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By Its Nature, Deceitful

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Nature is, by its nature, deceitful. A tree that looks strong will crack beneath the wind that a flimsy reed will weather. And a river that trickles calm at its surface surely roils with rage beneath.” - anonymous


 

Seven days of rain made for a lot of things.

It made for some very cranky dwarves – ah, dwarrow, actually, apologies. It made for some smelly ponies (and not just ponies, let's be honest). It made for an uncomfortable ride, unpleasant company, one foul-tempered wizard, one incredibly wet hobbit, sore bums, ratty hair, sniffles, snarls, half-yelled cuss words that will not be repeated, and far, far too much mud.

It also made for rapid, flooding waters, which in the lieu of everything else at their attention, was unfortunately forgotten.


 

In the year that Bilbo turned twenty-one, nine Hobbits, two Men, and a horse drowned in the Brandywine River.

One would think that this wouldn't be so frequent an occurrence, that adult hobbits would keep their children from the Brandywine and let only those who were best able to tread water near the edge. The thing about hobbits is that very few of them can swim. In fact, out of one hundred hobbits, it is entirely likely that none of them would be able to swim. In the whole of the Shire, there might have been ten who could.

Bilbo would have bet Bag End at least nine of them were named either Took or Brandybuck.

The tenth, of course, would be Bilbo himself.

His mother, Belladonna, had been a Took before she married Bungo Baggins and pretended, for all of a week, that she was going to settle down in his smial with him and be a proper, respectable hobbit wife.

Belladonna had been filled to the brim of her shining green eyes with a wanderlust that could not be caged. She wandered far beyond the borders of the Shire, further beyond than perhaps any hobbit had ever gone before, and though she always came back to Bungo, she also always came back different.

One day, some years before Bilbo was born, Belladonna returned home from a long adventure, pensive.

“What is it, My Wandering Heart?” Bungo had asked as he set out tea and some biscuits, his eyes shining to see his lovely wife, still dressed in her travel clothes, worn and dirty, and not caring that the three hobbits peeking in through the window would soon spread word about how disreputable she looked. Bungo didn't let it bother him. He didn't share his wife's wanderlust, no, but he had married her in part for that shine in her eyes and though he was a Baggins of Bag End and respectable to a fault, even a respectable hobbit was allowed to enjoy a good scandal.

“Bungo, dear,” Belladonna said, taking the seat across from him and picking up a cranberry and walnut biscuit, eyeing it as though it held all of her answers. “When we have a daughter, I want to teach her to swim.”

To be fair, Bungo didn't react right away other than the involuntary stiffening of his shoulders. For a moment, he considered leaping to his feet and excitedly demanding when she was due, but Belladonna had been gone for nigh on four months and her waistline was only thinner than it had been before she left, so no, she was not with child. His shoulders eased down into a disappointed slide but he breathed a sigh, thinking of that spark in her eyes that said her wandering days weren't yet done, and then thought of a future where he had fauntlings running rampant through the smial, dashing across Hobbiton, and swim--

“Swimming?” Bungo asked, a thrill of fear making his voice go high.

Belladonna nodded softly, her pensive expression gone and replaced with something sad.

“I saw the sea, you know.” She turned the biscuit in her hands, as though she were counting the nuts and wouldn't be pleased to eat it without knowing how many there were to be chewed. “They say it's large but what they don't say is how the whole world just drops off and all that's left is water. Just water... everywhere.” Her voice cracks on the last word and she crumbles the biscuit in her suddenly shaking fist, and Bungo has to rush around the table to catch her before she falls, shuddering, to the floor of the smial, gasping for tear-strangled breaths into his collar.

“He needs to know how to swim,” she hisses, and Bungo just clutches her tighter thinking Oh Yavanna, what happened? What happened? My Wandering Heart, why did you go to the sea and what happened and oh please, don't ever go back.

“Okay,” he says instead, holding her tight as she shivers and gasps in his arms, fighting off memories or fears or visions of the future – he doesn't know! - “Okay, we'll teach her to swim. I promise. She'll know how to swim.”


 

Belladonna doesn't give birth to a daughter, but she loves her son Bilbo even more than the child she had envisioned in her mind. She loves him so much she wants to wrap him up in a blanket and never let him out to where anything can hurt him, but she knows that doing that would hurt him, so instead she prepares him in every way she can.

She teaches him to cook. Not just meals for eating at home but scones packed with dried berries and nuts that last for weeks on travel. She teaches him to sew, how to patch clothes or hem trousers, and even the proper stitch that will seal a would, though she calls it a Healer's Stitch and teases him about doctoring that tear in his stuffed bunny's ear so the nightmares that haunt her dreams won't take him when he's still so young. She teaches him which plants are safe to eat and which should be avoided at all costs, what ones are good for burns or bruises or an upset stomach, and she mentions a few that are incredibly toxic when they get into the blood, “because it's important to know what you must never ever be scratched with, Bilbo.”

Bungo teaches Bilbo maths and his letters. He teaches Bilbo Sindarin because, while Belladonna was the one that visited Rivendell, Bungo will always be better at languages. He teaches Bilbo about business and about their duty to Bag End and how to write his alphabet so the letters are neat and legible, and how to word a letter so it is polite and professional. He also teaches him how to write a letter that is polite and professional and scathing, because sometimes that sort of thing is the only way to get idiot hobbits to pay attention. And if he focuses more than a few lessons on just the sort of things to say to make the neighbors eyes pop out of their sockets at the sheer Tookishness... well. He does enjoy that light shining out of his sweet Belladonna's eyes, and he married her for that Tookishness, after all. That Tookishness and her blackberry crumble, Yavanna have mercy.

And when Spring comes and the weather turns warm, Belladonna teaches Bilbo how to swim.

Bungo can't. She does try to teach him, but Bagginses are well-known for their ability to sink and neither of them want to risk it. But Bilbo is half-Took and it might not be enough to make him as good a swimmer as Belladonna, but it cancels out that awful sinking that is the Baggins blood (or their bloody dense feet, more like!), and he'll have to work for every stroke, but by the Green Mother, Bilbo Baggins can swim.

