Fuck it, he needs to sleep. “I'm done in, is all. This week has been...”

He's surprised by the heavy hand settling on the back of his neck, Dwalin's bare hand cold against Nori's skin. “Your week's been a fucking mess.”

It feels good to be touched, especially on the back of his neck, and Dwalin keeps his hand there for a long time. Long enough Nori looks up at him, and catches his eye. He knows that look. Dwalin is interested, isn't he? Better to say something, or nothing? Nothing, probably. Things are always better left unsaid, so no one feels awkward.

“Yeah. But I've had worse.” He smiles up at Dwalin, so the man smiles back, and drops his hand, right as Nori's mobile goes off, showing Dori's picture. “Just a tick.” When he answers though, it's Ori's little voice saying hello. “Ori, what have we told you about the phone?” He has a bad habit of ringing them whenever he feels like, or anyone else. Why he does it is another mystery in the little enigma that is Ori.

“Dori's sleeping,” Ori replies. “He fell asleep when he got home, but I'm hungry now.”

“Dori didn't make you anything?” That's unusual.

“He had one of his headaches, so he took his medicine. Then he fell asleep. He still has his shoes on.”

Nori scratches at his hairline, frustrated. Dori's been prone to migraines all their lives, though they've tapered off as he's gotten older. When he does get them though, the painkillers he takes can knock him flat. “All right, button, I'll figure something out. I'll be there soon. Stay in the room, remember.”

“I know,” Ori replies. “I love you.”

“I love you, too. Wait for me.” Ori affirms and ends the call on his end, leaving Nori trying to think of something. There's nothing open nearby, nothing with anything that Ori will actually eat. They could go back to the pub, but Nori doesn't want Ori eating that rubbish. Dwalin has different shifts though, doesn't he? “Do you know anywhere to get food that's open? Real food? Ori's hungry and we don't have anything there.”

Dwalin purses his lips, and says, “If you like, you can bring him to my place. Just around the corner. Estelle stocks it, bound to be something he likes.”

That's tempting. Ori eats so much better when it's something Dori or Nori makes, and he can see everything that goes in. He knows he shouldn't depend on Dwalin like this, but Ori is hungry, and so is Nori, and damn, Dori will likely be too when he wakes up. It'll be so much easier if Nori has something already made for him. And Dwalin was asking about the menu before, wasn't he? “I'll make you dinner too, how about that?” That seems like a fair trade, so no harm, no foul.

“Won't say no.”

Ori is waiting in the room, just like Nori said, colouring in the book Dwalin had given him. Nori takes the time to get Dori out of his shoes and cover him up so he doesn't wake up uncomfortable, writes him a note, then bundles Ori up in the borrowed clothes from Dis and lifts him up onto Nori's hip so they can get out of the place quietly.

When Ori sees Dwalin, he smiles at him. “Hello, Mr. Dwalin.”

“Hello, Ori. Do you want to come to my flat? You and your brother are going to show me how to cook. Though maybe you'd like to colour with me, instead?” Ori doesn't answer, but he doesn't hide his face away from Dwalin either. He's still lax against Nori, watching Dwalin, and that's answer enough.

“Lead the way,” Nori directs.

His back aches, so after awhile, he lets Ori walk on his own, his hand clasped in Nori's. Eventually, he reaches up, and takes Dwalin's hand as well, surprising the both of them, it seems. “Will you swing me?” he asks them, so they oblige, bringing him up and swinging him off his feet a few times. It's a Friday night, so Nori's not too worried about the lateness of the hour.

It's the sort of pleasant winter night that's cold, but not biting, the fresh-fallen snow and the street lights making everything pretty. And Nori has Ori's hand in his, Ori smiling, if not laughing, the little bobble on his hat bouncing every time he skips, relying on Dwalin and Nori to hold him up. Nori can never stay strong when Ori is depending on him, trusting him so completely. Eventually he has to pick Ori up, Ori's feet knocking into Nori's thighs, and touch their foreheads together.

