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Nori had known he was going to die, but then he didn't die. He stacked three roundish rocks one on top of the other, the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top, and he refused to think about doing it, or why he did it.

. .

There were few children, and fewer chances for them to meet, but still it was passed from ear to ear, whispers in the dark, children huddled together listening to the creak and pop and groan of the bad rock all around them.

“Don't be afraid, it's just Her voice,” the girl they called sharpeyes whispered in Nori's ear as they waited for Thjofr and her adad to come back for them. “See, you put three rocks, one on top of the other. It looks like Her, like a mother, made of stone.” They worked carefully to stack the rocks until they balanced, a lopsided, curved shape.

“Now She can know we're here,” sharpeyes whispered. “She's trying to tell us, but we can't understand. If you know Her name, She takes you away to live with Her, where it's never dark, where it's never cold, and no one is ever alone, and no one is ever hungry. She tries to tell us... so hush, hush and be still and listen and maybe we'll understand and She'll take us away...”

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“You can't ever ask Her for anything,” a boy they called longnose whispered. He and Nori were crammed tight together in their hiding place waiting for the signal to move. “If you ask and She can't give it to you it makes Her sad.”

Nori nodded. Thjofr was always angry when Nori whined and begged, and he wouldn't want Her to think he was a needy child too. No one wanted that.

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“You have to pay Her back,” a boy they called cleverhands whispered. Both of them were shaking all over as they listened to the crashing of the rockslide they'd just barely escaped. “When you know you're going to die and then you don't, it's because She saved you. You have to pay back the debt or next time She won't...”

They each stacked three rocks, cleverhands hissing “don't touch it, this one's mine.” Then they continued on to where they'd been told to go, more carefully than before.

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“sharpeyes must have known Her name.” sharpeyes' little brother whispered as Thjofr and his adad looked at each other with slumped shoulders and shaking heads, muttering that there was no sign of her, and left the rock slide. “sharpeyes told me, she could hear Her clearer and clearer.” He sniffled. “she took sharpeyes away... she promised she wouldn't go without me...”

“We have to let Her know we know it was Her,” Nori whispered. “Maybe She'll take us too.”

The little brother nodded, and together they left a little pile of rounded rocks, three high, the most basic shape of a person.

A mother, made of stone.

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“She's soft,” longnose whispered. “And when She holds you nothing hurts, ever again.”

“She's hard,” greeneyes disagreed. “As hard as the stone She's made of, and so strong that nobody will ever dare hurt you again.”

Nori stayed quiet, because he didn't know. They were all three being very still and quiet in the dark corner of the tavern hoping nobody would notice the gravy pie they were sharing. