"Durin's fucking hammer!" King Dis' angry voice carried out of the royal family common rooms. Dwalin, on guard, stepped in to be sure everything was all right. The family had finished their breakfast and were all gathered together, going about their morning routine. Fili was sitting on Kili to keep him still while their little sister Aili put proper braids in his hair for once. Dis seemed to have been working on her Consort, Farli's, braids, but had dropped them to rant. Farli smiled fondly at her wife and lifted a knee up to capture her half-finished braid and finish it one-handed.
"This is the third time this week," Dis railed. "I thought he would be getting better now, not worse. You can't deny Skavaerr's been doing good work with the borrowed Iron Hills guards while we wait for the Ered Luin guard to show up, but I thought he'd get over his thing against Nori, not worse! I cannot have my spy arrested for 'looking suspicious' or 'loitering' or whatever other ridiculous excuse he's come up with now! Nori has work to do, and so do I! I do not have the time to write a letter of pardon every time Skavaerr gets a wild hair up his arse and goes after Nori!"
Dwalin could feel his jaw tensing. Nori was a member of the Company, a friend, he did not deserve to be hounded by the guard now that he was honest and working for the crown. Dwalin was glad to be working with him in protection of Erebor, he could be abrasive but Dwalin had grown used to him. He liked working with Nori… maybe a little more than just as a friend. Someday, if there was ever a time after the restoration of Erebor when they were not too busy, he had toyed with the idea of trying to court Nori. If Nori even wanted some old warrior.
Aili was nearly done with the last of Kili's braids when he made his escape, rolling Fili off to the floor and jumping up to run around the room so she couldn't finish. Kili had taken to his new mechanical leg well, progressing quickly from his first painful stumping steps. The fineness of Erebors craftsmanship helped. It was lighter and more flexible than any they'd have been able to build him in Ered Luin.
"Can't you give Skavaerr a warning?" Fili asked, making himself comfortable on the floor. "Tell him to leave the Company alone?" Dwalin glanced him over sharply, but it seemed like Fili was genuinely comfortable on the floor and not reluctant to move to avoid aggravating injuries. He had good, healthy color in his warm brown cheeks - neither the grayness of pain nor the flush of fever. He was healing well.
"I have tried," Dis groaned. "And I am King, but he is Dain's right hand and ear and we need the Iron Hills' support and good will while we rebuild. We need their guard, at least for the next two months. Skavaerr does good work, other than this, and he will not take gentle hints, and I cannot move against him as King." Dis huffed her frustration, and then glanced up at Dwalin at the door. She smiled. "Dwalin. Deal with it."
"My lady?" Dwalin stepped forward. He was more than willing to do what he could to help Nori. "What would you have me do?"
"No, no," she waved him off. "I cannot do anything. The King cannot move against Skavaerr. You go make sure I do not have to deal with this again."
Fili chuckled from on the floor, and Dwalin nodded a brief bow to King Dis and left as she brushed Farli's lighter brown fingers out of the way and took over braiding her hair again. It was not the first time Dwalin had been sent to do what a King could not. Thorin had used him that way, sometimes, but those memories were painful now. Dwalin took a moment and a deep breath to accept the sorrow of them, and then set them aside in the memory of those still living.
He had a job to do.
Nori seethed in the corner of his cell. Erebor's jails were nice, clean and well kept, but had not expected to get to know them quite so well. He was a Hero of Erebor, a member of the Company. He'd gone honest. He hadn't even stolen anything.
...or, well, not much of anything. Nori hadn't gotten caught stealing anything, that's the thing. He'd been keeping squeaky clean, for him, and he had never been arrested so often. A Hero of Erebor and a member of the Company couldn't go stabbing guards or popping their eyeballs out to give them a warning, not if he wanted to keep living in Erebor low-profile and not make trouble for his King and his family.
Nori had to be visible, that's the problem. He was the King's spy, and to make sure people worse than him weren't hurting people as they settled in to Erebor, he had to make a place for himself here. He had to be around, where he could see and hear what was going on. He wasn't doing anything much illegal, the vast majority of the time. It was just his bad luck Skavaerr remembered and hated him from the Iron Hills portion of Nori's youthful misadventures. He'd done some bad things in the Iron Hills, he could not deny it, but he'd grown up a lot since then. Skavaerr would not see that.
Two more months he had to deal with this wargshit, and then Thjorr would come with the Ered Luin guard to take over. Nori had never made much trouble in Ered Luin. Thjorr was all right. Nori could work with her - had worked with her a time or two in Ered Luin - and she was completely loyal to the royal line. If King Dis hinted that Nori was to be left alone, she would not hesitate to obey.
Nori seethed as he cooled his heels in his cell and waited for King Dis' pardon to arrive. He was as surprised as anyone when Dwalin arrived instead. He gleamed with the rich brown of well-aged bronze, his rough undecorated hair just begging to be brushed and smoothed into place. He had his best glower on, the sharp blades of his greenstone axes glinting over his broad shoulders. He swaggered in like he owned the jail and everyone in it, big hands clenching into fists with a warning creak of leather and rattle of chains. It was all Nori could do not to whimper, seeing him like that. He knew what he liked, and Dwalin defined it. Not that Dwalin was interested in the likes of Nori. Best to keep his lust to himself and admire whenever he got the chance.
Dwalin's deep-set eyes swept into his cell, giving Nori a brief nod, before he turned to the nervous Iron Hills guards. He'd been sent for Nori, then? That was interesting.
"Where is Skavaerr?" Dwalin demanded, and guards skittered away to go gather him. Dwalin had a reputation too, and nobody wanted to keep him waiting. He'd spent some parts of his youth in the Iron Hills, though not at the same time as Nori, and had left a better impression behind. Skavaerr hurried out of his office to see Dwalin, puffing himself up a bit, but he couldn't hope to match Dwalin for breadth.
"What can I do for…" Skavaerr started, smiling.
"Who gave the order for Nori to be arrested!?" Dwalin interrupted, and the smile fell off Skavaerr's face. "He is to be left alone, unbothered, unharassed, trusted and left to his work!"
"It is my job to protect the citizens of Erebo,." Skavaerr shot back. "If I see a proven and notoriously irredeemable criminal on the streets, it is my duty to arrest them."
"Not Nori," Dwalin corrected. "Nori is of Thorin's Company, he fought beside me and beside the King, loyalty unwavering through dragon and war. How much more of his time, of your time, of King Dis' time will you waste on this?" Dwalin asked. It was almost worth having gotten arrested to get to hear Dwalin defend him. Nori tried not to smile too hard in his cell. Dwalin hadn't wanted Nori along on the quest at first, but he'd gotten over that once Nori proved himself. They worked together well, since. It was good to hear him saying nice things though, as opposed to just refraining from saying mean things.
"Let Nori go." Dwalin stepped closer to loom over Skavaerr - what Nori wouldn't give to be in his place. "Let him go now, and never arrest him again."
"No." Skavaerr held his ground. "Not even for a friend of yours, Dwalin."
"What of my family?" Dwalin growled, "Would you dishonor the line of Durin, the King's line, by hounding my intended?"
There was a beat of shocked silence all around. Nori made sure he did not give the game up by letting his mouth fall open in shock the way the guards were. He had enough practice with impromptu cons for that, at least.
Skavaerr broke the silence with a roar of laughter. "You?" he choked out. "Noble Dwalin, the King's right hand, with that thin streak of warg piss?" Nori didn't flinch at the insult, even if it stung. He was a different Dwarf now, he was honest, doing good work. He wanted to be past the hate and derision. "The whole mountain would be going on about it if you were. Go on, pull the other!"
Dwalin's nostrils flared, jaw visibly clenching under his beard as the other guards joined in laughing. Nori could not blame them, the lie was bare on its face. This was going to be bad. Dwalin obviously had no answer to contradict the laughing guards, he did not know how to pull a good con. He was going to snap in anger and say something unfortunate or hurt Skavaerr and - much as his obsession with Nori was a problem - Skavaerr's work was important and necessary. The good will of the Iron Hills was needed, or Nori might have given in to temptation to put the guard captain out of commission himself by now.
Dwalin could not pull this one off alone.
"Dwalin," Nori reached through the bars toward him. Dwalin was angry, that much showed, but he was also lost. He did not know what he was doing. Nori knew him well enough, had watched him enough, to know how to tell. He'd just need a hint, and hopefully he could pick the thread up. Dwalin did step over to take Nori's hand through the bars, at least, deepest blue eyes begging.
"We agreed to keep it quiet, not court formally or make any announcements while the mountain still mourns for Thorin. While we mourn," Nori prompted, squeezing Dwalin's dark brown fingers in his own pale hand. Dwalin swallowed hard, bearing up through that pain he felt whenever Thorin was mentioned. That much was real, and it would add realism to the rest. The guards around them were quieting now, watching, starting to believe it with shock and wonder.
"I can't leave you here like this," Dwalin answered. "He's dead, but we're living. We have mourned enough, Thorin... Thorin would want us to live." Dwalin squeezed Nori's fingers back as he gathered his part of the game. He was better at a con than Nori would have expected. He turned to face shocked Skavaerr, voice turning hard again. "Let Nori go, now, and do not dishonor the royal line again by hounding my intended when you know he has done nothing wrong in Erebor!"
Skavaerr did not like it. He glared at Nori like he wished he could spit poison, but he gestured to one of the guards to unlock his cell. Dwalin let Nori's hand go to let the door open, but stepped right back to reach for Nori as soon as he was through. Very good realism. Nori ducked under Dwalin's arm to lean against his solid side. If he was going to play at courting Dwalin, he was going to get as much as he possibly could out of it. Dwalin flowed with him, giving him an affectionate squeeze, warm and strong and close. Who'd have thought Dwalin would be so good at this kind of deception?
"Leave Nori alone," Dwalin warned, glaring around at all the guards and Skavaerr in particular as he turned them to leave.
"He might have you fooled good, but not me," Skavaerr sneered. "I know him. You think you're the first he's fucked to get what he wants? Do you have any idea how many guards he's let tumble him to get free? He's filthy, he'll do anything with anyone, and you want that in your bed? You'll be wishing you listened to me when he's done using you and throws you aside. You'll be lucky to get away with both eyes in your skull." Skavaerr brushed his hands off at them and turned to go back to his office. Dwalin's entire body tensed, hand clenching into a fist against Nori's side at that rudeness, but Nori gently tugged him toward the door and Dwalin followed. What Skavaerr said was partially true, or had once been true, of Nori. Skavaerr didn't matter now, they'd gotten him off Nori's back. No sense sticking around to ruin it now.
They stepped out of the jail into the mountain of Erebor, to freedom and a very interesting new con to explore. It wasn't what Nori wanted, it wasn't Dwalin actually wanting him, but he'd play it for all he was worth.
"I.. uh..." Dwalin started as soon as they were out of sight of the jail, trying to set Nori free. He felt wonderful to hold against Dwalin's side, compact and strong, but it wasn't right. Nori stepped back into Dwalin's side so smoothly it was as if Dwalin had never let him go.
"They're still watching us." Nori smiled up at Dwalin, gorgeous stormcloud eyes crinkling up on the edges beneath his luxuriant braided brows. His tone, expression, and mannerisms felt exactly like a lover's endearment, even while his words were all business. "Better hold me a little longer."
"I'm sorry," Dwalin mumbled, pulling Nori in closer. His fingers liked curving around Nori's hip: he might not have Dori's well-rounded classic beauty, but Nori had a little squish and strong muscle over good solid bones. He fit against Dwalin. "I didn't mean to… to trap you," Dwalin apologized. He'd just said the first thing that came to mind to get Skavaerr to relent and leave Nori alone, and it would have all blown up in his face if Nori hadn't taken charge. He was not a practiced liar.
Nori laughed softly, nudging his shoulder against Dwalin. "I've played worse cons," he confessed. "It was good thinking, on your part. It'll keep him off my back."
"He should have left you alone anyway, you've proven yourself. You're of the Company," Dwalin complained. It was not right that Nori should be treated as a criminal when he was working for the crown. He should not have to bear the insults of guards. Nori just shrugged, letting it flow off him. Dwalin could not, it needled at him. Skavaerr's animosity did not sit right.
"He hates you, personally," Dwalin mused. Skavaerr was a good captain of the guard, his venom was uncharacteristic. "Was he ever…" Dwalin broke himself off. He did not want to know, really. Nori had never denied doing some unfortunate things in his youth. They all had their past indiscretions, Dwalin did not need to pry into specific details. It wasn't his business.
"Ever what?" Nori asked.
Dwalin gestured vaguely, hoping Nori would drop it.
"One I fucked?" Nori guessed, laughing slightly again. "He wished." He shook his head, still smiling at Dwalin as though they were sharing little affections. "I ruined good guards around him, some of his friends. I used them. I wish I hadn't. It was wrong of me." Dwalin did not know how he could say things like that with such a mismatched expression. Being able to lie so well was part of what made him such a good spy for Dis, but he was not lying now. Nori could have denied any wrongdoing in his youth, but he was not. Nori admitted that Skavaerr had reasons for his hatred, long ago as it had all been. Nori was a very different Dwarf now.
"Just two months," Dwalin said. "He'll be gone soon."
"Two months," Nori agreed. "You can pretend to court me for that long, can't you?" Dwalin nodded briefly. It was the pretending part that was going to be the hardest, but he could do it.
"I have to go. People to watch, you know," Nori turned in to Dwalin, glancing briefly over his shoulder. "They're still watching. Don't punch me for this," he murmured. He smiled coyly as he wrapped his arms around Dwalin's neck, lifting up on his toes to gently knock their foreheads together. Nori was so close - flash of a bright eye, brush of soft hair, pale skin marked with the last of his fading sun-freckles soft against Dwalin's own. Nori's breath was warm against Dwalin's lips, and his own breath caught. His arms closed around Nori on their own, holding him close.
"Oh, well done," Nori breathed. "You're a natural. Meet you outside the palace this evening?"
"Uh… Aye," Dwalin managed to answer somehow, and Nori slid out of his arms with a laugh and a gentle nuzzle of his handsome nose against Dwalin's.
Dwalin swallowed hard and turned his boots toward the palace, blood pounding in his cheeks. Pretending was going to be much harder than he had anticipated.
King Dis removed her crown and rubbed her forehead, looking at Dwalin through her fingers. He was still there, shuffling his boots in embarrassment but sticking to his decision. Of all the things he could have done, he had somehow chosen the most ridiculous. The longing looks between Nori and Dwalin had become nearly unbearable in recent months, and now this?
"Just to keep Nori safe from Skavaerr. He won't dishonor the line by hounding Nori," Dwalin explained gruffly. "It was all I could think of."
Pretending to court. Pretending. The two of them.
"I am certain it was," Dis answered mildly. He probably couldn't think of anything but courting while in Nori's presence. "Thank you Dwalin, you may go." Dwalin nodded a sharp bow and saw himself out of the throne room.
Two months of Nori and Dwalin 'pretending' to court. They would either break and finally begin actually courting, or set the mountain on fire by the sheer power of their sexual frustration. Either way, she did not want to be stuck in the middle of it.
"Mahal give me strength," Dis groaned, replacing her crown and dismissing them from her thoughts. She had a kingdom to run.
For concept art of the royal family, see:
Chapter 2: Promenade
In which the 'charade' continues
warning for brief somewhat gruesome talk of eyeballs
Nori met Dwalin outside the palace, as he'd suggested. Dwalin had worried about that, since Nori hadn't said specifically where to meet him, but Nori showed up before Dwalin could feel awkward about waiting around for him. Dwalin had worried about a lot of other things, too. Pretending to court could turn out very badly, if he gave his true feelings away and made Nori uncomfortable. It was supposed to be a ruse, not real. It was much more Nori's world than Dwalin's, and he did not know if he could do it. It would complicate things if Dwalin did want to court Nori properly someday.
All his worries melted away when Nori smiled at him.
"Come with me," Nori said. His slender fingers closed around Dwalin's wrist for just an instant to tug him along, stormcloud eyes shining all gray with a hint of gold, and Dwalin followed. Nori settled in close to his side, matching paces with him. Dwalin nearly missed the closeness of holding him, but that was ridiculous. They were walking close enough their shoulders bumped now and then, more than close enough to advertise that they were walking together somewhere.
"The word's spread already," Nori opened, quietly. "Not a single guard's bothered me since midday."
"Good," Dwalin answered. At least it was working, at least Nori was going to be able to do his work unbothered now.
"We need to plan how we're going to play this," Nori continued. "I know a nice spot to talk, I think you'll like it."
"All right," Dwalin agreed. Planning a campaign was always important, even if he'd never done one like this before. They walked together through the rebuilding mountain, seeing how things were being put back together or built new. It had been a while since Dwalin had gone out into Erebor proper, and it was good to see how things were progressing. Nori was companionable beside him, asking about Dwalin's day in the palace. It felt very natural to walk with him that way, to talk with him about both of their days. Nori led him through Erebor to a small shop near the growing market. Dwalin might never have noticed it, or known what it was if he did. The shop sign was written in a pretty eastern script he could not read. Dwalin followed Nori, ducking through the brightly woven curtains that covered the door, and into the most heavenly scent of spices and roasting meat.
He breathed deep, stomach awakening with a loud grumble as he looked around. The lighting was warm, the shop small and close, but comfortable. There were a few Dwarves sitting around tables eating, and Nori was already leaning across the counter smiling toward the Dwarf cooking.
"A meal for two?" Nori asked. "I think the lamb today? It smells amazing. Esker, this is Dwalin." Nori introduced. The black-haired Dwarf nodded politely to Dwalin, expertly shaving thin slices of roast lamb off a roasting spit with a huge sharp knife and laying them on a tray.
"How is Yla doing? Carrying the baby well? It can't be much longer now!" Nori conversed as they watched Esker pile the tray with meat and flatbreads and half a dozen bowls.
"Yes," Esker answered simply, his westron heavily accented, but his smile spoke volumes. His partner and their child, then, maybe. Erebor was filling up with old Dwarves who remembered the place, but also young families like this looking for a good place to live. The Company had done this, had made this opportunity possible. Thorin had done it, he had made a place for hopeful families to make good lives for themselves, even if he had not lived to see it. Seeing Esker's smile lightened the pain in Dwalin's heart just a little. Esker handed the tray over to Nori, drawing his hand back with a gleam of gold in his palm.
Nori carried the tray to a quiet table, and they settled in to eat. The food was wonderful, everything deliciously seasoned. Dwalin tried all the sauces that came with - some sweet, some cool, some spicy-hot - and settled in to have his fill. It was cozy to sit shoulder-to-shoulder and eat off the same tray. Nori had a good appetite himself, and knew better than to try to engage a hungry Dwarf in conversation.
Nori returned their empty tray with their complements and returned with tall cups of sweet tea to sip. He leaned against Dwalin's side, and it was the most natural thing in the world to reach an arm around him to hold him there.
"Who'd have thought Dwalin would be a natural at running a con?" Nori chuckled softly, quiet and intimate just between the two of them, and brought reality crashing back in on Dwalin. This, none of this, was real. It felt real to Dwalin, Nori was that good, but this was just a game to Nori.
He shrugged with a noncommittal grunt and sipped his tea to cover himself.
"We both have our work," Nori continued, a coy smile playing with his lips as though he were sharing a lover's confidence. "But to have this look real, we'll have to be seen together. Going out for meals like this isn't bad, is it? We get along well enough for that, and walking through Erebor now and then to watch the progress?"
They got along more than well enough for that, from Dwalin's side of it. "We do," he nodded. "It's very good, this place. I wouldn't have known it was here."
"Well, that's my job." Nori preened slightly. "Know everyone and everything. Tomorrow I've got an appointment already, but the day after I could meet you outside the palace again? We don't have to meet every day to look like we're courting."
"Aye, the day after," Dwalin nodded. Nori smiled at him, and he wished he were not already looking forward to it so much.
Nori was busy. That the Iron Hills guards only glared at him and no longer followed him around or arrested him on a whim helped immensely, but there was an entire mountain to keep track of and there was only one of Nori. He reported to King Dis, and made the kinds of friends who had friends who would hear the kinds of things Nori needed to hear, and every few days he carved out some time to play at courting with Dwalin. If it seemed like Dwalin lost interest in him, Nori would be right back in Erebor's jail waiting for a letter of pardon.
Dwalin might be willing to temporarily pretend to court Nori to help the King, but Nori knew it was just a game. It was a game Dwalin was surprisingly good at playing, but Nori knew he couldn't forget himself. He mentioned the game of it, now and then, when it started to feel too real - when he was in danger of forgetting, or if he ever caught himself nearly slipping into too much familiarity or affection. He could not forget it was just a necessary game, and that Dwalin would be more than happy to drop a Dwarf like Nori as soon as it was over.
If Dwalin ever really courted, it would be a nobledwarf, a credit to the royal line. Nori just enjoyed what he could get away with while he had it. Life of a thief, wasn't it? Get to hold the richest treasures, but never keep them.
Nori was busy, so of course he hadn't had much time for his brothers. He had not actually intended on being caught by Dori when he was. He hadn't expected his elder brother to be in the kitchen when he came in through the window.
"There you are, Nori," Dori said, catching him by the arm. He made it look so casual, even while the pinch of it nearly made Nori's arm go numb. "Do stick around for a moment." Nori was shoved toward a chair while Dori set about fixing the last of his braids in place. There were some nearly-fresh biscuits on the table, so Nori didn't mind all too much. He knew better than to disobey Dori when he used that particularly polite tone of voice.
"So, you and Dwalin?" Dori asked, arching an eyebrow.
Nori shrugged one shoulder, readying his explanation, but Dori did not press him for it. Dori was… laughing?
"Oh, that's Gloin and Oin I've beaten in the betting pool," he chuckled. "They didn't think you'd make a move before Durin's day!"
"But I…" Nori protested, all unheard in Dori's gloating. There had been a betting pool on him and Dwalin? Of all the most ridiculous things. The Company bet on everything, of course, Nori was behind a fair number of betting pools, but he only ever bet on things that had an actual chance of happening.
"We're really not…" Nori tried again, but Dori was chuckling too hard to hear him. At least he wasn't angry about what he thought Nori was doing.
"Now." Dori set his last diamond-and-amethyst hairpin and straightened his clothes, utterly immaculate and beautiful with his eyes sparkling. "You are coming with me to have celebratory drinks with the Company. You're not squirming out of it this time. The first round's on me."
Well, if there was a free beer in it… Nori kept his mouth shut and followed his brother out the front door.
Despite living in the same house as Balin, Dwalin did not always see him every day. He had not been trying to avoid his brother and the awkward explanations that would inevitably ensue, but he did not see him until the Company's regular meeting. Balin met him on his way in the door and cracked foreheads with him.
"Oh, brother," Balin shook his head fondly. "You finally did it!"
"What?" Dwalin asked. Balin smacked both his shoulders, chuckling as though Dwalin had told a funny joke. Dwalin sat himself in his regular chair, and would have ordered his regular ale, but his brother ordered it for him.
"You're not buying any ales today!" Balin chided, settling the tankard in front of him. "Pay up Oin, you're buying the next round!" he called over as their cousins came in. "Oin didn't think you'd manage it for another year, at least." he confided.
"What?" Dwalin asked again, but he had a free ale and that was always nice.
Balin chuckled again, elbowing him, "Shame on him for doubting you! I knew you'd sort it out with Nori soon enough."
"Nori?" Dwalin asked. That was what this was about? Hadn't Dis explained that it was just a ruse to keep Skavaerr off Nori's back for a few months? And the Company had been taking bets that he and Nori would get together? That was just cruel. Dwalin had thought about attempting it, but what was the chance Nori would want to settle down with someone like Dwalin?
"That is not…" Dwalin tried.
"I know you like your privacy," Balin soothed. "I won't go prying into your affairs." he waggled his eyebrows on the final word, and that really was too much. Dwalin drained his tankard and slammed it down on the table to give him a piece of his mind, only to have another tankard immediately shoved into his hand.
"Oh, I want to pry into his affairs! Can I pry into your affairs?" Kili had arrived, practically bouncing with all his puppy energy as he abandoned his siblings to come lean on Dwalin's table. "Did you really just get together with Nori, or have you been together forever and only just stopped being secret. That's where my money is, say you were," Kili wheedled.
"No!" Dwalin protested both options.
Kili groaned theatrically and went to go cling to Fili in mock despair. Aili patted his back soothingly and then went to join Bombur's Mirra as she arrived.
"I'm just glad I lost," Fili commented. "I really would have stabbed someone if I had to watch you dance around each other for a whole decade." He rubbed at his forehead in an unconscious imitation of his King mother's mannerism.
"There was no dancing," Dwalin protested, which was met with laughter all around. It did not seem like anyone was willing to hear his explanations at all, and there was free ale in his hand. Dwalin drank it, and quit trying to educate anyone.
Nori was as confused as Dwalin was when Dori towed him in. The Company cheered when they arrived, and Dori preened as though he'd gotten them together personally. That was a new worry - how Dori might react when the game was over. Nori was given a tankard of his own and shoved into place beside Dwalin to drink it. Bofur, who had apparently lost his bet some time back, began a song.
"I tried to explain," Dwalin told Nori, under the cover of the song. "They aren't listening."