It bothers Bungo more than he says, more than he'll ever say, because it's just not right to see a hobbit in the water. But when the nightmares that had plagued Belladonna since that day she returned from the sea finally, finally abate, Bungo can feel the worry settle down into that place in his chest where it will always be, but where it will be silent, and he is content with that.

Bilbo is nineteen when he is deemed an adequate swimmer, but he will never be a fish and he does avoid the water as best he can. He doesn't trust it, he says to his mother one day, and his mother kisses him on the head and tells him good.

“Don't ever trust the water, Bilbo. It looks calm and pretty and it shines so bright, and that's how you know it lies.”

It's two years later, in the spring of the year that Bilbo will turn twenty-one, when the warm weather comes suddenly and melts the heavy ice and snow of the winter in two days, straight down to green grass. It takes a whole two more days before the flood waters come, but by then, it's too late to prepare.

When two adult hobbits disappear, it's giggled about behind a hand, because Apricot and Margo have been eyeing each other for year and can you believe they would just run off together? And when Thistle doesn't come home, her mother frets, but she's at that tween age that has the hobbits all dashing about and being completely, properly improper to get it all out of her system, so it's not worried about too much.

It's when the two faunts don't come home, neither of them yet ten, that the worry comes. And when the Ranger who catches sight of Gorman Proudfoot plunges horse and all into the Brandywine after him only to not come back out, the panic comes. Hobbits grab their children, faunts and tweens, and fetch their husbands and wives and siblings and gather together, counting, calling out names, searching, searching, searching smials and land and even the Old Forest, because surely that would be better than the Brandywine, oh Yavanna, the river.

In the end, the two faunts are found by the Bounders washed up with the bracken, and thank the Green Mother, because no parent should see their child like that. Apricot and Margo are both found, tangled together in death as they were in life, by a Ranger searching for his lost kin. He finds the horse, thoroughly drowned, further down from the couple, but he never finds the Ranger that plunged her in after Gorman Proudfoot. Gorman himself is discovered by a tween, who screams loud enough to wake the BarrowDowns at the sight of his bloated body washed up on the bank.

It's only after the flood waters recede that Filly Sandbank and her two children are found in the basement of their smial, all three of them drowned when the river broke through the wall and flooded the cellar. When her husband is last seen glaring at the Brandywine before he disappears without a trace, no one dares to say a word, but they all know the river took him, too.

When the dirt-darkened riot of flood waters finally calm back down into the shining, beautiful Brandywine they all know, the hobbits breathe a collective sigh of relief, because surely now that the flooding is done, the river is safe again.

It just so happens that Belladonna is near enough to the river to hear the screaming cry for help when the young Ranger falls in, and if she beats his companion into the water, neither of them were planning to call a competition. Between the two of them, they manage to drag the lifeless boy – for he really is just a boy, just a tween in those strange Men years – back to the bank, but Belladonna can see the greedy Brandy has taken yet another poor soul.

Except the older Ranger doesn't let go easy and Belladonna watches in part-horror, part-fascination as the Ranger forces water out of the boy's lungs and air into them again and again, until the boy chokes up what he took from the river if only for mercy for his poor, abused chest.

Belladonna forgets whatever appointment she had meant to keep that day and takes both Rangers, the older carrying the younger one in his arms, back to Bag End, where she warms them up, feeds them, and calls the closest healer in to check on the breathing (how are you not dead?) boy.

When the boy is deemed healthy enough for having tried to drink the Brandy, cracked ribs aside, the older Ranger asks Belladonna to let him pay her back for her help. Hobbits don't have much use for anything they don't already have, most of what they need growing from the earth in their gardens, but Belladonna has always wanted for knowledge.

“What you did for him, bringing him back,” she tells the Ranger. “Teach me that.” And when he does, and leaves, taking his charge with him, Belladonna goes to Tukborough and to Buckland and especially to the smials of her cousins who live near the deceitful Brandywine, and she shows them what the Ranger showed her. And after she's shown the Thain, who will pass on his knowledge to every Bounder in the Shire, Belladonna returns home.

And then, she teaches Bilbo.


Bilbo remembers very little of the flooding the year he turned twenty-one. He recalls that the Brandywine took a number of lives and he remembers being told by his father that he must not go near the Brandywine that year. Bungo would prefer Bilbo never go near it, but if he must, fine, but not that year. Most of what occurred that spring was over-shadowed by the grief of the Fell Winter a few years later, but if the pain that lingers in his heart has done anything for Bilbo, it is to highlight his mother's lessons.

So it is that when Ori's pony spooks at a floating branch while trying to ford a small river, rearing and sending both herself and a startled dwarf into the raging undertow, Bilbo doesn't really think. He remembers. And then he does.

He ignores Dori's shouting for his brother and he doesn't let his mind linger over the look on Nori's face (he knows that look, he's worn that look). He drops out of Myrtle's saddle, shoves the reins into Bofur's hands, and dives straight into the water.

It's cold, colder than it has a right to be at this time of year, and Bilbo clenches his throat around the breath he's holding tight in his lungs as he swims. It's been years since he's swam and he's glad his mother taught him until his body knew what it was doing without further input, because there's a part of Bilbo's brain (the Baggins part, he thinks) that's forgone all thought and is simply screaming in absolute terror. Bilbo does his very best to ignore that scream, It fades to a distant whine in the back of his mind, and he scours the waters for a glimpse of the dwarf.

He doesn't see Ori right away. It's hard to see anything in water that's so muddy from the constant rain sending dirt and bracken into its depths. It's when he shoots up out of the water for a breath (did Ori manage to get to the surface for a breath? How long can dwarrow hold their breath?) that he's nearly brained by the thrashing hooves of the pony. Bilbo ducks back into the water in time enough to avoid being knocked unconscious and surely drowned himself, though he feels the sharp edge of the pony's hoof scrape across his skull, and the sudden chill and heat of an open wound. He's not unconscious and not drowning so he shoves the knowledge that he's been kicked in the head by a bloody pony to the side and opens his eyes wide under the water.