Ori giggles, and grabs at Nori's face, pressing his thumbs in so Nori will smile and show his dimples.

His heart races when Dwalin reaches around him, his heat and strength pressed to Nori, holding Nori's braid up so Ori can see it, doing something with it that makes Ori laugh.

It's almost too much, but it's too pleasant to put a stop to.

Dwalin lives in a respectable little two-bedroom flat on the fourth floor of an old building. There's only the two flats on every floor, from what Nori can tell, and the elevator has a grate that actually needs to be pulled shut. It's hardwood floors, the sort so old they have marks in them older than both of them, and walls painted blue and red and even a soft yellow, when Nori peeks in the second bedroom. The furniture is obviously cast-offs from someone with good taste, probably Dwalin's brother and sister-in-law. Shabby now, and mismatched, but nice. Not so nice Nori doesn't feel comfortable settling Ori down on one.

There are colouring books on the coffee table, almost all half-used, and crayons in a dented biscuit tin. Nori helps Ori out of his winter things, then leaves him to it, reminding him not to touch any of Dwalin's things without permission.

He's looking in the fridge, deciding what to make, when Dwalin comes in, stripped down to just his shirt and jeans, his feet bare on the tile. And it is real tile. Nori left his own shoes and socks at the door to avoid tracking in slush, and now he flexes his toes against said tile, revelling in the feeling. Nothing beats real tile and real wood under his feet.

This lets him get a good look at Dwalin's biceps though, and that's just not acceptable.

“Do you keep to anything?” Nori asks, instead of thinking about it. “Don't want to assume.”

Dwalin shakes his head. “Our parents stayed in the faith in name only. They liked the history. Estelle isn't, but Balin found something in it. Me? I believe, no doubt in that, but not in the stupid bits. What does it matter if I've got tattoos, if I eat bacon every now and then?” Nori leans against the counter, listening and grinning. “I've done my best to be a good man. I think that's what matters.”

“My mother was very faithful.” Nori starts looking through the food, finding some steak someone, maybe Dwalin, probably Balin, left in the fridge, then rooting through the crisper drawer. He finds enough for a salad, things Ori will eat, and takes them out as well. It's a well-stocked fridge, really. Dwalin is lucky to have family like that. “But Dori and me, we never could get behind it the way she was. Wrong generation.”

Truthfully, Nori has always liked cooking. There's something soothing in the method of it. He needs a recipe, instructions, but once he has them, he's fine. Dori can throw together anything and make something astounding, of course, but he's always told Nori how talented he is. Dori is always trying to bring Nori and Ori up on themselves like that.

Steak and salad. Simple enough. He finds a fully stocked cabinet of seasoning, and better, a net bag of red potatoes. “Dice those up, why don't you?”

They work together easily in Dwalin's kitchen, Dwalin doing as Nori says for the most part. He has wine, as it turns out, and he pours Nori a glass. Very polite. It's a good, sweet red, a table wine that likely cost a lot more than what Nori was willing to pay. He spots the label, and can't decide if that means the wine was a gift and Dwalin doesn't know how much it cost, or he's trying to impress Nori.

He tells Dwalin what to do with the potatoes, and Dwalin gets them in the oven just as Nori starts the steak.

There's a window where he can see through to the living room where Ori is sitting. Ori is humming to himself now, kneeling on the floor so he can easily lean over the coffee table and colour in the book.

“I know I asked before,” Dwalin says. “But I feel like we know one another now. So I'll ask again. Is he your son? Because he's too young to be your brother.”

Nori looks out at Ori, his heart clenching. They can't keep up the story with these people, especially not if Dori keeps up his growing friendship with Dís. “He's our nephew.” The steak is cooking just fine without his help, so he leaves it a minute brushing the loose hair out of his face. “We have a sister, in the middle. Our mother, she didn't live long after we got here. Lung cancer got her. Her and our father had been split up for a long time before. It was just the three of us, until Tori ran off with her boyfriend. She was really young. She was still really young when she came back with Ori.”