"No," Nori said. His eyes crinkled up on the corners in a smile as he bumped his shoulder against Dwalin's. "Free beer though," he lifted his tankard.
"Free beer!" Dwalin agreed. It was never a bad thing. He knocked his tankard against Nori's in a toast, and they both drank.
Dwalin enjoyed going out into Erebor with Nori. He saw more of the mountain than he would have otherwise, and it did him good to see life returning. Thorin would never see it, but Dwalin could see it for him, and do honor to those still living. It hurt a little, too, that he had never tried to actually court Nori. He'd thought he might try when they were not so busy, and here they were both busy but clearly with time to court, but it was not real.
Nori made sure to point that out, frequently. Whenever it started to feel too real, Nori would mention that it was only temporary. That it was just a game. Dwalin did his best to remember, not to push or to believe it really was what it looked and felt like between them.
He liked Nori. He liked him more the more he knew him. Nori knew everyone, it seemed like. He was greeted as they walked, hearing peoples news and asking after their families. He did sometimes work while they were out together, but Dwalin understood. He could stand back while Nori had quick hushed conversations - they never lasted too long - and then they could continue on their way. Dwalin was with him when Esker caught Nori's attention, beaming, to share the news of his child's birth. Nori had spoken to him in his own language, carefully searching his small vocabulary for the right words to congratulate him. A strong Dwarf child born under Erebor's good green stone, and that more than anything showed that things were going back to how they were meant to be.
Nori was well liked in Erebor. He really seemed to like to help people, matching up people who needed work with those who were looking for workers, or even volunteering to help move their belongings when a family was moving from too-cramped apartments into better ones in a newly-restored section of the mountain. Dwalin helped with that, too, and he jealously hoarded the shine of Nori's smile when he volunteered himself in his heart. It had been a good evening they spent together, helping load and unload. When they were done the family they helped served them a simple but hearty dinner that was all the better for having been earned.
Left to his own devices, Dwalin might not go anywhere but from his work at the palace to his home and back. Nori was good for him, and he knew the best places to get good food. He'd not fed Dwalin anything that was not delicious yet.
The only sour point was the Iron Hills guards, who glared at Nori whenever they saw him. It rubbed Dwalin the wrong way, but Nori just shrugged it off. He acknowledged them, and then ignored them. Their scorn flowed off him like water, and there was nothing they could do to him with Dwalin's protection, so long as Nori did nothing wrong.
"They have their reasons," Nori admitted. He never ran from his past, and Dwalin could respect that. "...do you know you can pop a Dwarf's eye out of its socket if you push right?" Nori made a violent motion with his thumb at about head-height, and Dwalin shuddered. "A good healer can pop it right back in, but it's disorienting and it hurts like a bastard. I did that a lot more than I should have in the Iron Hills. I was a nasty little wanker, mean clear through. The guards remember."
The guards might have their reasons, but Dwalin still didn't like it. They'd be gone soon enough, and Dwalin both looked forward to and dreaded that. Nori would not have to bear their insults anymore, but the game would be over and Dwalin could no longer pretend that Nori wanted him.
Dwalin was gently jogged out of his thoughts as they arrived where Nori was taking him. Nori seemed to favor small, family businesses. This one was bigger, breaking with his usual tastes. The food was good when it arrived, though nothing unusual. Dwalin gave his food the attention it deserved. He was nearly done when he realized Nori was not eating the way he'd expect. He was picking at the food, still eating but slowly. His gaze was fixed on the table. Dwalin slowed eating himself, wondering what was wrong. He could not for the life of him figure it out, and was going to ask, when another restaurant patron laughed loudly and Nori's eyes flicked toward them with his lips thinning in irritation.
Listening. He was listening to something. There were several conversations around them, none of them all that interesting to Dwalin. He did not know which Nori might be hearing something in. He bumped his boot against Nori's. Nori jumped at the interruption, focusing on Dwalin.
"You're working?" Dwalin mumbled, and Nori smiled at him. He leaned forward, smaller hand wrapping around Dwalin's affectionately.
"How could I possibly be working, when I am so entranced by my companion?" he whispered. There was a question in there, an entreaty, and if Dwalin could help Nori in his work he would. He nodded slightly to give permission. Nori eased toward him, natural as anything in the world. His eyes flirted, caressing across Dwalin as he tangled their boots together under the table. Dwalin held him, gently stroked his back and shoulder, his arm, and kept quiet as he could to let Nori listen. Nori flirted beautifully, but Dwalin knew him well enough he could see the concentration on his face.
It was cruel torment, to get to have this when it was not real. He was only allowed this because Nori was working and needed the appearance of being distracted. Dwalin rubbed the side of his boot against Nori's and did his best not to go too far - not to do anything that would make Nori uncomfortable while he could not protest. Nori was more bold than Dwalin was, for all he was hardly touching Dwalin. He could have lived without watching Nori eat roasted baby potatoes from his fingers and then slowly lick the butter from each slender digit without breaking eye contact. Dwalin breathed very carefully, fighting hard to keep his cock from rising at the invitation this looked like. It was not what it seemed, much as Dwalin would like it to be, and the middle of a restaurant was not the place for it regardless.
Dwalin did not know who Nori had been listening to, but people came and went, and eventually they did too. Dwalin should have let Nori go once they were away from the restaurant and did not need the ruse any more, but he did not. His hands were greedy and he kept a firm hold on Nori. He felt good to hold, small and sturdy against Dwalin's side. They could have walked the way they normally did, side by side, but Nori did not make any move that would indicate discomfort with being tucked under Dwalin's arm. His own arm reached around Dwalin's solid waist to give him a little squeeze back. They walked together back up through the mountain, in no hurry.
They were nearly home when he spotted a group of Iron Hills guards coming the opposite direction. They were going to glare at Nori, all of them, and Dwalin bristled. His instinct might be to settle it with fists, but that would not be diplomatic. He glanced down at Nori, and if he was playing Nori's kind of game he might as well play it.
"Give them something to stare at?" he offered, voice more of a growl than he'd intended. His hand squeezed Nori's waist. Nori's stormy eyes gleamed, smiling up at him. He did not even ask what Dwalin had in mind before he agreed.
Dwalin lifted Nori off his feet, spinning both of them around and Nori into the front of him, another step and Nori was pressed between Dwalin and the sturdy stone of the wall. Dwalin rested one forearm against the wall, other hand on the small of Nori's back to lift him up, press him against the front of Dwalin's body. Nori - bless him or curse him Dwalin was not sure - did not miss a beat. He arched up against Dwalin, one leg and both arms wrapping around Dwalin to hold him close. Dwalin pressed his forehead against Nori's, breathed of his air and did not press forward that tiny distance to taste his lips and kiss the breath out of him. From the outside it would look like he was. This would look like nothing more than the passionate preamble to an intense fuck.
Nori whined in his throat, eyes near closed, one hand clenching in Dwalin's tunic and furs. He made it seem so real. Dwalin did not know how long they stood there. He could feel the shudder of Nori's breath against him, the heat of his body, feel the pounding of Nori's heart to match his own, smell the light lemon scent of his hair oil. He fought the desire to thrust against Nori, grind their bodies together and make this into what it looked like.
"They've… passed," Nori whispered eventually, and Dwalin let him go. It took all his strength to do it, to force himself to step back. He could not make himself do it quickly, it took him time to untangle himself and let go. Nori's narrow pale face was flushed, and Dwalin thought he must have given himself away, finally, until Nori laughed.
"You're a natural at this game," Nori praised, shaking his head. "You might be better than me. I have to go now, but…" he wavered slightly, but stepped back into Dwalin briefly, raising up in his toes to delicately bump foreheads. A flash of smiling eyes, a twist of his hips, a cheeky tweak to Dwalin's beard, and Nori was gone.
And Dwalin was in too deep, when it was all a game to Nori.
Nori enjoyed his time with Dwalin. He particularly liked those times when Dwalin could be encouraged to touch him, big hands and muscles and strength, heat that would feel like real passion if Dwalin would only keep going. Nori enjoyed other times too, though. Dwalin wasn't the most talkative, but he was good company.
Nori kept up the appearance of a casual courtship - being seen at Dwalin's side every few days, and occasionally in his arms - enough that the Iron Hills guards would not bother him. There were worse cons to pull than letting people think Dwalin wanted him.
Dwalin walked along at Nori's side, both of them full of good food. Dwalin had agreed to go sit above the great gate together, it was a quiet place to watch people come and go. More and more shipments were coming in, and it was nice to see the proof of life returning to the mountain. Nori greeted people he knew, informants and others, and everything he heard back said Erebor was in good shape. No one was hearing anything worrying, and Nori was in a good mood.
Dwalin grumbled under his breath, and Nori turned to him. He could not see anything wrong or unusual, himself. Dwalin crossed his arms across his broad chest, glowering.
"They're smirking at us. At me. Why?" Dwalin demanded, though quietly. "It keeps happening, more and more." A quick glance around and Nori's heart fell as he spotted people whispering together and chuckling as they watched him with Dwalin. He should have realized that talk about him would eventually affect Dwalin, should have planned for it, softened the blow for Dwalin. There were worse things for Nori than letting people think someone like Dwalin wanted him, but were there worse things for Dwalin than people thinking he wanted someone like Nori?
"It's me," Nori admitted. "They know my reputation. They think they know what you want with me." That would be a fine blemish on Dwalin's perfect reputation, wouldn't it?
Dwalin did not answer, walking silent beside Nori until they reached their destination. Nori sat on the edge of the wall, feet hanging off. He pulled a linen napkin out of his pocket and unfolded it between them to share the sweet biscuits he'd brought. Dwalin's sweet-tooth might surpass even Nori's. Dwalin sat and watched the wagons coming and going through the gate. He was quiet for a long time, deep in thought as he idly ate the biscuits. Nori braced himself for an end to the charade, to be back to waiting for a letter of pardon whenever the Iron Hills guards felt like arresting him. They couldn't actually harm Nori as a member of the Company, just as he couldn't harm them as a respectable hero of Erebor, but it would not be pleasant if they could go after him again after being denied it for a while.
"What do they think I want with you?" Dwalin finally asked.
"A wild fuck at the least," Nori answered, "or any number of more unusual pleasures. Why else might you want a known criminal? 'You know Nori, he'll do anyone and anything.' I'm not good for your reputation," he admitted.
"You're a different Dwarf now, you're not who you once were," Dwalin tried.
"No," Nori shook his head, breaking Dwalin off before he could go too far down that road. "I am ashamed of the people I've hurt, but never of the pleasures I've shared. I might be pickier about who I'll bed now, but I'd do it all again, and more."
Dwalin pondered that for a bit, watching a heavy wagon of stone blocks creak its slow way through the gate toward Dale. He wouldn't be the first Dwarf to think Nori should be ashamed of his pleasures. 'You want that in your bed?' Skavaerr had asked, and neither of them had thought through what it would mean to Dwalin when he held Nori close and took him out of jail anyway. They weren't even fucking and Nori was still tarnishing Dwalin's reputation. At least it would bounce right back when he came to his senses and dropped Nori.
"They think I'm just having it off with you," Dwalin mused, his midnight blue eyes bright and direct as he finally looked at Nori. "What if we looked like we were courting to marry instead?"
Nori blinked. That… that was not what he had expected. Dwalin kept so much of his thoughts to himself, and then came out with that? Not less but more?
"I could give you braids, show an intention to marry you." Dwalin's fingers gently brushed Nori's hair at his temple, before he drew them quickly back. He looked back down at the gates. "Then they couldn't say I only want to fuck you. If you want," he finished gruffly.
Nori would never have suggested it, but if Dwalin was comfortable enough with the game to suggest pushing it that much further, he wouldn't hold them back. How much more flirting and closeness could he get away with, if they were playing at that kind of courtship?
"All right," Nori agreed.
Dwalin looked back at him sharply, as though he hadn't expected Nori to actually agree. Nori just grinned back, quirking an eyebrow. Dwalin had offered, Nori wasn't going to let him get back out of it so easily.
Dwalin took a deep breath. "Line of Durin," he said quickly, indicating a line to each side of Nori's face just before his ears. "Two braids, I'll just…"
"All right," Nori repeated, reaching up to pull some hair out of his peaks for the braids. If he were going to wear courting braids for the line of Durin for a false courtship he could have just braided them in himself, but if Dwalin was willing to do it Nori wasn't going to stop him. Dwalin removed his knuckledusters so they would not catch in Nori's hair and began smoothing and gathering a section of Nori's hair before his ear. He was surprisingly gentle with his big hands, concentration on his face as he rubbed Nori's hair beneath his fingers, feeling the material he had to work with. It looked good wrapped around his fingers, Nori's red-brown hair against Dwalin's brown skin and tattoos. He would have liked to see that as a lover, if Dwalin liked his hair, but Nori firmly turned his mind away from that. Dwalin separated Nori's hair into sections and began the careful construction of a courting braid. Nori hadn't had anyone else braid his hair in a long time, the soft tug of it felt good, this small affection. Dori could make Nori's hair do beautiful things, but he tended to get impatient and a little rough. Dwalin was conspicuously gentle, brushing stray hairs out of the way with soft caresses as he worked.