He gets dirt and Yavanna knows what else in his eyes, but he also catches sight of his missing dwarf, and its very clear that no, he has not made it to the surface. Ori is tangled in the reins of the pony's bridle, one leg shoved down through a stirrup, and he's practically upside-down in the water as his pony flails in an attempt to escape a fate that has already claimed her. Bilbo doesn't have to have seen someone drown before to know what the jerking, slowing kicks of the pony's legs mean.

Instead, he grabs hold of Ori, twisting one arm in the knitted sweater the tween – dwarf – child, he's just a child wears, and uses his other to unwrap the reins from where they're twisted around him. He's careful to hold on, because the river is throwing them about and only the fact that its so damn deep has kept them from being thrown into a rock and smashed to broken pieces. When the reins are gone and Ori is dangling by his foot, scarf flowing outward from his neck in some macabre attempt to look graceful in what Bilbo knows is a word he dare not think, will not think, Bilbo grabs Ori's leg and jerks it from the stirrup. He holds onto him tight, fingers twisted into the pattern of his sweater, and uses the drowned pony's flank as a kickoff point, sending both himself and Ori shooting for the surface.

He breaks free of the water long enough to gasp in a desperate breath and flail his eyes around for direction, before he is pulled back under. He doesn't fight for the surface again, knowing it will drain him too much, sure of the breath he's holding and the direction of the shore. He kicks as hard as he can, worrying that Ori's extra weight will take away that Tookishness that lets him swim and make Baggins sinkers of them both, but he clutches the breath in his lungs and kicks and kicks and kicks as hard as he can, until land slams into his shoulder hard enough that he chokes on his breath as it leaves him in a rush of bubbles.

For one terrifying moment of wallowing futility, he's knows he's killed the both of them.

Then hands plunge into the water around him, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and strangling him so firmly he can't draw in any water to drown in, and he and Ori both are pulled out of the churning river and there's finally land under his feet again.

It's Bofur, he notices absently, eyes catching on peripheral details and brain making connections, running fast on adrenaline and what's probably eclipsed terror and flying straight into outright panic.

Gloves.Pigtails.Hat.Sillyhat.Bofur.Friend.Notwarg.Notorc.Notwolf.Safe.Myrtle.

He catches sight of the pony. She standing quietly, his stalwart Myrtle, firm in the face of everything except trolls, which is understandable, the smell alone is enough to start a riot and Bilbo travels with dwarves. Her reins are in the not-quite-as-familiar hands of Bifur, his face a mask of what might look like indifference if someone didn't know what it felt like to go absolutely blank with horror. The ax in his head might have stopped Bifur's ability to speak Westron, but his eyes alone prove that the dwarf is anything but stupid or slow.

But his gaze is riveted on Ori, sweet Ori, who Bofur is turning over onto his back as Bilbo struggles to his knees beside him, and oh Yavanna, why does his head hurt so bad?

He ignores Bifur, because Bofur is safe and Bifur is Bofur's and that makes him safe, and he's holding Myrtle and so Bilbo shoves the ax-addled dwarf and Myrtle and the other ponies out of his busy, racing mind and focuses on Ori.

Bofur has Ori's shoulders clenched in his hands, his gloves are soaked with river water, and he's shaking the dwarf, trying to wake him. Bilbo doesn't look at his face, can hear in his voice the desperation turning into despair as he calls Ori's name over and over, and he doesn't want to see that sweet, kind smile replaced with that look. It would ruin Bilbo, he thinks. If he sees cheerful Bofur give up, then he'll just stop right here and simply fall away forever, and he needs to stay focused because Ori is here and so is Bilbo and that screaming voice turned whine in his head had changed again and this time it's the sweet, missed voice of Belladonna telling him what he needs to do.

Bilbo pushes Bofur out of the way, doesn't pay attention except to note that the dwarf does not fall into the river, and then he's leaning over Ori, fingers reaching for his throat, grabbing for a pulse he hopes is there but knows almost before he touches the dwarf's throat isn't, and then he's rolling Ori over, onto his stomach, and shoving every bit of weight he can onto the dwarf's back.

Hobbits are small, smaller than dwarves who themselves are short, but hobbits are dense (it's one of the reasons most can't swim), and Belladonna Baggins taught Bilbo how to do this the same way she taught him how to swim – until he didn't even need to think about it.

Which was good, because the way that Ori was lying was absolutely nothing like the way that Ori slept. Ori curled up into a little ball like a kitten, clutching his travel journal to his chest, fingers usually stained with ink, face occasionally spotted with it, sometimes snoring, often making an odd humming sound like he's half-thinking of breaking into song while in the midst of a dream, only in sleep louder than he is in wakefulness.

He finds it disturbing how loud Ori is now. The sound of Bilbo's hands shoving down against Ori's back made a sort of thumping shuffle as the rest of his body moves in time. His arms are limp at his sides, fingers still where they would normally be in constant motion. A habit, Bilbo thinks, Ori shares with Nori, though for different reasons. And he knows that Nori is there now, knows the rest of the company is there by the way Dori doesn't so much scream Ori's name as exhale it in terror. He hears the slap of muscles against flesh as someone grabs the dwarf, and he's grateful, because he knows how strong Dori is and he really doesn't want to be thrown back in the river.

There's a sputtering, gagging sound and then Ori's body heaves as water comes gushing out of his mouth and nose, foaming and filthy. Bilbo keeps shoving his body weight on the dwarf's back, pressing his chest against the ground to get the water out of his lungs. He listens, ears twitching, to catch the sound of a breath, but there's none and he needs to change that soon.

Ori's body (and that's the horrifying part, it's just his body now, not Ori, not really, not yet) spasms again and more water rushes from his mouth and nose, and Bilbo takes a moment to worry about how brown it is, how dirty, and then Ori is vomiting, his whole body shaking under Bilbo. Not just water but half-digested food spews across the ground, the stew from a few hours ago, and it all reeks of stomach acid and something that is strictly river.

Bilbo swipes his hand through Ori's mouth, not letting himself focus, not letting himself think about body fluids and handkerchiefs and filth. “Just do,” his mother says in his mind and Bilbo does, because if he thinks he will falter – he knows he will falter – and then Ori will be lost.

There's no more water spilling from his mouth, though Bilbo pounds a few more times on the scribe's back. He shoves his shoulder hard enough to roll the dwarf over and oh Yavanna have mercy, don't think about his head lolls to the side. He hears a sound in the distance and it's distant because he shoves it there before he can focus on it. Doesn't let his mind think about how Ori's entire body is completely limp, sagged. He doesn't let his mind linger on his lax mouth, lips pale blue and beaded with muddy water, and he doesn't meet those brown eyes that are half-open and staring with a terrifying vacancy at nothing. And he very, very much does not let himself hear the choked cry that Nori makes when he rolled Ori over, or the terrible keening wail that shudders out of Dori's throat.

He doesn't think.

If he thinks, he'll worry about time. How long has it been since Ori went under the water? How long was he able to hold his breath before the river wouldn't be denied? How long did it take Bilbo to get them to the shore? How long did he waver there, half on the edge of panicked unconsciousness after Bofur pulled him out, before he turned his attention to Ori? How long did he spend trying to get the water out of his lungs? How long has he been forcing his breath into Ori's lungs? How long had he been pumping Ori's chest as hard as he can, trying to get him up, get him going, get him breathing, get... Ori... back...

How long? How long? How long? How long had it been since Ori's heart had stopped beating?

How long had it been since Belladonna's voice in the back of his mind had been replaced by a roaring hum that sounded too much like a river to suit Bilbo's tattered and tearing nerves? How long--

Ori made a sound reminiscent of a braying horse as his body gave a violent convulsion and Bilbo jerked back from where he'd been forcing air into the dwarf's lungs. He stared for a moment, mind screaming through the torrential roaring of his own failing adrenaline, as Ori bucked against invisible bindings. Then he all but bowled the dwarf over, shoving the scribe onto his side. He sprawled across the ground at Ori's back as the scribe choked and sneezed water out of his lungs. He cherished the sound of every garbled, starving breath Ori sucked into his lung as he tries to remind his lungs how to breathe.

How long had it been since he'd breathed?

Bilbo felt the world around him whirl once, a swift, sickening motion that made him shut his eyes. He thought he heard someone call his name, but the roaring in his ears had gone from river to waterfall. Bilbo swayed left, felt the current catch him around the chest, and he tumbled over the falls and into darkness.

How long had it been since he'd breathed?

He wasn't sure he was asking about Ori anymore.

 

 

Chapter Text

He woke to warmth, the familiar feel of a woodfire's heat telling him how close he lay to the fire, but the warmth was greater than that. Heat surrounded him on all sides like a cloak of hot coals and he released a sigh at the feeling. There was a blanket wrapped around him, pinning his arms in place, which was just as well. He could feel the hot bands that wrapped around his chest from behind, the forehead pressed against the back of his neck, and he'd know Nori anywhere, sight or not.

He had only a moment to wonder what had woken him before the blanket around him was quivering and he heard someone bite off a gasp into his chest. Blinking, the blinding light of the fire against the black of the night not doing his sight any favors, he stared down in some confusion at the silver braids decorating his brother's head. Dori had his face pressed into his chest, fingers twisted in the blanket that he was wrapped in tightly enough that Ori briefly pitied the blanket. The dwarf was trembling, his throat making high-pitched keening sounds that he kept trying to stifle.

Ori tried to move, briefly cursing his brothers' abilities to wrap him up like a sandwich when he found his arms were very thoroughly pinned to his sides. When Dori made a sound like a sob, Ori stilled his escape attempts.

“Dori?” he whispered, and promptly broke into a coughing fit that sent pain racing up and down his throat. He hadn't noticed the pain until the coughing, but that seemed to make everything suddenly ache – his throat, his head, his chest. Even his sinuses felt like they had been strained to their limits and Ori made a soft moaning sound as the coughing finally subsided, wishing he had just gone back to sleep.

There was a movement behind him and the arms that had been wrapped around him slipped away. Ori turned his head and Nori's face appeared above him a moment later.

“Don't speak,” he said quietly, his voice only just loud enough that Ori could hear it. “Throat hurt?” Ori swallowed, opened his mouth, but Nori shook his head. “Nod or shake – no talking.”

He shut his mouth and swallowed again, nodding.

“Be right back.” He reached out and touched Ori's shoulder for a moment, before silently slipping away.

Ori frowned after him. His brother was very good at pretending emotions. He'd tricked enough guards into getting himself out of trouble to prove his capabilities, never mind how often he managed to fool Dori. So seeing him with such a worried expression on his face was, itself, worrying, never mind that his hand had hesitated just a moment before it touched Ori's shoulder. Was his brother afraid? Why?

Nori reappeared a moment later, a cup in his hands. He knelt back down next to Ori and slipped a hand behind his shoulders. “Sit up now,” he murmured, “slowly.”

Ori frowned at him. He didn't need help sitting up, he was perfectly fine, and he opened his mouth to say so as he sat up.

Except he hadn't expected the way every muscle in his body would rebel, shrieking, and though he didn't cry out (Dori was still asleep), he couldn't contain the gasp of surprise and pain. He felt someone step up behind him, a sudden presence, and then arms were around him, pulling him up, and he was pressed back until he was leaning against something and there were arms (familiar arms) curling around him again and someone was whispering in his ear.

It took him a moment to come down from the pain, for the muscles in his body to relax enough that he could focus on any of his other senses. He could feel himself shuddering, his muscles quivering without his consent, and he whimpered at being so unable to control himself.

“Shh, it's all right.”

“Nori,” he mumbled, barely a sound at all, and Nori's arms tightened briefly around him from where he was sitting behind Ori, acting as a brace for Ori to lean against.

“Don't talk, your throat's too sore.” There was a movement at his front, a sudden warmth in his fingers, and he looked down to see Nori pressing the cup in his hands. “Willowbark.” He felt Nori's forehead press against the back of his head. “It'll help.”

Ori shuddered. He'd never had cause to drink willowbark before but he'd heard the others complain about it whenever it was pushed on them. Nori, in particular, had been forced to drink it multiple times. Apparently, one never got used to the taste.

Obediently, he raised the cup to his lips, trying not to spill it as his hands shook. The first press of it on his tongue was more horrifying for his imagination, but that still didn't better the taste. It wasn't scalding. Nori had apparently made sure it was cool enough to be drunk quickly.

“Better do it quick.”

Ori swallowed once, then tipped the cup back and drank the tea as fast as he could. He choked on the bitter flavor of it and felt Nori flinch behind him, and briefly thought that he would have something he could complain about with his brother now, because yes, that was disgusting.

He felt a hand take the cup from him and he opened his eyes, only realizing them that he had started to doze off. He looked up and spied Bofur watching him quietly, his normally-cheerful face suddenly solemn.

“Bofur?”

The hatted dwarf cocked a smile at him, not quite as cheerful as his usual, and patted Ori's arm briefly. Then he turned and stepped back toward the fire that Ori just realized he was still facing.

Nori was being very quiet, which was a very Nori thing to do, but he was also being very tactile, which was not normal, and his arms which were wrapped around Ori were very still. He could feel the tension in the arms and in Nori's body behind him. He frowned.

“Nori?”

“Shh,” Nori whispered.

“Nori, what happened?”

His brother shivered behind him and Ori reached down and grabbed one of his hands, squeezing it in his. Nori sighed.

“What do you remember?”

Frowning, Ori had to think for a moment. He'd been distracted by the coughing and the pain and hadn't really thought about it, but he didn't remember them making camp last night. He remembered... they had to cross the river...

Something had scared his pony, he didn't know what. They had been moving in a single-file line across a high bed of rock that stretched the river from one bank to the next, but it had been narrow and the river had been fast enough that they'd needed to go slow. Ori had been behind both of his brothers, Bofur and Bilbo behind him. He'd been thinking about how wet his feet were inside his boots and how happy he was that they were almost across the river, when his pony had whinnied in terror and reared.

The shrill terror of Minty's cry made him think wargs and he opened his mouth to cry out, ridiculously, that there were orcs in the water. He hit the water with all the weight of his pony on top of him. The air rushed out of his lungs at the impact and he'd gasped, the sharp bite of water hitting the back of his throat like knives, and he choked and gasped, flailing for the surface. Ropes lashed around his arms and something grabbed his leg and there was something wrapped tightly around his chest and he couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe!

“ORI!”

He sucked in a desperate breath of air, choking on it, expecting water and his lungs couldn't decide whether or not they could breathe, whether or not he was alive, and there was still something wrapped around his chest. Ori flailed, gasping, and felt the ropes let go and he hit the ground with a whuff, fingers digging into the dirt because it was dry and he wasn't in the river and oh Mahal, he could breathe, he could breathe.

“Ori... just, just breathe, all right?”

Was that Nori? Nori never sounded like that, like he was about to burst into tears, and Ori struggled to look over, to find him, only he couldn't quiet move. Everything hurt and he was still gasping, trying to just...

Thrik. It's all right, lad. You're safe.”

There was a hand pressing lightly against his back, fingers kneading the back of his neck, and Ori whined pitifully and felt his face flare with heat.

“None of that.” And that was Dwalin's growl behind him, grumpy and firm. “You've got nothing to be ashamed of. Just breathe, lad. You're safe.”

“What... happened?” Ori gasped, and his voice broke on the second word because he remembered the way the dark had rolled in like smoke as the strength in his arms had fled.

“Our little burglar pulled you out of the river,” Dwalin growled, and Ori might have thought he was angry about it, except his hands kept kneading with careful precision, loosening the tight muscles of Ori's aching shoulders and neck, and he could feel his breath coming easier, the desperation settling down. He was safe. He was safe.

“Pulled you out of the river and then got the river out of you. Didn't rightly know what he was doing. We thought we'd lost you an' he went right in after you, more fish than hobbit, and got you out. Then he brought you back. We figured you were lost to us, Karaz Khajima.” 

Ori choked out a laugh. “I'm not.”

“You are,” Nori whispered. He wasn't touching Ori anymore, but he was kneeling close by, his mouth at Ori's ear. “We thought you lost, Ori. Sannadadith.” His voice broke and he pressed his head against Ori's. “We thought you lost.”


Bofur sat watching as Dwalin coaxed Ori back down from a panic attack, his normally fierce expression replaced with something as gentle as his hands. At Nori's yell, Bofur had leapt to his feet, as ready as the rest of them to rush over and help, struck by the choking gasps Ori was making like he was drowning all over again. Dwalin had made it over to him first, and considering how well he was managing to help, Bofur was content to stay seated where he was.

He'd gone over briefly when Ori had first woken, helping Nori situate his brother so he was leaning back against his chest. The lad had been confused and clearly hurting and Bofur couldn't help but linger for a time, managing to excuse his hovering by taking the cup from Ori when he was finished. When the scribe had said his name, Bofur had tried to smile but he knew he hadn't managed it well enough. His mind had been back on that moment when he'd rolled the lad over to see him staring vacantly, water trickling from his mouth.

It wasn't the first time Bofur had pulled a drowned body from the water. First time he'd pulled a fucking kid from the water.

The last too, he hoped. Mahal's mercy.

Speaking of the Valar and their gifts.

Bofur's eyes found their burglar where he lay. It was an odd sight indeed to see the small creature wrapped up tightly in a blanket and held carefully by a slumbering Bifur. Bofur's lips curled up a bit at the sight. Odd, maybe, but if you knew Bifur, then not unexpected. His cousin had always had a soft spot for children and though Master Baggins wasn't a child, there was just something very innocent about a people who spent their time planting gardens, smoking pipeweed, and eating enough food for... well, for thirteen dwarrow.

Bifur had taken something of an interest in the hobbit as soon as they met him. Bofur suspected it might have had something to do with how Master Baggins had looked at the ax embedded in his cousin's skull and, after noting that Bifur was neither bleeding or dying, let it go. He didn't know if that had been from a need to ignore it to stay sane or if the hobbit had realized that dwarrow were much more resilient than other species, but considering that a lot of people from their own species reacted to Bifur in fear for his appearance and his speech, Master Baggins' lack of reaction (whatever the cause) had been enough to endear him somewhat to Bifur. And then he went and saved little Ori's life.

Bofur had been around hobbits for a few years. He came down to Bree every few years with Bifur to sell toys to Men and Hobbits alike and they did fairly well at it. It gave them a bit of variety when his only other alternative was mining and the wee hobbits were just adorable.

Having been around them for a time, though always as strange as any not-hobbit was to their kind, Bofur had learned a few things. He knew hobbits ate as many as seven meals a day, knew those hairy feet packed a wallop he didn't care to ever feel, and he knew hobbits, as a rule, don't swim. Can't swim. Or so he'd thought.

He'd have to ask their burglar about that later. He'd also be asking him to show him how to bring someone back like he had Ori. Bofur had been in mines when some stone-blind sod had broken through and hit water. They was little more terrifying than the sound made by a flood rushing through a stone tunnel, headed right for you. Bofur'd been lucky. Three times he'd been in a flooded mine, and twice he'd been tossed under the water. He'd been pulled out the first time, dragged up on the rocks, and the second time slammed his mattock into the wall and held his breath, weathering the flood almost to blackness and sucking in a grateful breath when the water had lessened enough he could get his head above it. The third time, he'd made it high enough in the tunnel to avoid the rush of water, grabbing everyone he could as they washed by. He'd dragged up more than one fellow miner that'd been thrown against the wall and had their skulls fractured, but it was the ones that had drowned that were the worst. No wounds, just sopping wet and limp. He'd pulled them up and thrown them against the ground, shaken them desperately. A few, lucky few, had choked up the water and breathed on their own, but for the ones that hadn't...

Bofur hadn't known what to do.

When Bilbo – Master Baggins – had shoved the reins into his hands and dove into the water, Bofur had felt his stomach plummet down to his toes. Dori was yelling and Thorin was swearing, and Bofur was sitting astride his pony with Myrtle's reins in his hands. Myrtle, the hobbit had named her. He'd named all the ponies and told each of them the name of the one they were riding with an irritated smile on his face, like he was furious but was trying to be polite. The smile had only gotten wider – and scarier – when Thorin had called him “halfling” again and told him it was stupid to name the ponies since they were less likely to make it to Erebor than Bilbo himself.

Ori's pony's name was Minty.

Thorin might well have been right about that.

It had been Myrtle herself who'd yanked Bofur out of his dreaded contemplations. Surging ahead, she'd half-dragged him behind her and might well have pulled him right off his pony if Myrtle's whinny hadn't had Apple following after her obediently.

Bofur had been forced to ignore the others once they hit the far bank and both ponies broke into a dead run. He'd been able to hear hoofbeats behind him, later determined to be Bifur, but his attention had been riveted on Myrtle, who followed the river as close as she dared, ears turned toward the water, almost as though she could tell where their burglar was.

And then Bilbo had surfaced, gasping in a breath, and Bofur had felt himself cry out when he saw Minty's thrashing hooves send the hobbit back under the water.

The pony had been making a horrible racket, squealing out a hoarse whinny every time she managed to get her head above the water. Bofur had tracked the pony with his eyes, which is how he'd caught sight of Bilbo when the hobbit broke the surface of the water again, hauling Ori with him. It'd been just for a moment, but Bofur had leapt from Apple's back and raced to the river, eyes scanning the water. He'd caught sight of Bilbo just as he slammed into the bank and reached in, grabbing whatever he could and pulling him and Ori both from the river.

The way Bilbo had just sat there, eyes wide, face pale, had frightened Bofur and he'd turned to Ori to get away from the haunted look in Bilbo's large blue eyes. It had only gotten worse when he'd rolled Ori over. Just like those times in the mines...

The fire popped and Bofur jumped, pulled out of his thoughts. His eyes scanned the company. Most of them had returned to sleep. He found Ori, once again wrapped up tight in his brother's arms, and it was a relief that Dori looked calmer now. Oin had needed to give the dwarf something to knock him unconscious. He'd been a mess even once Ori had been back with them. Gandalf had appeared a couple of hours later from wherever he had disappeared to the night before and did something that knocked Dori unconscious, which was just as well. Couldn't seem to stop the nightmares, though, if his shaking sobs were any indication. Wizards.

Gandalf had gotten his arse torn into by a furious Thorin for not being there. He'd not looked pleased when Gandalf had reminded him that he said not to cross the river until he was back with them to assist. He hadn't said what happened to Ori was Thorin's fault, although from the look on Thorin's face, Bofur rather suspected he was placing blame on his own head well enough. If nothing else, that was proof that Thorin was a deserving king – not even back in the mountains and already wearing a crown of guilt.

Gandalf had checked over Ori, as well, and done some of his wizardry to make the dwarf breathe a little easier. Then he'd disappeared again, off to find some place for them to stay, he said, but not before telling Thorin that he would be remaining at their present camp for another full day at least. Not only did Ori need to recover, but so did Bilbo.

Bofur stuffed his pipe full of fresh leaf, his mouth curling down into an uncommon grimace. Rivers, he thought. He'd never trust one again.

 


Their burglar still hadn't woken.

Thorin sat by himself at the edge of camp so he could keep everyone in his sight. He watched as Dwalin stomped back over to him, having calmed Ori's panic and left him to lie back down with his brothers. Thorin felt the conflict rise again in his mind, bringing children on this foolish quest. They weren't dwarflings, no, but Kíli and Ori both were barely of majority age. How could he bring them along on what might well be one long walk to a fiery death?

“I wouldn't go suggesting what you're thinking,” Dwalin growled, settling down beside him.

“It was foolish to bring them.”

“This whole damn quest is foolish. You'd be more fool yet to try to send them back. Kíli'd just give you those damn eyes of his. Ori might well try to fight you for the right.”

Thorin huffed. “You think he'd stand a chance?”

“If he's anything like his brothers, I might just bet on him.” Thorin raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “You seen the way that thief moves? He only makes noise when he's walking because it makes other people more comfortable. He's a fucking ghost when he wants to be. And then there's his older brother. Fussy though he is, that dwarf could pick me up and throw me. If the little 'un has any of their traits at all, he'd be a force to be reckoned with.”

“He doesn't seem to have either.” He seemed more likely to cringe away from an attacker than to meet him on the battlefield, never mind that he was constantly being fussed over by his older brother, or blushing profusely at something Nori had said.

“And our hobbit doesn't seem the type to be able to bring someone back from drowning. And yet.”

“And yet,” Thorin murmured in agreement. That was something he had never seen before. A drowned dwarf had always been a dead dwarf as far as he'd ever known. Oftentimes lost, too, as heavy as their armor was. Amazing that the halfling had been able to bring him back, yes. Amazing he'd even been able to pull him from the water in the first place.

“The wizard might be right,” Balin said, and he was apparently not as asleep as Thorin had thought, lying on the other side of Dwalin with his fingers entwined over his stomach. “More to our burglar than meets the eye.”

Thorin sighed smoke out of his nose and chewed on the end of his pipe. “Is this going to turn into a lesson?”

“Does it need to?” Balin asked, and Thorin was reminded that this was the dwarf who had taught him most of his lessons. It'd been years since he'd heard it but Balin still had that teacher voice. And it still made Thorin cringe.

“No,” he said quickly, to preempt a lesson. And then more softly, “No. It doesn't.”

“I'm glad. It was getting a little ridiculous.”

He didn't need to ask what was ridiculous. He'd caught Balin's stink-eye on more than one occasion when he'd snapped irritably at the halfling. The older dwarf hadn't approved of his mannerisms, partly for the fact that their burglar should have been treated as one of them, having signed the contract, and in part because the company was more than likely to follow the opinion of their king (and had). With some exception.

Thorin's eyes slid to Bofur. The miner was sitting apart from everyone else, puffing on his pipe and watching the halfling carefully. He hadn't been to sleep yet, for all that it'd be light in a couple hours. Didn't look like he planned to sleep at all. Thorin had recognized that the dwarf was usually cheerful, often laughing or singing a tune, but he hadn't realized he'd taken to the halfling quite so much. He should have. Should have noticed both him and his cousin's care toward their burglar, the other wrapped around the halfling as he was.

When Bofur had rushed past them, Bifur on his heels, the rest of them had just stood there for a moment, astride their ponies, staring. It hadn't been a week and already they'd lost two of their company to a river of all things. They'd come to their senses and followed, arriving to find Ori face-down on the ground, the hobbit throwing all of his weight against the young dwarf's back, huffing and puffing for breath even as he struggled.

Dori had been the first to move then, surging forward, only to have Bifur leap out of nowhere and grab hold of him. He nearly found himself flung to the ground, and might have been, if Dwalin hadn't grabbed Dori, too, and held him, muttering something to him, watching the halfling with wary eyes that held a thought he didn't share aloud.

About a minute of watching their burglar throw his body weight against the dwarf and Thorin had been ready to tell him to stop, please stop, when Ori had started choking up water. He'd only stared, lost, at the sound Nori made, silent Nori, when the halfling rolled his brother onto his back and the young dwarf's head had lolled limply.

Thorin remembered feeling very cold, his eyes staring at Ori and the halfling, but seeing long golden curls and staring eyes in a familiar, long-lost face. It'd been Oin that'd shaken him from his memories, giving his shoulder a firm whack as he called out orders, and he had rushed over to check on Ori, the lad choking and spitting water and breathing.

It'd been Bofur that'd yelled the halfling's name and lunged forward, catching him as he'd sagged into unconsciousness, pulling him up into his arms and talking to him, trying to wake him. Only then did Thorin notice the blood covering half of the burglar's face, making the rest seem near white by comparison. Bofur had kept talking to the halfling even though he was clearly unconscious, holding him tight as he fell to shivering and Oin came over and checked him over, cleaning the head wound and revealing a large reddened bump with a great bleeding gash across it.

“Rock?” Oin had asked.

Bofur had swallowed thickly. “Minty – Ori's pony – kicked him in the head when she was thrashin'.”

Kicked in the head. Must have been a glancing blow or they'd have pulled two drowned bodies from the river and had no way to save them. Ponies weren't as dangerous as horses to dwarrow (or hobbits) but they still had powerful legs. A kick from a pony could kill a man on dry land, never mind in the water. Thorin tossed a prayer of thanks to Mahal for protecting his company, and then one for introducing them to someone who knew how to save someone from drowning. If he knew what Valar the hobbits worshipped, he'd throw a prayer to them, too.

Ori had been taken by his brothers and wrapped up tight, the two of them clinging to him desperately. Thorin worried. Nori's presence in the company was something of a point of contention between him and Dwalin. He wanted someone with skills different from the rest of them. Dwalin didn't like having a thief along, especially one so good at hiding their emotions. Except Nori wasn't hiding his emotions very well at all. He thought the thief might only have been more sane than Dori out of sheer stubborn desperation, but there was a terror in his eyes that wouldn't leave any time soon. Thorin remembered the look well from his own eyes, though after he'd found Frerin on the battlefield, there'd been no one capable of pulling him back to the living. He forced away the jealousy of grief and let himself be happy for the three brothers, and he hoped no matter what this damn quest brought them, they'd still be together at the end of it.