So scared and so young, and so skinny that she looked like both her eyes had been blacked. She'd been holding Ori against her, bouncing him, when Nori answered the door. She couldn't feed them both on her own, she'd said, sitting on their sofa, still clutching Ori to her. And the father wouldn't care for him or her. She'd passed Ori to Nori, her hands shaking, and then she'd asked, “Can I come home?”

“Of course,” Dori had said, reaching over Nori's shoulder to stroke Ori's face. He'd looked up at them both, too small and obviously underweight, not crying though. Not even a little. It had wrenched the locks around Nori's heart open, and just like that, Ori took his place there.

“She didn't stay long,” Nori says to Dwalin, shrugging. “She left for work, and never came back. Took a bag. Left a note for us, said she was sorry.” She had been, Nori is sure. “Sometimes she sends letters for Ori, but Dori and me decided he's too young, for the time being.” In the here and now, Ori is colouring, completely ignorant of any of it. “Ori doesn't know that. I'd like it if you kept it to yourself.”

Dwalin nods. “'Course.”

When he looks at Nori, Nori defensively adds, “He's six. He's too young. We moved here, and what were we supposed to tell people? So he's our brother.”

“Of course,” Dwalin agrees, nodding. “I wasn't saying otherwise, just wanted to confirm things, make sure I understood -”

“Understood what?” And there's Dwalin's hands on Nori's hips, his eyes looking down on Nori's, and Nori can smell the steak. It's time to start the salad. He should get on it. He really should. “The salad,” he says. Dwalin smiles, and Nori has the bad luck to notice he has some early greys in his beard and moustache. It shouldn't weaken Nori's willpower, it really shouldn't. They're homeless, he's trying to make Ori dinner, and Dwalin's hands fit on his hips really well. “Dwalin, look...”

And Dori would be furious if he knew Nori was kissing Dwalin in full view of Ori. But Nori isn't Dori, and he likes the way it feels, likes how broad Dwalin's shoulders are under his hands, how solid his body is pressed to Nori's. He doesn't even mind the counter pressing into his back a little.

You're not supposed to kiss your boyfriends in front of me.

“Damn it, Ori!” He pushes Dwalin away, not that he needs to. Dwalin looks as embarrassed as him, running his hands over his own shaved head. “I've told you not to do that!”

“Lad, you need to learn to knock,” Dwalin jokes, but Ori is doing his best impression of a turtle. “You want to help me with the salad while your brother finishes the real food?”

“No.” Nori expects it, and the way Ori comes into the kitchen and reaches for him, asking to be held. He gives in, and sets Ori on his hip, not looking at Dwalin as he turns the steak with the tongs, offering them to Ori so he can turn one himself. That appeases him, and he finally lets Nori put him down.

When Dwalin tries to engage him again though, Ori shrugs him off. While Nori takes the potatoes out, he hears Dwalin even try it in Albanian, a grave misstep, because then Ori won't say a word, hunkering down over his colouring. Dwalin comes back into the kitchen to help, raising his eyebrows at Nori.

“He gets upset when we date,” Nori confesses, taking the steak off. “You should see him when Dori brings home women. He hides in the cupboard.” It's not really funny. The last time Dori brought a woman around the flat, Ori had refused to come out of the linen cupboard until she left and Nori lured him out with the promise of a visit to the zoo. “He does like you, he just...”

Dwalin eyes him, the salad done now. “Do you like me?”

Nori does not date people from home. He doesn't. It's a rule, and it's a damn good rule, because people from home have a connection to him he's not all right with. Dwalin knows things, Dwalin speaks their language, Dwalin is...he's the past. He's everything Nori doesn't like thinking about.

“Its not a good time,” he says. “It's the worst time, really.” It's not wrong. “I'm sorry, it really just is.” When Dwalin keeps looking at him in that disappointed way, Nori can't stand it. He grabs the salad bowl and takes it out to the table, hearing Dwalin follow with the steak. He'd already set the table, so Nori goes back in to grab the potatoes and the rest of the wine.