"I'm not going to break," Nori snarked, hoping that the heat in his face did not show too badly. It felt too good, even if it wasn't real.
"I know," Dwalin answered shortly, avoiding his eyes and only looking at the braid. It must be uncomfortable for him to do this when it was not real. Nori stayed quiet after that, letting Dwalin find whatever thoughts he needed to be able to do this. He went easily when Dwalin turned him to the other side to put in the second braid. Nori had a bit of string in a pocket - always useful, string - and bound up the end of the first braid. Dwalin's braiding was slow, meditative almost. Nori could easily have climbed into his lap to let Dwalin play with his hair for hours, feel the scratch of blunt nails on his scalp, the occasional gentle tug of a tangle eased apart.
Nori held himself still and did not push against Dwalin. The game would be over if Dwalin realized how much Nori actually wanted him. Dwalin was willing to play along, he did it brilliantly, but he would not actually want Nori.
Dwalin smoothed Nori's second braid one last time and let it go with a brief nod. He turned back to watch the traffic going through the great gate, dwindling now at the end of the day, as he put his knuckledusters back on.
"You don't wear any braids at all," Nori observed as he bound the end of the second braid and began working at getting the rest of his loosened hair under control. Later he could try to make a hairstyle that looked good with his new braids, for now he would be happy if he could get it all contained.
"My mother was a Stiffbeard," Dwalin explained. "Balin and I honor her." Nori nodded in understanding. Unlike the Longbeards, the Stiffbeards didn't usually wear any beads or ornaments, still there were a lot of things that could be done without. Dwalin's loose rough mane was beautiful as it was, but Nori's fingers itched to see what they could make of it.
That was too much though. That had not been offered. Nori gently touched the courting braids that framed his face, that he would never have expected to wear even if it was just a ruse, then dropped his hand to leave them alone. It wouldn't do to be mooning over them as though they meant anything. He tucked the empty napkin from their biscuits back into his pocket and smiled at Dwalin.
"We've probably been seen enough today, let's get home. Same time tomorrow?"
Chapter 3: Swing
The lengths that must be gone to to make this so-very-fake courtship look real...
Warning! There is an nsfw image in this chapter!
Dwalin was not exactly sure how he had agreed to this.
He'd given Nori courting braids because it wasn't right for people to think Dwalin could only want him for a tumble. Not that Dwalin would mind bedding him, but Nori deserved more than that. Dwalin wanted more than that, even if it was all a game. Dwalin had given Nori courting braids to honor him and welcome him into his house, that was straightforward enough. In the days after they somehow ended up talking about how if they truly were courting that seriously, they would not be sleeping in separate houses every night.
Nori complained that Dori was too nosy to be lived with, and said he hadn't bothered to set up anything more comfortable than a bolt-hole here and there in Erebor. He had no apartment of his own. Dwalin had mentioned that his bed was big, and Balin respected his privacy in their house; but he did not know how he had agreed to this or how he'd thought it was a good idea. Probably it was that Nori had suggested 'tonight, then?' and smiled at him and Dwalin went ahead and agreed.
He stripped down to his long underwear, and carefully did not look toward the opposite side of the bed where Nori was brushing out his thick hair to put it in sleep braids. Dwalin could picture all too clearly what it would feel like to help with it. Nori's hair was fluffy, it had loft to it, and had been surprisingly soft under Dwalin's fingers as he smoothed and braided it.
Dwalin firmly set aside thoughts of Nori's hair, and went to wash his teeth before bed. It was wonderfully luxuriant to have his own washroom, after a lifetime of sharing in barracks or the like. He took a long drink of water, taking the time to settle his mind and remind himself, yet again, that just because Nori was going to be in his bed did not mean he was available for touching.
When Dwalin turned around to go to bed, Nori was naked. His hair was long in his sleep braids, falling to tumble artfully around his shoulders. He had a fine pelt of hair running down his muscular chest and over the slight pudge of his belly, thicker at his groin to frame his cock. It lay quiet between his legs, pale against his red-brown curls and flushing pink at the head where Dwalin's eyes were caught by a flash of gold and the deep red gleam of star rubies. Pierced. Nori's cock was pierced around the edges of the crown and decorated with the richest of gems lying flush against his skin. After far too long of staring, Dwalin forced his eyes away, face burning. Nori sleeping in his bed was all for show. He was not supposed to be staring at Nori's cock, or imagining what those skin-warm jewels would feel like under his tongue, wondering if he would be able to feel them if Nori fucked him.
Nori didn't seem to have noticed, somehow, or maybe he didn't mind being eyed like a piece of comb just waiting to have the honey sucked out of it. He'd been doing the age-old stretch of a warrior loosening up a new scar, rubbing at the big one that ran under his arm to soften it and regain his flexibility. An Orc wound from the battle, rough in contrast to the smaller knife scars he had here and there on his body. Dwalin had managed to come out of the battle with hardly a scratch. Maybe someday he would be able to forgive himself for that.
Nori climbed into the far side of Dwalin's bed, braids spread across the pillow and not apparently in any hurry to cover himself in the blankets. He turned down the sheets on Dwalin's side of the bed invitingly, smiling.
"You going to sleep in all that?" Nori asked. He eyed Dwalin's long underwear with one braided eyebrow raised.
"Aye," Dwalin answered gruffly. He might not on his own, but with someone else in his bed he was not going to tumble, he certainly was. Especially if the person in question were as horribly tempting as Nori. Dwalin blew the lamp out and climbed stiffly into bed, settling himself with his back solidly toward Nori. He pulled the blankets up around his shoulders and tried to ignore the slight shifting of the bed as Nori made himself comfortable, the soft cadence of his breathing. He made himself breathe deeply and evenly, and tried desperately not to think of all of Nori's bare skin wrapped up in the soft sheets, and how that might feel. Dwalin tried not to think of Nori's pretty decorated cock, and how it would look in his hand if he teased it to full hardness - how his gold and jewels would gleam slicked with spit or oil.
Dwalin lay still in the dark and tried very hard not to think of any of those things. It was going to be a very long night.
The second night Nori spent in Dwalin's bed turned out just the same as the first. He hadn't really expected anything would change. It was not easy to get more inviting than naked and smiling in someone's bed - maybe blindfolded and tied to the bedframe already slicked up with a toy in place to keep him open, but that kind of thing needed agreeing to beforehand. Nori tried to look inviting, but Dwalin climbed into bed with his back to Nori to sleep as still as the stone. The first night might have been nervousness, or just plain being tired, but in the morning he had hardly looked at Nori until he was dressed. Nori knew he was no Dori, but he wasn't bad to look at. He wanted Dwalin to look at him with hunger, the way it had so briefly seemed like he was.
Nori spent a ridiculous amount of time trying on different jewelry sets for his cock before the second night. Having the means to decorate himself as he liked was one of the sweet little joys of his new life in Erebor. He didn't think he'd ever take to dressing richly on the outside to make a mark of himself, but under his clothes he could wear whatever he wanted. The matched star rubies were favorites, but he had many others he loved. He considered big showy emerald cabochons, heavy on his cock and perfect for lovers who liked it rough - or plain studs attaching to a slender gold band that rested just behind his cock head, a pretty display if impractical for penetrative sex. He tried on gems of all shapes and kinds, turquoise, opal, jet, citrine, aquamarine. He even tried on some of his old sets from before Erebor, simple steel and horn and bone and carved native stone from every mountain he'd ever lived under, tiny beads of rose quartz that were hardly visible against his skin. He put on an unusual set decorated with long sharp quartz crystals so they stood out in a dangerous crown around his cock like a warning or a dare. It took time and patience and a delicate touch - the tiniest roughness or incaution was punished with pain - but he knew how to steal his pleasure from between the spikes.
Nori whined under his breath, body squirming out of his control as he finally spent, decorating his hand and sharp heavy jewels with the pearls of his seed. He laughed at himself as he watched it drip from the crystals. Playing at courting Dwalin wasn't doing any favors to Nori's wrist, he hadn't wanked so much since he was a randy kid who didn't know how to get people to fuck him yet. He cleaned up and chose subtle jewels to decorate himself with: white gold that gleamed nearly as beautiful as mithril, and clear diamonds cut on the underside so they only shimmered on second glance.
Dwalin did give him that second glance, noticing his changed jewels, but no more than that. He lay down with his back to Nori, and did not touch him or talk to him or pin him to the headboard and fuck him like their lives depended on it. If Nori was trying to look inviting, Dwalin was clearly doing the opposite. If he'd looked even the tiniest bit interested, Nori would have offered a friendly fuck, but he didn't.
All Nori had done by coming to Dwalin's bed naked was make him uncomfortable. It really was just a necessary ruse to Dwalin. The passion of his touch when he had a reason to make it seem like he wanted Nori burned in his mind, but it was all just for show. Nori had hoped he could get a fuck out of this con, at least, but it seemed unlikely now. Nori knew Dwalin had taken other seeding men as lovers, so it was not that Dwalin didn't like. It must just be Nori he didn't want. He was willing to pretend to court to help a friend and a member of the Company, but he didn't want Nori.
It was really no surprise.
Nori watched Dwalin's back in the dark. He was lying naked in Dwalin's bed, the setting of more than a few fantasies, and he was just cold. Dwalin's bed did not have as many blankets as Nori liked on his. He wondered, briefly, if he could get away with cuddling up to Dwalin's broad back and play it off as rolling over in his sleep, but that wouldn't be fair to Dwalin. It would only make him more uncomfortable. Nori had bothered him enough.
Nori firmly and very deliberately gave up on seducing Dwalin. He rolled over and curled in on himself for warmth, breathing deep and slow to lull himself to sleep. He'd slept far worse places than Dwalin's bed.
Dwalin was not sure why he suggested Nori spend the night in his bed a third time. Lying beside him, knowing he was so close and so very naked and doing nothing, was a torment he would not wish on anyone. Having his bed to himself was easier, he did not have to worry about bothering anyone. Not that he found much peace there alone - he chided himself for acting like a lovesick adolescent when he found himself with his face buried in the pillow Nori had used, stone-hard and breathing the scent of Nori's skin and the lemon hair oil he favored. Dwalin roughly flipped the pillow over so he couldn't smell Nori anymore and returned to his own side of the bed to have one out in peace.
The next day he suggested Nori spend the night again, with no better reason than because it might look strange for their supposed courtship if they stopped sleeping together after starting, and Nori hadn't suggested it himself after the second time.
Nori had smiled up at him, snuggled against his side where Dwalin liked to hold him whenever he could get away with it, and agreed.
Dwalin readied the bed as Nori brushed a little oil into his hair and put it up in braids for the night. Nori was quick with it, nimble fingers flashing as he made his braids - far faster than Dwalin would ever be at braiding. He would have to be, though, with all that hair to take care of.
Rather than leaving his braids down, Nori tied them up into a messy bunch at the back of his head this time. He looked, somehow, even more disarmed that way - endearingly disheveled. Dwalin looked away from him and stripped down to his long underwear. He was not supposed to want so badly to get his fingers into those messy braids.
"You know, you wouldn't have to fight your hair so hard in the morning if you put it up at night," Nori commented.
Dwalin shrugged. He knew it, but it had never seemed worth the trouble.
"Let me put it up for you, just one night? See if you like it?" Nori offered, wide-toothed comb and hair oil still in his hands from taking care of his own. He grinned, kneeling on the bed, and Dwalin gave in far too quickly. It wasn't as though it would hurt.
"All right," he agreed, sitting on the bed with his back to Nori. Nori settled in cheerfully behind him, knees bracketing Dwalin's hips and fingers brushing the back of his neck as he gathered Dwalin's rough mane up. He moved quickly and firmly, but didn't tug. He stroked Dwalin's hair, beginning to work the oil through with just his fingers and feeling the texture of Dwalin's hair. The faint lemon scent washed over him, and Dwalin felt himself relaxing under Nori's ministrations. Eventually Nori separated Dwalin's hair into sections, carefully brushing them out and twisting them into neat little coils. The feel of that twist and pull was familiar.
"My mother used to do this," Dwalin remembered, before he'd deemed himself too old to let his mother help with his hair. He suddenly missed it, and her, sharply.
"Did she?" Nori prompted.
"Any night I would let her. Always on nights before we were to be seen at the palace," Dwalin remembered. "She made sure her family looked good. She had the most beautiful hair, blue." Nori's small hum of understanding let Dwalin know he knew that particular shade that only seemed to show up among the Stiffbeards. "I wanted my hair to be like hers. Balin had a little of that color before his went all white, but I never did. Hardly seems worth the trouble to do anything with it."
"I think it's worth it," Nori protested, taking up another section of Dwalin's hair. "Anyone's hair can look good."
Dwalin didn't have any good answer to that. Nori's family all took such pride in their hair and appearance, even little Ori with his ribbons, and here Dwalin never bothered to do more than brush his hair. Would Nori be embarrassed to be seen courting someone who did not take care of his appearance the same way?
Well, it wasn't as though Dwalin was going to change his ways now. He was too old a warrior, and this courtship was only temporary. The Iron Hills guards would be giving the mountain over to the Ered Luin guards soon, and this would be over. Dwalin closed his eyes and just enjoyed the feeling of letting someone take care of his hair for him. It did not take Nori long to finish with it, as efficient with Dwalin's hair as he was with his own.
"There," Nori said when he was done. His warm fingers brushed in a caress across the suddenly bare back of Dwalin's neck, and he had to suppress a shudder. "We'll see how that treats you in the morning."
Dwalin nodded and went to wash his teeth. He could still feel Nori's hands on him, the heat of his body behind him. He wondered what jewels he might glimpse on Nori's cock tonight and then forced his mind away to safer thoughts. He should not be so interested in Nori's choice of adornment. It was not for him and none of his business.
Dwalin turned to go to bed, braced for the vision of Nori's bare skin, and stopped short in surprise. Nori was not naked at all tonight. He wore a long flannel shirt, big and cozy around him, and was pulling on a pair of thick ugly knitted socks. It was ridiculous, really. Nori, always so well put together, instead wrapped up all soft and warm in the most unflattering clothes imaginable. Dwalin knew he should not want to wrap around Nori to hold and touch him even more because of it, but he did.
Nori must have seen Dwalin's surprise. He ducked down under his messy braids. "I got cold," he explained simply.
"You should have said, I have more blankets!" Dwalin grabbed on to the task he could perform, pulling the chest with spare blankets out from under the bed. Better than running his mouth off, speaking the 'cuddling for warmth' suggestion that lurked just under his tongue. He found a nice blanket, soft thick wool he would only need on the coldest winter nights, and handed it to Nori. Nori made a small happy sound as his fingers dug into the fluffy blanket, his expression of surprise and happiness one Dwalin knew far too well. He saw it on the faces of former refugees, his friends and family, who could not quite believe it when they were confronted with a small luxury. Nori might be one of the wealthiest Dwarves alive now, but he hadn't forgotten poverty. He might not have thought to ask for another blanket, used to doing without if he did not have something he wanted.
"I love blankets," Nori sighed, spreading the blanket over his half of the bed and burrowing down in the bedding. His stormcloud eyes smiled, gleaming in the lamplight. Nori looked far too cozy and snuggleable there, as though his body would fit perfectly against Dwalin's if Dwalin were to cuddle up behind him. He quickly turned the lamp out and climbed into his side of the bed. It took him a moment to find a comfortable position with his hair all in twists, and then there was nothing but silence in his shared bed. Dwalin stared up at the ceiling. He could hear the soft contented sounds of Nori getting comfortable in his blankets. Nori with messy braids and all wrapped up in soft flannel and big socks. It would be far too easy to roll over and cuddle up against Nori, nuzzle his nose into his braids and share in the coziness Nori was practically radiating. Dwalin could stroke his entire body, nice and slow and relaxed, eventually maybe ease up the edge of his flannel shirt to share skin contact. Wrap his hand around Nori's cock to tease at his pretty jewels and…
And Dwalin was stone hard and aching thinking about the Dwarf who was only sharing his bed for the appearance of it. He bit back a frustrated groan as he rolled away onto his side again, only to be confronted with the faint lemon scent of Nori's favorite hair oil on his pillow.
It was going to be another very long night, and that was no one's fault but his own.
Fili wheezed slightly, hand pressed over the aching half of his chest as he accepted Dwalin's worried hand up to his feet. He waved Dwalin off, making his own way off the training floor. He wasn't that hurt. Dwalin was always a hard opponent, but Fili felt like he'd been used rougher than usual even before the unlucky blow that put him out of the sparring for today. Dis looked up from fastening Farli's armor buckles, her jaw clenching with that fear she tried not to show whenever her children were hurting. He and Kili had come far too close to dying, like too many of their family, and he hated when he reminded her of that.
"I'm fine," Fili assured his mothers, rubbing at the healed wound and dropping his hand. "I 'dodged' right into a blow. My own fault. It just stings."
Dis nodded sharply, accepting his word on his condition, and returned to Farli's buckles. They shared quiet words, making sure nothing was too tight or too loose. Kili and Aili finished their warmups against each other, and Kili bounced on his good leg in anticipation of going against Farli. Fili was just as happy to leave him to it. He sat on a bench and leaned back to breathe through the pain as it slowly eased. Their bearing mother, with her unusual style, was not easy to fight against on the best of days. Dis fastened the last buckle and softly kissed Farli before smacking her on the back to send her out to fight.
Farli's armor was simple but beautiful, solid across her left side with a teardrop shield strapped to her shoulder in place of her missing arm. She led with her left side, absorbing any attack on her impenetrable armor until she found her opening and lashed out with the heavy axe in her right hand.
Aili looked toward Dis hopefully as Kili and Farli began their round, but Dis waved her off and Aili happily went to grab one of the younger guardswomen to partner against instead. Dis came and sat beside Fili, leaning close to listen to his breath as she gently touched his wrist to feel his pulse, and the back of his neck to feel his temperature. Kili tended to want to swat her away, but Fili let her. It helped her feel better to observe for herself that he was well.
"Just an unlucky blow, I'm already feeling better," Fili assured her, and Dis settled in to watch the sparring with him. Aili and her guardswoman were sparring lightly, talking more than fighting, but clearly enjoying themselves. Kili was trying a new technique against Farli, carrying a shield of his own and exercising caution. He no longer had the speed to dodge around her like he used to. They locked shields, shoving hard against each other, until Farli flung Kili to the floor with a twist and heave of her shoulder. He was laughing as he accepted her hand up, though, ready for another round.
"I thought finally getting together with Nori would calm Dwalin down, but he's worse than ever," Fili observed. Dwalin was definitely being rougher than usual. He'd already gone through two well-trained palace guards since Fili, and now Nori was squaring off against him.
Dis just groaned and shook her head in answer. Nori seemed to match Dwalin in viciousness, at least. They traded blows hard and fast, breaking and joining and breaking again. They locked weapons, snarling in each other's face as they shoved until their entire bodies were pressed up against each other. If Fili had tried that with Dwalin, he knew he'd have ended up headbutted to the floor; if he'd tried it with Nori, he'd have been immediately tripped and knocked down. Instead Dwalin and Nori continued shoving, faces sweaty and their bodies grinding together as they struggled. Fili felt dirty just watching it.
"...they aren't actually fucking each other yet, are they." It came out a statement rather than a question. Nori was wearing Dwalin's courting braids, they made time to see each other every day, they often slept in the same house. Dwalin had taken to appearing at court with his hair tended to gleaming on days Nori had been with him - but if anything their sexual frustration was worse than ever.
"No." Dis' voice was as dry as dust. "They think they are faking their courtship for convenience."
"Why?" Fili groaned, leaning forward to rest his forehead on her knee in despair. She scratched his back gently, back and forth, just as comforting as it had been when he was a child. "Can we lock them in a cell together until they figure it out, so no one has to watch this?"
"I will take it under advisement." Dis laughed softly. "Though I am not certain even that would work."
Chapter 4: Cross Trail
Just going out for some drinks
Nori leaned against Dwalin's solid shoulder, enjoying a good tankard of mead. Dwalin had chosen where they would go this evening, and Nori was enjoying it even though the tavern was bigger and brighter than his usual tastes. He liked small places where he knew all the exits and could keep an eye on everyone, but this was not bad. Nori was determined to get away with as much as he could as this con wound its way to its inevitable close. Everyone was in a good mood, the food was plain but generous, and the mead flowed freely. A song broke out now and then, which both he and Dwalin joined in on. There were a few gambling games going, which Nori refrained from joining in to cheat at.
Everything went well, it was another good evening like so many others with Dwalin, until Nori left his side. He took a piss - and wasn't Erebor's plumbing nice - and came back to Dwalin's side with fresh tankards of a blackberry mead he'd heard good things of.
"There you are!" Dwalin greeted him with that big flash of a smile. He wrapped his arm around Nori's waist to pull him back down to sit. It would have been terribly easy to twist to land sprawled in Dwalin's lap, but Nori restrained himself. He wasn't trying to seduce Dwalin. Tempting as he was, that had proven a fruitless endeavor.
Maybe he'd sit in Dwalin's lap after another few drinks. Nori was pulled out of a pleasant line of thought about how warm and sturdy Dwalin would be to sit on, by a Dwarf jostling into their personal space. His face was slightly flushed, but he did not appear all that drunk. Only enough to make him a little belligerent.
"Hey!" he eyed Nori up and down. "You are Nori, I thought I saw you. I've heard all about you."
Nori didn't know him. Didn't recognize him by house, or family resemblance. He could be anyone, there was no telling what grudge he might hold. Dwarves were coming to Erebor from everywhere and Nori had been everywhere. The patterns on his leather pieces looked like Iron Hills work, and his accent could fit. He wasn't one of the borrowed guards, one of their family maybe?
The Dwarf laughed, turning back to his friends to pull them into his fun. "Look, it's Nori, 'Hero of Erebor'!" his tone turned it into a mockery. Nori didn't flinch, not even so much as to let his hand clench on his tankard. "Yeah, everyone knows what kind of a Dwarf you are - gutter scum swanning around like a Nob."
One step. Nori wasn't supposed to, he was honest and honorable and he didn't do that kind of thing anymore, but just one fucking step closer and Nori would be tempted to introduce him to one of his knives. He'd sing a prettier tune with a blade tickling him between the legs and Nori's thumb resting against his eyeball.
Nori didn't react to his words in any way the Dwarf would see. He took a sip of mead he didn't taste, favorite blade so damn close to his fingertips. Instead of taking that one step closer to tempt the edge of Nori's patience he turned his attention to Dwalin.
"And you're courting this karfu kakhf?" he was incredulous, looking at Nori and Dwalin with a smirk. "You must know what he does to his cast-off lovers. Is he really good enough a fuck it's worth the risk, or you just can't find anyone else who'll do what you like? Erebor's pleasure houses aren't still empty, are they? He might be pretty, but you could find another way to keep your bed warm."
Nori refused to flinch at insult or implication. All this Dwarf could imagine anyone could want from Nori was a fuck, and Nori wasn't even that much to Dwalin. Nori didn't have to be anything but close to Dwalin to hurt his reputation, for people to assume Dwalin must want rarer pleasures. Nori didn't care about his own reputation, he'd destroyed it long ago and good riddance, but it wasn't right for Dwalin's to fall with him. He couldn't even protest against the accusation of hurting old lovers. There was truth in it, and he would not deny his past. Nori had hurt people, and there was nothing he could do to change that.
Dwalin, who had gone increasingly still at Nori's side, slid his tankard aside and slowly stood. He loomed over the Iron Hills Dwarf, eyes burning, fists clenched in his knuckledusters. Nori could feel the potential for a barfight in the hairs on the back of his neck and braced for it, noting the exits and calculating which might be easiest to reach. Dwalin's voice was very quiet and very soft when he spoke.
"If you think Nori is anything but one of the best and bravest Dwarves I know, you're wrong. I have fought beside him without hope of victory, slept beside him in the greatest danger, and watched him give away his last bite of food when we all starved. He has all the bravery, loyalty, and skill any Dwarf could ask for. I was the one honored when I welcomed Nori into my family, my house, and my bed."
The Dwarf's smirk had faded, looking up at the sheer size of Dwalin. He swallowed hard, uncomfortable at not getting the kind of response he had expected. He glanced side to side, but if he was looking to help from his friends they had no answers for him. Nori had not expected this either. He would have expected Dwalin's temper to pour out through his fists, or for him to defend himself from the taint of Nori's reputation. He shouldn't have been defending Nori instead, and he was not done yet. Dwalin continued, voice slowly rising.
"Where were you when Thorin called for warriors? Staying safe in your home? Nori could have done the same, but he answered. He followed his King without hesitation and gave the best of his every skill without question. He faced down the dragon at my side without faltering. There is no one better I could give my heart to. There is no one alive I would rather have at my side as my betrothed, or at my back as a shieldmate."
It was just as well Nori did not have to speak, because he could not have done it. His throat choked closed, looking up at Dwalin. No one said things like this about Nori. This was not Dori, who he knew loved him, but always followed every little praise with something about Nori he thought should change, something he could have done better. This was not Ori's childhood wide-eyed admiration slowly fading at the reality of who Nori was. This was someone who had every reason not to, and was aligning himself with Nori anyway. Listing out good things about him and claiming to love him for it. It couldn't be real. It was just a con and it wasn't real, but Nori wanted it. He wanted Dwalin's love like fire under his breastbone, and he would never have it. Dwarves as good as Dwalin did not want Dwarves like Nori. It took everything in him not to react, not to give too much of himself away.
"I know Nori, and he is good." Dwalin worked his way to his conclusion, eyes blazing. "I will hear nothing else about him. If you would judge Nori by the mistakes of his youth, then judge yourself by the same standard. What are you most ashamed of? Let no one forget it no matter how long the years or great the deeds that follow it!"
Dwalin ended on nearly a shout in his rough voice. Everyone was staring now, but the potential for a bar fight had faded into the intense discomfort of the Iron Hills Dwarf and his friends. He backed up, trying to retreat, but Dwalin grabbed the front of his shirt. He pulled the Dwarf in to lift him one-handed so his toes just barely brushed the ground.
"If you know what's good for you, I'll never see your face again," Dwalin snarled, and shoved him stumbling back into his friends. He glared around at the tavern, hands clenching and unclenching in his knuckledusters, a threat and a dare for anyone else to take up against him. The Iron Hills Dwarf and his friends took to their heels. No one got in their way, and no one seemed eager to face Dwalin.
Dwalin finally looked down at Nori, sitting frozen staring up at him, mead forgotten. There was no irritation in his expression when he looked at Nori, none of the frustration Nori would have expected at having had to lie this way. His midnight blue eyes looked soft, maybe a little sad. He brushed the backs of his knuckles against Nori's cheekbone, and people were watching, it was part enough of the con for Nori to let his eyes close and press into Dwalin's hand. It was the least of what he wanted. He wanted so much, so much he would never have, and Nori felt a sharp sympathy for any and all people he'd ever conned with false affection. He could not even blame Dwalin, Nori had brought it upon himself by agreeing to play this game.
Nori could take Dwalin's hand when he reached for it. Dwalin laced his broad brown fingers through Nori's paler digits, squeezing Nori's hand tight but not painfully so.
"Let's go," Dwalin said. He tugged gently on Nori's hand, and Nori followed him out of the tavern and into the quiet dusk of Erebor.
Dwalin should not have done it.
He should not have lost his temper, and he should not have spoken all that had been growing in his heart. Dwalin should not have revealed himself that way. He would not have, the Iron Hills Dwarf was not worth his time and energy, if he had not looked toward Nori and seen pain. Nori shielded himself, he did not show it easily, but Dwalin had seen pain on the edges of his eyes. He had been hurting, and he would not defend himself.
Dwalin did not have it in him to stand aside and let the Dwarf he loved be hurt, and once he began to speak it all poured out. It had been like that with Thorin, sometimes. Dwalin's relationship to Nori was not at all like his relationship to Thorin had been, but it was at the same time. Nori would never replace the King Dwalin had lost - but he stood forward in Dwalin's heart and he did not have it in him to do anything but defend him, if he could.
Nori was silent beside him, smaller hand clenched tight in his own, as Dwalin led him away from the tavern. He wished he had not chosen it. He had just wanted to spend a friendly evening in Nori's company before the Ered Luin guard arrived and this was all over. He had never had a problem in that tavern before, but he had never brought Nori there before either. It was not right that after all Nori had done to win back Erebor, there were places in it he was made unwelcome.
This was all supposed to be a ruse, but it was not to Dwalin. It never had been, and now he had given himself away completely in front of Nori and so many other Dwarves. He could not read what he'd seen on Nori's face, beyond surprise. It had not been the joy or welcome he'd longed to see, that much he could tell.
"I'm sorry," Dwalin apologized as soon as they were alone. He let Nori's hand go, set him free. He would not hold Nori against his will, if he did not want to continue this now he knew how Dwalin felt. "I should not have said it. I..." Dwalin trailed off. He did not know how he was supposed to apologize for this, if there even was a right way.
There was only a moment of awkward silence between them before Nori laughed, a little short and strained.
"Don't apologize for being good at the game," he said, lightness that sounded false on his tongue. "You should have been a player on the stage: that was brilliant improvisation, better than any I could have come up with. And did you see the look on his face? Priceless."
Dwalin closed his eyes against Nori's praise of his acting. How uncomfortable must he be with Dwalin's confession to come up with that explanation? Dwalin wanted him, loved him, and Nori did not want to have to deal with that. This was always supposed to have been a game. Nori had never asked for anything else. Dwalin's confessions would not likely be wanted if Nori believed them to be true, and Nori was finding a way to move them away from that edge with both their dignities intact.
"He should not have spoken to you that way," Dwalin answered, a bit rough. He would not back off in his defense of Nori. Dwalin would let Nori believe what he wanted to, but he would take none of it back.
"I appreciate the help," Nori still sounded wrong, but growing more fluid as he spoke. "It could have been a bar fight if you hadn't handled it. I was tempted to violence, and wouldn't Skavaerr have loved that!" His arm nudged Dwalin's, still walking close beside him. "You won't have to put up with him, or all of this, much longer."
"No," Dwalin said. It was as much an agreement that Skavaerr would be gone soon as it was a denial that he was 'putting up' with courting Nori. "Will you come home with me?" Dwalin dared. He reached around Nori to pull him in close against his side. Dwalin's fingers fit so beautifully around the curve of Nori's hip, he never wanted to let go. As frustrating as it was to share a bed with Nori and not touch him, Dwalin wanted to. He wanted the pleasure of Nori twisting his hair up for the night, and brushing it out in the morning. He wanted to see Nori all soft and sleepy and disheveled in his sleep clothes in the morning. He wanted as much as he could have, while they were still clinging to the shreds of this game. Nori hummed in thought, warm against Dwalin's side for long moments before he answered.
"Not tonight." Nori rested his head briefly against Dwalin's shoulder. He took one deep breath before he twisted out of Dwalin's grip. His clever fingers lightly teased around Dwalin's knuckledusters in farewell, beautiful stormcloud eyes gleaming big and bright in the dim light. Just a glimpse, and then Nori had slipped away and was gone.
Dori was not expecting Nori to be home. He was never home so early when he'd gone out with Dwalin - when he came home for the night at all. Dori had taken his boots off at the door, and it did not seem that Nori had heard him approach. Dori paused at the kitchen door, watching him. Nori had his knees curled up to his chest in the kitchen chair, cup of tea half-empty in front of him on the table. The unmistakable bitter scent of overbrewed tea filled the kitchen, which of course meant Nori would have sweetened it to the consistency of syrup to compensate. How he could drink it like that, Dori would never know.
Nori seemed to have forgotten all about his tea. His fingers were wrapped around one of the courting braids Dwalin had given him, petting it over and over as though it could give him comfort. Something had upset him, clearly.
"You're home!" Dori said, finally stepping into the kitchen to put his evening purchases away. He smiled a little as Nori jumped. It was only his due after how many times Nori had sneaked up on Dori. Nori didn't answer him with swearing or ridiculous threats or even snark. He just slumped further behind his knees in the chair, fingers worrying fretfully at the courting braid.
It was bad, then. Dori abandoned his things and pulled up a chair beside Nori's.
"What's wrong?" he asked gently, rubbing the back of his knuckles affectionately down Nori's arm. He leaned down a little to try and see Nori's face, but his little brother would not meet his eye. "Tell me?" he coaxed.
Nori shook his head slightly. He never did when he was having a good pout, Dori could remember that well enough from Nori's adolescence. It was always up to Dori to guess, or wait out the worst of it and see if Nori wanted to talk when he was calmed down. Nori still had his fingers wrapped around his courting braid.
"Is it Dwalin?" Dori asked. A little worry twinged in his belly, but whatever it was that might have happened between them, at least it wasn't bad enough for Nori to take his braids out. There was a good chance it wasn't completely sabotaged. "What has he done, Nori? What happened?" Dori asked.
"Nothing," the word was surprisingly bitter on Nori's tongue. "He's a perfect honorable Dwarf. He hasn't done anything."
Well, in that tone of voice it clearly was something. Dori continued gently stroking Nori's arm and shoulder, his back - trying to give him some comfort even if Nori wouldn't just say what was wrong. Eventually Dori reached Nori's hand, wrapped his own fingers around Nori's fingers and Dwalin's courting braid.
"If you've had a fight with Dwalin, I know you'll sort it out," Dori tried to soothe. It was inevitable that any people starting a relationship would fight - especially if one of them was Nori. Dori wouldn't put it past him for it to all be Nori's fault, not that it would be kind to say that to Nori. Not while he was upset. Nori only sank further behind his knees. Oh, it might very well be his fault, then.
"I know you'll sort it out," Dori repeated, giving Nori's fingers a little squeeze. "You know he loves you."
Nori jerked out of Dori's grasp with a hiss through his teeth, stumbling out of his chair to back away with his face hard and miserable. He turned and fled to his room, slamming the door behind him with no explanations given - and wasn't this all a fine echo of Nori's angry adolescence. He was far too old to be behaving this way, but what could you do. Dori rolled his eyes and dumped Nori's cold tea in the sink. There was a pile of unmelted sugar in the bottom, no wonder he couldn't finish it.
Nori would come out and hug Dori and apologize once he'd calmed down, he always did, and then he'd go patch things up with Dwalin. They'd been falling in love with each other long before they started courting. Dori couldn't imagine Dwalin wouldn't forgive whatever Nori had done. It would take more than a little spat to break them apart.
They would sort it out.
Chapter 5: Pas de deux
In which the dance is complete.
warning for nsfw images in this chapter!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was over.
The con was only ever going to be temporary, and nothing delayed Thjorr and the Ered Luin guard in their travel to Erebor. It took them a week to get oriented and settled in Erebor before the guard could officially change. It was a busy week for Nori, and he knew it was for Dwalin as well. They only went out to eat twice, and the one night they spent together he was too tired to even offer to put Dwalin's hair up the way he usually did. They fell asleep exhausted and woke to start their next day without hardly speaking a word to each other.
It was probably for the best. It was probably good for Nori to start learning to let go.
It still hurt.
Nori and Dwalin both had to be present the evening the guard officially changed. They stood to either side of King Dis before the still-sparse royal court while Skavaerr and Thjorr went through the polite forms to make the switch official.
"And keep an eye on that one." Skavaerr broke with tradition at the end, indicating Nori with a jerk of his chin. His voice was quiet, speaking just to Thjorr but loud enough for Nori to hear. "He's an incorrigible criminal. Nastiest Dwarf I've had the displeasure of knowing."
"Who, Nori?" Thjorr folded her arms, raising an eyebrow with a hint of amusement on her broad face. Not even in the worst of Nori's misspent youth had he raised too much trouble in Ered Luin. He'd been clever enough to keep it away from home, at least.
"Skavaerr…" King Dis began - not daring to be anything but gentle against a Dwarf so influential in the Iron Hills. Not while Erebor's position was still so tenuous.
"Nori," Skavaerr spat like an insult. "Keep both eyes on him, or you'll end up without one."
"Tell me, how many of your guards has Nori attacked in Erebor?" Dwalin challenged, defending Nori one last time before it was over. "When they insulted him? When they sneered and looked down on him in the very mountain he helped reclaim? When they arrested him for nothing, how many of them did he hurt?" Dwalin demanded.
Skavaerr's jaw tensed. The answer was none of them, but he could not bring himself to say it. "It's only a matter of time," he snarled, glaring at Nori. "That's how he works - perfectly pleasant until the instant he snaps and then it's all blood and violence. He can sell himself as gold now, but he'll never be anything but lead at the core. You'll see his colors when the plating flakes away."
Nori could not blame Skavaerr. He'd made his reputation in the Iron Hills himself. He had to live with the repercussions of who he'd been. Dwalin didn't have to anymore. Dwalin's reputation - threatened by Nori's - would shine again once he dropped Nori. It would be yet another mark against Nori. What stories might people tell about him now, imagining what he might have done to lose Dwalin's interest? His tastes too strange, his past too shameful - no wonder Dwalin came to his senses and left him.
"Enough, Skavaerr," King Dis broke everyone off before any more arguments could be made. "Erebor thanks you for your service. You and your guard are relieved of duty. Thjorr?"
Thjorr stepped forward to bow as Skavaerr stepped back, and King Dis smiled at her. "I charge you with the good of the people of Erebor, Thjorr daughter of Jadarr."