Thorin felt a furious wish well up within him that Dís was there with them. He inhaled a steadying breath and let it out slowly. It'd been a while since he'd felt such a crushing grip of loneliness for family and his eyes sought out the halfling again. Thorin had called together a company, anyone willing, and those that had come were brothers and cousins – family. Except for one. The fourteenth member of their company was a hobbit of the Shire, perhaps not as unknowing as Thorin had thought, but still, alone where they all had family with them.

His mind flashed back to Gandalf, before the wizard left again. Their argument had ended with Thorin feeling thoroughly angry with himself (which, if he was being honest, was also how the argument started), and Gandalf had wandered off to check on Ori, muttering words of magic under his breath that seemed to ease the scribe's breathing, and Nori's nerves. And then the wizard had gone over to check on the burglar.

There had been no words of magic for the halfling, just a gentle brush of the wizard's hand through golden curls. Tharkun had looked at the halfling with a gentle expression Thorin had never seen on his face before. Then he'd offered Bifur a kind smile, stepped away from them both, and was gone a moment later to look for shelter further down the road.

Thorin sighed. He hoped the wizard would come back soon. And he'd never thought he'd hope for something so... potentially irritating.

He pushed himself to his feet.

“Lad?” Balin asked.

“Get some sleep,” Thorin grumbled at the two of them.

“You first,” Dwalin muttered.

Thorin huffed and stepped away from the two of them. He circled around the fire, patting Bofur on the shoulder lightly as he passed. He didn't bother to tell the dwarf to sleep, knew he wouldn't. Bofur met his gaze and offered a nod, but his normally cheerful expression was still lost in the pensive frown on his face. Thorin left him chewing on his pipe stem and moved around the fire. He shouldn't have been surprised to end up between the Ri Brothers and where Bifur was wrapped around Bilbo. There was enough distance for some privacy, though, which he was thankful for, and suspected Nori, at least, appreciated. 

Fíli and Kíli were curled up together, as usual, arms wrapped around the other and foreheads touching. He hadn't yet reached their side when Kíli's head snapped up, eyes instantly alert. 

“Uncle?” Kíli asked softly, eyes scanning the campsite, looking for threats. Fíli was awake, too, he saw, eyes open and watching him, body still feigning sleep, fingers touching the hilt of one of his hidden blades. He felt pride flare in his heart right alongside the old grief. At times, his nephews reminded him so much of Frerin his chest ached like he was finding him all over again.

“All's well,” he said, crouching down beside them.

At the assurance that things were fine, Fíli lifted his head. He studied Thorin for a moment, then smacked Kíli in the side with the back of his hand. The brothers shifted, separating, and Thorin could only huff a laugh. He lowered himself to the ground between them, and a moment later he was being used as a pillow. It was almost like they were dwarflings again, clinging to their uncle and asking for stories about Erebor and their grandfather and yes, even the damn dragon.

Thorin wrapped his arms around them, thinking for a moment how thankful he was that they were here with him, and how scared. He could lose them. If he wasn't careful, he could lose them.

He didn't dare, couldn't bear it. Not his nephews. Not his boys. He pressed his forehead to Fíli's head, then Kíli's, so desperately grateful for their presence that he felt tears prick his eyes.

“Uncle?” Fíli asked, concerned.

“All is well, Ghivâshelûh. I am just so glad you are here.”

They clung to him like children and he tried not to let his grief overwhelm him. Gandalf had told him to wait to cross the river until he was there because the rivers in this part of the world are dangerous. They look calm on the surface when beneath they rage, death incarnate. It was amazing only Ori fell in, he'd said. Amazing the whole of the Company wasn't submerged, that the rocky crossing they'd been using could have shifted at any moment and drowned all of them.

His foolishness could have taken Fíli and Kíli from him as easily as it almost took Ori. It could have been him standing, watching the halfling try and bring his boys back from the river.

Thorin had survived a great deal of grief in his life, but he wouldn't survive that. Losing them would kill him as surely as any orc blade.

It won't happen, he promised himself, promised them. I won't let anything make me risk them so terribly again. Bad enough they're here to start. Although he couldn't bring himself to wish them gone. So selfish.

“Uncle?” Kíli whispered. He turned his head to look at his dark-haired nephew. He seemed hesitant, before quietly asking, “Is Mister Baggins going to be all right?”

Baggins. Now, if that didn't tell how worried Kíli was, Thorin was a blind fool. Kíli delighted in calling the halfling Mister Boggins, and after some initial fluffing and puffing, the hobbit had taken it as the good-natured teasing it was and even teased back. Thorin had snapped at him for it on more than one occasion, earning that stink-eyed look from Balin for his troubles. It'd only made the halfling more discrete in his teasing, anyway. Also might explain who kept hitting him in the back of the head with pinecones.

“Gandalf didn't seem overly concerned,” Thorin said quietly, squeezing his nephew gently. “We're staying here tomorrow, too. It'll give both the halfling and Ori time to recover, and Gandalf can find us easily again.”

Kíli nodded, but his eyes were drooping. Thorin pressed their foreheads together. “Sleep, Bâhzundushuh. You'll be able to tease the halfling again in the morning.”

“Hobbit,” Kíli murmured, half-asleep already, his eyes closed. “Halfling's n'insult.”

Thorin opened his mouth for a moment, then shut it. Ah. Yes, that would explain the pinecones.

“Sleep,” he murmured, but Kíli was already asleep. On his other side, Fíli's breaths were already deep in slumber. Thorin lay quietly, staring at the starlit sky, treasuring the feel of both of them lying beside him. Cherishing every breath they took. He watched a cloud brush across the stars, for a moment looking as grey as stone, a dwarven tomb in the sky. And then the wind pushed the cloud away and the sky was clear again.

Thorin closed his eyes. He had things he needed to change, reparations to make, an apology to give. Probably multiple apologies. If this had taught him anything, it was that their half– their hobbit was more than he appeared. Thorin would apologize for his wrongs done to the hobbit and his cruel words, and then maybe they could start again. Mahal, they'd already crossed the damn river. Fording an apology should be easy in comparison. 

Tomorrow was a new day.