There's juice in the fridge too, one Ori will hopefully drink, as well.

“Don't sulk, button,” Nori chides, looking over at him once they're all seated.

Ori cuts his eyes at Dwalin, and Dwalin unfortunately catches it. He still looks a bit bewildered by it, and Nori doesn't blame him. He loves Ori, so much more than he knows how to say, but he can be such a brat sometimes.

“Why does he call you 'button'?” Dwalin asks, instead of reacting to it.

He doesn't answer, but he does uncurl enough Nori feels comfortable doing it for him. “I started calling him that, because he was so little when he was a baby. I'd heard people here saying that phrase, 'cute as a button'. Didn't quite understand it, but I liked the way it sounded, just stuck to him.” Ori nods at this, and finally starts to eat, a reassuring sign.

“Miss Dís says I can go to zoo with her and Fíli and Kíli tomorrow.” That's news to him. Dori must have given permission, but Nori is surprised Ori even wants to go.

“You like Fíli and Kíli, then?” he asks hopefully. He wants Ori to make friends so much, and people they know, people he shares a culture with, that means more to Nori than it should. He might not be fond of the past, but he doesn't want Ori to lose that part of them either.

He nods. “Fíli let me in his tree fort.”

“He did?” Dwalin looks up from his plate, eyebrows drawn down. “Really?”

Again, Ori nods, but before Dwalin can push, Nori puts his hand over Dwalin's and shakes his head. No, he mouths, sure if Dwalin does, Ori will withdraw more. “Ori, did Dori tell you he found a house he thinks we'll like? It has a garden.” Nori is optimistic too. The sooner he gets his own room again, and a real bed, the better he'll be. “We can go before you go to the zoo.”

It doesn't sound like a bad way to spend his day off, not really. He likes spending time with Ori, even when he's being strange. “Can we get breakfast?”

“'Course we can.”

By the time they finish eating, Ori is starting to droop. Dwalin insists on walking them back, not that Nori expected different at this point. They don't talk much, awkward now that Ori is sleeping in Nori's arms. Nori shouldn't have kissed him back, shouldn't have even accepted the offer to go back to his. “Poor lad,” he says aloud, his back aching from the dead weight of Ori. “It's too late for him.”

“I'll take him for a minute,” Dwalin offers, and since Nori's arms are burning, he has little choice. Ori doesn't stir thankfully, and his weight doesn't seem to bother Dwalin. “I don't think you and Dori are wrong, you know. That wasn't what I meant.” He hoists Ori a bit higher. “I just wanted to be sure I had the way of things.”

“And why do you need that?” They're getting close, the front light still on, thankfully, so Nori won't have to struggle blind for the key. “Dwalin, like I said, this is a bad time -”

“So after you get yourselves a new place, and you're settled,” Dwalin insists. “Doesn't have to be a serious thing, just dinner.” Why does he have to insist? There's no denying that was a good kiss, and he's nice, and what would it hurt, really? Nori's not stupid enough to let it get serious, and he doubts Dwalin wants that either, not with Ori around.

They don't have to talk much, in any case.

Damn it. “Fine. After we're settled.”

Dwalin touches Nori's face unexpectedly, dragging his knuckles over Nori's cheek, his fingers cold when they find more stray locks of hair and brush them back behind Nori's ear. “Let me see your mobile, give you my number.”

Its a bit of an effort to find the damn thing in his coat pocket, and first he has to blow on his fingers for it to recognize them. They trade, Ori for the phone, and Dwalin even calls himself for Nori before coming too close and tucking it back in Nori's coat pocket.

“I'll text you,” Dwalin promises, after Nori's got the door unlocked.

“Good night,” Nori replies, stepping into the warmth of the foyer.

Upstairs in the room, Ori wakes up in the barest sense of the word as Nori undresses him and helps him into his pyjamas, worried over how cold his hands and feet are. He almost wants to wake Dori up and have him be sure Ori's not too cold, because Nori is just never sure. Six years, and he's still not sure about anything.

Nori doesn't think people like him are meant to be parents. Maybe that's the problem.

After a few hours, he hears Dori wake up, his brother moving quietly around the room as he gets himself together. The light in the little bathroom goes on once the door is shut, and Nori is aware of the water running as Dori shaves and cleans his teeth. It goes off before the door opens, and there's only the briefest flash of light as Dori lets himself out, not enough to wake Nori up fully, just alert him.

The day starts lazy, with Nori getting a text from Dís telling him to bring Ori by around one, and the pair of them going out for breakfast, as promised.

The house is everything Dori promised, but Nori knows its not just them deciding. He lets Ori loose in the place, despite the way the estate agent purses her lips over it. Ori doesn't run around or crash into anything right away though, so she doesn't say anything, and Nori follows him at a distance while she talks about the rooms, the neighbourhood, and the cost.

It's small and old, but Nori could see calling the place home. Maybe not right away, not until they'd made the place more their own, but...

“Nori!” It's a cry of surprise, not need, so Nori takes his time finding Ori again. The back door is open, and when Nori ventures out, he finds why Ori is so excited. Whoever had lived here before had been a gardener, and had laid out a pretty sort of stone path and a fountain. It's not on for the time being, but it has little carvings all along the outside of dancing faeries, and inside there's tile. Nori thinks it's the sort of fountain a person puts plants and fish in, but he wouldn't know for sure.

In any case, Ori is touching it all along the carvings, his eyes big, and Nori knows they're going to buy the house.

He wonders if they left instructions for the fountain.

“Dwalin has a good head for that sort of thing,” Dís says, when Nori asks her later. “He and Thorin and Frerin all learned a lot on the farm. I'll have them come 'round as soon as you've got the keys in hand, make sure everything is in working order.”

“They don't need to,” Nori demurs, uncomfortable.

Dís scoffs. “Not a matter of need. Thorin and Frerin will do whatever Dwalin asks, and Dwalin is eager to impress.” Nori feels himself turn red, embarrassed. He figured Dwalin's friends and family knew, didn't think it'd be a secret or anything, but he didn't think she'd bring it up either. “Oh, none of that now. He thinks he's being so sneaky, but trust me, I know him. And even if I didn't, sure sign someone is interested? When they're nice to your kids.”

She's not wrong, of course, not in Nori's experience. The women Dori dates always try to be sweet to Ori, even if it never usually works. “Ori's not like other kids.”

“No, he's not, is he?” she asks, folding a tea towel from the laundry basket. The boys are all in the room Dís seems to use as a playroom, but was probably meant as a formal sitting room by the architect. Nori can hear them laughing and shouting, even Ori every now and then. “But he likes Dwalin.”

“'Til he saw Dwalin kiss me,” Nori replies before he thinks, and swears.

She laughs, and gets another towel out. “Fíli and Kíli are the same. They get so jealous over anyone I see.” She hands him a towel to fold, and he obliges. “I imagine it's harder on him though. My boys have their uncles, and all our friends. Ori just has you two. It must be hard on him to think someone will take one of you away from him.”

Nori nods. “I think so.”

“Maybe it'll be easier once he sees gaining Dwalin means a whole new family,” she continues. When Nori doesn't say anything, her manner chills a bit. “You are going to dinner with him, aren't you?”

“Yes.” He did agree to that, after all. “I just don't want Ori disappointed, is all.” He doesn't want Ori to get attached to this house, these people, and then lose them when Nori and Dwalin end badly. He'll be worse than ever if he feels that sort of loss, and it'll be Nori's fault, which somehow makes it even worse.

“Why go out with him at all if you don't plan on making something of it?” she asks.

“I'm just being realistic,” he defends himself. “Ori is...” He can't think of the words, can't think of how to explain what a bad idea this is. “Like you said, he doesn't have anyone else. It's just the three of us.” And the occasional letter, more and more time between them the longer Tori is gone. The last was almost a year ago, and they don't know where she is now.