"I accept, my Lady Dis, King of Erebor," Thjorr answered, straightening, and the official ceremony was over.
It was over.
There was no reason for Nori to be here anymore. Skavaerr turned and strode out of the palace to finish gathering his guards up and leave. Dis sat with Thjorr to discuss her work in Erebor more privately with just Fili and a few others to join them.
"It's over," Dwalin said, quietly. Nori could not even look at him, he'd give himself away if he did. His throat was choked closed so he could not even say anything light and casual to finish this con. He was not good enough to laugh this one off.
Nori turned on his heel and left. He would just go. He could not go too far - he loved Erebor, and he did not want to be a wanderer anymore, and he had responsibilities he could not abandon - but that did not mean he had to be easy to find. It didn't mean he had to be himself. Change his hairstyle to change his height and the shape of his face, speak with a different voice, disguise the color of his hair, change the color and quality of the clothes he wore: he knew how to make it so few would recognize him.
He knew better than to take his pain out in the sharp-edged thrills of crime and violence. He didn't do that kind of thing anymore, that way lead only to pain and regrets. Erebor was growing, and it was Nori's business to know about everything. There were already well-established places where no one wanted to know what your name was. Flash around his pretty hair and a hint of his piercings - simple jewelry, that wouldn't mark him as wealthy - and get an offer from someone or a few someones actually interested instead of pining after someone who wasn't. He was pretty enough for that. Fuck or be fucked, both, neither - he wasn't particular today. Nori could taste in whatever pleasures whoever picked him up wanted. He could drown in mindless hollow pleasure for a few hours, hurt no one and forget himself. It was past time Nori started gathering a small group of regular lovers in Erebor, people he could tumble without it meaning anything - Durin knew pining after one Dwarf in particular hadn't done him any favors.
He just didn't want to be here, and he didn't want to be Nori. Just for a little while.
Nori was so quiet at the end, as everyone broke away. He just stood there, looking as lost as Dwalin felt. It was just a game to him, wasn't it? So why was he not finishing it with a smile and a joke?
Dwalin would have expected Nori to be happy that it was over, especially after Dwalin gave himself away so completely. It had made things uncomfortable for them both. Nori did not look happy, though. He was always so careful not to show when he was hurt, never reacting to Skavaerr's insults or accusations, but Dwalin could see it in the corners of his eyes. Nori should have been happy that Skavaerr and the Iron Hills guards were no longer guarding Erebor, that Thjorr and a friendlier force were in charge.
Nori looked as lost as Dwalin felt, standing where he'd been when the ceremony was over as though he did not know what to do with himself.
"It's over," Dwalin said. The words cut to his heart, said aloud. That Nori flinched for, the acknowledgement of the inevitable end of their game. It was not a big flinch, hidden in a hard blink and a shake as he spun to walk away. Nori was quick when he'd decided on a course of action, but not so fast Dwalin couldn't see the pain on his face.
That was hope. It had to be. It was probably wishful thinking on Dwalin's part. He was probably about to make a fool of himself yet again in front of someone to whom it had never been more than a game, but he had to follow.
He had to try.
Dwalin caught up with Nori before he exited the palace, or he wasn't sure if he'd have been able to catch him. He caught Nori in one of the smaller and less-used corridors, heading out into Erebor and Dwalin did not know where Nori's bolt-holes were. He knew he wouldn't be able to find him, if Nori did not want to be found.
"Nori!" Dwalin caught Nori's arm. He had a hold of it only very briefly before it was twisted out of his grasp, but Nori stopped.
"What?" Nori snapped, sharp and hard, not meeting his eyes.
"That's all?" Dwalin asked. It was too abrupt, felt like the end of a friendship he treasured as well as the loss of hope for love.
"What else would there be?" Nori demanded, finally looking up at Dwalin with thunder brewing in his stormcloud eyes. "You said it yourself, it's over. You can go back to your perfect life. You can drop me and get your perfect honorable reputation back. You can go laugh at anyone who ever thought it could be real. You don't have to pretend anymore that a Dwarf like you could ever want the likes of me!"
Oh Nori. He never flinched when those petty-minded Iron Hills Dwarves insulted him, he made it look like it flowed off him like water, but he'd taken it to heart anyway. His shoulders had curled in as he spoke, sharp and bitter and choking off on the end with a faint sniffle that could have been fighting tears. And it was wrong. It was all wrong.
Nori turned as if he would go again, but Dwalin caught his arm. Held him.
"Do you really think I could fake this?" Dwalin asked. It came out hardly a whisper as he stepped closer, reaching up to brush his knuckles against Nori's cheek, the softness of his beard braids and Dwalin's own courting braid before his ear. Nori had no answer, looking up at him wide-eyed and vulnerable in confusion. Dwalin's hand slid further down to Nori's chest, and Nori's breath caught on almost a whimper. His face tipped up toward Dwalin's as his body leaned in toward Dwalin's hand, pupils widening as his lips parted. They were tiny motions, all of them, not near enough invitation, but Dwalin took it anyway.
"Do you think I could fake any of this!?" Dwalin demanded, more of a growl this time. His fingers closed on a handful of Nori's shirt at the front and dragged him in to claim his mouth in the kiss he had never dared take.
Nori answered fervently, instantly. His mouth yielded beneath Dwalin's, warm lips and a hungry moan aching through his bones as his entire body arched up against Dwalin's. He wrapped his arms around Dwalin's neck, pulling him in close, fingers digging into his furs. Dwalin's hand relaxed on Nori's chest, slid around his body to rest on his back and pull him in even closer. The hand that had been on his arm came up to cradle the back of Nori's head on its own. He held the delicate nape of Nori's neck in his big hand, felt the soft fluff of his beautifully tended hair, breathed the familiar beloved scent of lemons, and kissed him deep and thorough.
Nori's lips were flushed pink when Dwalin drew back, breath shuddering in his throat. There was color and heat in Nori's narrow pale face. His eyelids fluttered open for just a moment, the tiniest golden line all that showed around his pupils. His eyes closed again as he stretched up toward Dwalin's mouth with a soft whine.
Dwalin could feel Nori's nails digging into him all the way through his clothes when he kissed him again. He started slower this time, sucking on Nori's soft narrow lips before he pressed in. His mouth was hungry, heat building as they traded back and forth as though they were fucking each other's mouths - faster and harder with each moment. Dwalin groaned into the feeling, all the heat and desire and closeness he had ached for. He had not thought Nori wanted it, but he was kissed and held with as much enthusiasm as he gave. He held Nori pinned against the solid stone wall, not sure when he had taken the step to do that but glad that he had. Nori gasped when Dwalin bit his lip, squirming in the tiny space between Dwalin and the wall until Dwalin pressed that much closer to grind him into it, knee shoved between his legs.
Nori was breathless when Dwalin drew back again slightly to let them both catch their breath. He shivered, but he still arched up to press himself against all he could reach of Dwalin.
Overwhelmed was as good a look on him as disheveled. Dwalin would like to see the combination, and the palace hallway was not the place for it.
"Come home with me," he whispered. He nuzzled his nose gently against Nori's, sharing breath with their foreheads resting together in an echo of all the kisses they had not shared.
"Yes," Nori breathed.
Dwalin pinned Nori to the wall and kissed him again as soon as the front door closed behind them. Nori had gathered himself together as they walked, enough that he demonstrated that he was as skilled at making suggestive comments look innocent as he was the reverse. Dwalin lacked the skill to answer him as Nori offered a range of sexual activities as calmly as if he were discussing the weather. Dwalin walked to his house with his hand wrapped tight around Nori's and his face burning, glad he did not live far from the palace.
Nori's eyes were laughing, shining with bright challenge. He knew exactly what he was doing to Dwalin, riling him up until they were alone. He melted back into beautiful pliable hunger as soon as Dwalin shoved him against the wall again. Several of his suggestions had involved Dwalin overpowering him: he would not be the first lover who liked Dwalin's size and strength for that.
Dwalin kissed him hard, took what he wanted and Nori welcomed. Nori whined and thrust against him, grinding their bodies together. His hands gripped Dwalin, delved under his furs to hold on to him. His nails dug into Dwalin's skin in encouragement. Dwalin's own hands wandered all over Nori's body, admiring compact strength and just a little softness, knives hidden under his clothes here and there. Dwalin always liked any excuse to touch him, but this time there was no one to be fooled. This time it was just the two of them and it was real.
"I want you," Dwalin finally answered Nori's offers, voice hoarse with desire. Nori shivered at the sound. "Everything."
"I want you," Nori echoed, fire in his eyes.
"I want you," Dwalin repeated. He cupped Nori's face between his hands and kissed him again. He could not stop, never wanted to stop, wanted to speak back and forth in moans and whimpers forever. Nori's clever hands worked on Dwalin's buckles, dropping his furs to the floor and following them carefully with the axes. It sounded like a good idea to Dwalin. Anything that got him closer to Nori sounded good.
They were interrupted by a somewhat pointed cough from Balin's office, or Dwalin was not sure how much they would have done right there in the hallway. Dwalin forced himself to take a step back from Nori's willing embrace and all but dragged him into the privacy of his own room. He could be embarrassed about forgetting himself and being caught another time. Maybe. Probably not.
"Clothes off," Dwalin decided. He fumbled with Nori's belt buckle until Nori pushed his hands away to do it himself. Dwalin took the opportunity to remove his own clothes. It was not as though he'd never been naked in front of Nori before, the Company had bathed together a few times during the quest, but this was different. This time it was for Nori, specifically. This time Dwalin was more than half hard. This time Nori looked him up and down with a lazy smile growing on his lips.
Dwalin wasn't bad, strong muscles over a solid frame - liberally decorated with ink and old scars and a fine thick pelt of hair. Nori licked his lips, eyeing him. He slowed his own undressing, turning it into a tease or a show.
"I'm going to be so good to you," Nori promised, low and hungry. "Tell me what you like?"
Dwalin groaned, finally reaching out to stroke Nori's soft skin and hair as he undressed. Nori moaned into the touch, arching up into it. He looked so good, he felt so good, it sounded so good, and yet… there was a wrongness. Something he could not put his finger on.
"I want you so much," Nori breathed, dropping his shirts to the floor and leaving his top half bare to arch in Dwalin's hands. "I promise I'll be the best fuck you've ever had."
There it was.
"I want you," Dwalin answered. He held on tight to Nori, his waist and his shoulder, and met his beautiful stormcloud eyes as deeply as he could - as if he could push his meaning through them and into Nori's heart. "I want so much more than just a fuck from you. I love you, that was real too. I can't fake it."
Nori's breath caught, gasping in sharply. His eyes looked up into Dwalin's, wide and unsure searching his face, before he twisted out of his hands to step closer, hide his face against Dwalin's chest. Dwalin's arms wrapped around him on instinct. Nori was curled in on himself, arms against his chest, small and vulnerable. Dwalin cradled his warm little body close.
"I love you so much," he whispered into Nori's soft hair. Nori's entire body shuddered, a soft sound of pain breaking in his throat. He pushed against Dwalin harder, and Dwalin held him tighter.
"Is that all right?" Dwalin asked, quietly. He'd planned to carry on when he thought his love was not wanted, and if it was still not he would. It would hurt all the more for his brief hope, but he would stand back. He could not be sure why the words hurt Nori.
"But I'm… I'm not good enough for your house, and you… my reputation..." Nori protested quietly into the thick hair of Dwalin's chest.
"Hero of Erebor, trusted by the King, and one of the best Dwarves I know," Dwalin broke him off. "I will not hear anyone say you are not good enough for love." He'd like to introduce his knuckledusters to whoever had made Nori feel he was not good enough. It was not right. "I love you," he repeated, stroking Nori's back.
"I want your love so much it hurts and…" Nori's voice was choked, quiet. His fingers tangled in Dwalin's chest hair, a sharp tug as he held tight. "I never thought you would. Say it again?" He looked up at Dwalin, unhidden and vulnerable, and Dwalin kissed him again. He picked Nori up and lay him on the bed, crawling up after to lay mostly on top of him.
"Pair of fools, us," Dwalin could only laugh at them both thinking the other didn't want them. "I love you." He whispered it over and over, interspersed with soft kisses of growing heat until Nori was again moaning and arching against him. Nori's hands explored Dwalin's bare skin, clever fingertips tracing around his tattoos and scars, tugging at his hair and blunt nails digging into his muscles if he did something Nori particularly liked. Dwalin touched what he could reach of Nori's skin, little scars and the one big one from the battle, soft hair, strong muscles all in motion as he moved against Dwalin.
Dwalin slid his hand down, covering Nori's groin with one wide palm. Nori gasped in through his nose, pushing up against him as Dwalin pressed down.
"Which jewels have you got to tempt me today?" Dwalin asked. He thumbed at the smooth nubs around the head of his cock to make Nori squirm and shudder.
Nori blinked up at Dwalin, whining and making tiny thrusting motions with his restrained hips as Dwalin teased at his piercings through his clothes. For a moment Dwalin thought Nori might be incapable of remembering his own name, much less what jewels he had on his cock.
"Moonstone," he gasped finally. "Two colors."
"Let me see." Dwalin reached for the top edge of Nori's pants, but Nori beat him to it. He stripped them off and tossed them on the floor, stretching out for inspection under Dwalin's pinning arms, across his bed. Dwalin liked him there.
Nori's cock was beautiful hard, flushed and curving up toward his belly. Dwalin could see both ends of his jewelry, when usually they were half-covered by his foreskin. The little beads sat snug against his skin, showing only the tiniest flash of gold. The moonstone gleamed with its iridescence, white beads glowing nearly blue and black beads showing a richer rainbow. He'd threaded them through in opposite directions, so they alternated black and white around the head of his cock. Nori shuddered when Dwalin touched them. He hated to think how much the piercing would have hurt, but the piercings were beautiful and beautifully sensitive now.
"How did I not see these on the quest?" Dwalin mused, tracing a circle around each warm bead in turn.
"Nnn…" Nori whined, trying to form good words as he squirmed against Dwalin's slow touches. "Little beads, rose quartz, almost the color of my skin. You weren't looking."
"How many sets do you have?" Dwalin wondered. He wrapped his hand around the silky-skinned heat of Nori's cock, slowly pressed each piercing up and down.
Nori laughed breathlessly, "So many. So many pretty jewels and toys. Dwalin please…" he begged, thrusting into his hand. Dwalin was not cruel, not intentionally. He kissed Nori's warm mouth one last time and slid down to give proper attention to Nori's cock. The beads were smooth beneath his tongue, Nori's cock slightly musky with the salt of his pre-spending. His piercings rubbed at the inside of Dwalin's mouth in a way he was not used to, but it was not so different. It was just a little more for him to play with. Nori's hands stroked Dwalin's bald head and further down to tug at his beard, murmured praises and encouragement.
Dwalin loved how responsive Nori was to every touch, every new thing he tried, but this was not all he wanted. Nori had made other suggestions on their walk from the palace, and Dwalin would like to try them. Dwalin sucked on each pretty moonstone bead in goodbye, teasing at the sensitive skin around them with the tip of his tongue, before he crawled back up to see Nori.
The smaller Dwarf was flushed, sweat beginning to dampen his chest. He pulled Dwalin in to kiss him, hand diving down to finally touch Dwalin's cock. He stroked smooth and long and slow as he moaned into Dwalin's mouth.
"You're so good," Nori breathed. "I'm going to enjoy you."
"Will you?" Dwalin asked, a small worry peaking. "I like simple pleasures. Will I be satisfying?" Nori was so much more adventurous in these things than Dwalin was. Would Nori be bored by Dwalin's desires?
"Fuck, Dwalin..." Nori shook his head, laughing slightly as he pressed a soft kiss to Dwalin's lips. "I'm easy," he promised. "I'm so easy to please."
"All right," Dwalin answered, thrusting into the tight perfection of Nori's hand to speed him up a little. Maybe Nori could see Dwalin's worries still on his face, because he rolled suddenly over on his side, tugging Dwalin down to spoon behind him.
"You were doing good, so good - but if you ever want to really get me going, bite me here," Nori instructed. He stretched his neck out, exposing the muscle along the side, which he traced with his fingertips. Dwalin followed the path of his fingers with his own, and then brought his lips to it. Nori shivered under the soft kisses teasing at his tender skin, groaned when Dwalin finally followed with a light nip of his teeth. His body arched back, warm skin grinding against Dwalin. He felt so good to hold close, Dwalin thrust against his arse as he bit a second time a little firmer.
"Mahal, yes, harder," Nori begged. His body jolted under Dwalin's teeth, in his arms.
"Leave marks," Dwalin commented, lipping softly at Nori's pale neck. His skin would hide nothing.
"Yesss," Nori moaned.
Dwalin bit him again, slow and steady increasing pressure. Nori's entire body tensed, breath shuddering in sharp little gasps. Dwalin only relented when he cried out. Nori collapsed against him, pressing back closer as he stretched his neck out, blatantly begging for a second set of crescent marks to join the first standing red against his skin. The second bite was lower on his neck, and Dwalin reached down to toy with Nori's cock, spread the slick of his prespending across his pretty jewels. This he could do for Nori, have him whimpering incoherently with just his teeth in his neck, and Dwalin's worried eased. Nori would let him know what he needed.
Dwalin nuzzled into the Nori's soft hair when he released him from the second bite. Nori moaned in his arms, so good to hold and thrust against, and Dwalin could do this. He could bite and pleasure Nori, rub off against his arse or make use of Nori's hands or mouth, as he'd offered, but that wasn't what he wanted most.
"Do you think I could feel these, if you fucked me?" Dwalin asked, thumbing at Nori's jewels.
Nori rolled halfway over to look at him, eyes wide and then crinkling up at the corners in a grin as he realized Dwalin was serious.
"Most can," he said. "That's what you want?"
Dwalin nodded once, simply. "There's oil in the washroom."
"Nah, not oil," Nori twisted flexibly out of Dwalin's arms and bounded over him to his discarded jacket on the floor. He emerged triumphant with a small flat tin. "Salve. Much better."
"You carry salve with you?" Dwalin asked as settled himself comfortably, on his side with his knee raised. Nori popped the tin open, dipping up a healthy scoop on his fingers as he slid up behind Dwalin.
Nori shrugged. "Habit of the hopeful." His fingers were gentle, teasing slick back and forth through Dwalin's crease before one slender fingertip circled and circled and then pressed gently inward. Dwalin grunted quietly into his pillows, relaxing for the intrusion. Nori rubbed his face across Dwalin's shoulders, kissing here and there, close and affectionate.
"How do you like it?" Nori asked. "Faster or slower? Rougher or gentler? Tell me." His finger slid slowly in and out, smoothness of the salve soothing.
"Smooth, gentle," Dwalin requested. "But you can go a little faster. Give me more." He pushed back against Nori's hand, and Nori took him at his word. The salve was lovely, keeping things slick and smooth as Nori worked him up to more. The sting of the stretch eased, and Nori was more than eager to fuck him when Dwalin said he was ready.
Nori slicked himself with plenty of salve and eased himself into Dwalin slowly. Dwalin was not sure what he'd expected to feel of Nori's jewelry. It was not as much as different as he might have thought, Nori's cock felt less soft as he slid in, less forgiving without the sudden tapered give as he slid inside the ring of muscle. It might have hurt if he'd been impatient, but he was not.
They were both moaning when Nori finally worked himself all the way inside, when their bodies were joined as deeply as they could. Nori's hands stroked Dwalin's back, his chest, his thigh. Nori's lips nibbled soft kisses as he whispered praises to Dwalin's strength, his warmth and tightness.
"Go on," Dwalin urged, rolling his hips against Nori. "Fuck me."
That was where Nori's piercings shone, where they showed their purpose - when Nori had finally adjusted his angle so he rubbed relentlessly against Dwalin's sweet spot. The smooth hardness of the beads against that tenderest of places had diamonds sparkling behind Dwalin's eyes. His hands clenched in the blankets, body bucking with each perfect thrust. The aching pleasure of it had him bellowing and groaning into his pillow, urging Nori on.
He could not last long.
"I'm close," Dwalin groaned. "So close, Nori."
Nori's hand snaked down between Dwalin's legs, but if he thought Nori was going to offer him relief he was wrong. Instead Nori took gentle hold of his stones, pulling them gently but firmly away from his body so they could not draw up. So he could not spend.
"Not yet," Nori whispered, soft kisses against Dwalin's back as he thrust hard and relentless into him. "Just a little longer? For me?"
With no outlet the pleasure could only build higher, already more intense than anything Dwalin was used to. The entire world was the building rockslide of his denied climax, the melting heat of Nori's cock rubbing against the sweet spot inside him, his fingers squeezing around the base of Dwalin's stones to keep him from spending, the tender stretch of being fucked, Nori pressed tight against his back, Nori's voice murmuring praise.
Dwalin wanted to spend, he wanted it so bad it ached in his teeth, and he wanted to balance on the top of the mountain of this pleasure forever. He wanted to bat Nori's hand away from his stones and give himself the few strokes it would take to spend, and he never wanted Nori to stop fucking him and whispering how good and how patient and how beautiful he was. He was caught in the middle of his desires, and in the end all he could do was curse and groan into his pillow and feel.
An endless time later when Nori's hand released his stones, Dwalin did not even need a hand on his cock to spend. The pleasure rolled over him, endless waves that drowned him, blanked his mind and left him floating. Dwalin knew he cried out, in it. He might have cried as well, there were tears in his eyes when he drifted back into his trembling and pleasure-limp body. He wiped them on the pillow and took a moment to remember how his body functioned to roll awkwardly over. He was lying in his own wet spot, but he could not bring himself to care.
"Have a good one?" Nori asked. His beautiful red-brown hair was a mess around his head, face and body flushed red and sweaty as he grinned at Dwalin.
Dwalin nodded. "...you?" he asked. He could not remember Nori finishing.
"I did," Nori laughed, flopping down from the elbow he'd propped himself up on. He reached over to rest his hand on the center of Dwalin's chest, just close and warm and comfortable. Now that he thought of it, Dwalin could feel more slickness than just the salve between his legs - liquid against the tenderness of his oversensitized arse. He had been so distracted with his own pleasure he hadn't even noticed Nori spend inside him.
Dwalin patted Nori's thigh with his own pleasure-clumsy hand and blinked up at the ceiling, still pleasantly reeling. He made a sound of protest when Nori slipped away, needing his closeness, but Nori just caught his hand to press a kiss to the knuckles and escaped to the washroom. Dwalin could see just a glimpse of him through the door, painstakingly cleaning himself. It took him longer than Dwalin would have liked.
Nori returned with a warm damp cloth for Dwalin. "To clean up," he offered, handing it to Dwalin. He couldn't be bothered.
"No," Dwalin dropped the cloth to the side of the bed and gathered Nori into his arms instead. Nori wasn't too heavy to have on top of him, laying on his chest to hold and pet and snuggle. Cleaning up could happen some other time. He just wanted to be close to Nori, skin against skin with his bones still singing with pleasure.
Nori laughed quietly, settling in comfortably.
"You do have to clean up eventually," he pointed out, gently stroking the patterns of hair on Dwalin's chest.
"Later," Dwalin decided. He undid what was left of the big braid at the back of Nori's head to set his hair free. He played gently with Nori's fluffy hair, so nice and soft under his fingers. Nori let out a quiet contented groan, relaxing further against Dwalin's chest.
"No hurry," Nori agreed. There was no hurry at all for anything in the world, and Dwalin closed his eyes with Nori held close in his arms and everything right in the world.
Neither of them had eaten any dinner, so they eventually were hungry. Once Dwalin stopped feeling like a puddle of molten metal and could bring himself to break skin contact with Nori, he put a pair of pants on and went out into the house to find food for them. He was not in the mood for anything fancy, and luckily the pantry was stocked with good simple staples.
Dwalin gathered up some bread and cheese and sausages, completing his scavenged meal with a bottle of wine. It should be enough for them to share - lying naked in bed with Dwalin leaning against the headboard and Nori leaning back against his chest to be held.
Balin caught him before Dwalin made it back to his room. He raised his eyebrows at Dwalin's near nudity, at him carrying food and wine in to his lover in his room so they could continue touching and playing and didn't have to get dressed.
"Nori's spending the night," Dwalin explained.
"So I heard," Balin's smile was far too cheeky. Dwalin must have been louder than he thought, if his voice had carried through the thick stone walls. Balin's own fault for listening, it couldn't have been too loud. Definitely within the 'politely ignorable' range.
"We're courting," Dwalin informed Balin. He'd finally gotten Nori, and he would not let go if he could help it.
Balin laughed, shaking his head. "It has not escaped anyone's notice that the two of you have been courting."
Dwalin opened his mouth to correct him, and closed it again. Did it really make a difference? He and Nori knew the truth, what else mattered? Dwalin shrugged one shoulder and continued to his room.
Nori smiled up at him when he opened the door. He'd put his hair up in his sleep braids, messy and beautiful with real courting braids joining them now. Dwalin's friend and love and lover, waiting naked on the bed for him in a room that still smelled of sex. Dwalin smiled back, and kicked the door closed behind him.
Thank you so much for reading! This colab was super fun. Sparkle is a fountain of marvelous ideas and smutty art, and incredibly patient with all my nitpicking. I'm super glad I got to come along for the ride.
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!