He doesn't like being reminded of home, and he doesn't want to trouble Dori and Ori. This whole thing is just going to be so much trouble, for all of them, and Nori should put a stop to it before it even starts. They're making friends now, and Ori seems better, and Dori, Dori has needed this, needed people from home. They're both happy.

“It doesn't have to be,” she says. Nori didn't know there were people other than Dori who could fold tea towels passive-aggressively. No wonder they get on so well. “You're lonely. Don't think I can't see it. I might not know you too well, but I know your type.”

“My type?” He doesn't think he's offended. She doesn't say it like it's a bad thing.

“You're like my other brother, Frerin. He, the after, when we first got here, he sort of...hated everything that reminded him of home. And he distanced himself from us, for a long time. It wasn't until the boys were born that he came back to us.” She sighs, and pushes away the laundry basket. “You cant do this to Ori.”

That gets Nori's back up. “What's that supposed to mean?” When she shakes her head, he says hotly, “I know how to take care of my brother -”

“Oh, that might have some fooled, but I'm not stupid. Ori is as much your brother as he is mine.” Now Nori finds himself aggressively folding a tea towel, and wondering when he turned into Dori. “I'm going to guess he's your nephew.”

“Did Dwalin tell you -”

“What does Dwalin know?” she demands, looking offended. “See if he gets fed this week, the bastard. And I didn't need to be told, I'm not stupid.” She looks towards the playroom, keeping her voice low. “Before you get bent out of shape, I'm not judging you. I'm guessing you two have reasons, and since you obviously dote on the lad, I'm guessing they're damn good ones.”

Told once this week, why not tell twice? “Our sister. Older than me, younger than Dori. Got caught up with some idiot, and then,” he hitches his chin towards the playroom, and she sighs in a way that tells Nori she gets the situation a lot better than most. “She knew she couldn't take care of him, and we could. She's still finding her way.” Because he loves Tori, and he actually believes it, even though he doesn't think Dori does anymore. He thinks maybe Dís understands Tori a bit better. Tori is just...she just can't be Ori's mother right now. “Ori is nothing like me and Dori, or even her. Or...him. You know, him.” Yeah, she does, he can see in the way she smiles.

“He's such an odd duck, Ori. He doesn't have many friends, does he?” Nori hates that he has to shake his head, but he gets the idea that lying to Dís is a mistake. “He likes it here. He likes my home, he likes my boys and the others. They speak both his languages. They know his culture. He's happy when he's here.”

“But he's not your kid.” Nori thinks there's more venom in there than Dís deserves.

It says a lot about her that she doesn't rise to it, he thinks. No, she's thinking about Ori the whole time. “I don't want you breaking Dwalin's heart, make no mistake. But Ori needs more than what you two can give right now, and I...” She's looking at him with a very intense sort of expression. “I'm can see you two have done your very best. But he needs more.”

Nori almost thinks he's going to grab Ori and leave, because sod her, he doesn't need this, and she doesn't know them -

Except when he looks in the playroom, Ori is sitting with her eldest, Fíli, while they play some sort of game on the tablet that involves tapping the screen a lot. The other boy is contently concentrating on his Lego creation with their apparent cousin, a little ginger. Ori is just so...unlike himself. There's no barely concealed fear, no anxiety. Ori is just settled against Fíli, actually touching him, and Nori...Nori can't.

He turns away from the room, leaning against the wall. Dís followed him. Of course she did. She's standing there now, looking at him, and it's not condescending or cruel or even very sad. Just sort of understanding. She knows she's right, and she's not happy about it.

“I don't know where my sister is,” he confesses quietly.

“Yeah,” she replies. “It's all right, you know. I'm not going to kick you out if you and him botch it up.” Her and Dori really have been getting on, Nori thinks. She might just want a friend enough not to care. “And if it helps, Dwalin really is one of the best men I know.”

“Yeah,” Nori sighs. “I picked up on that.”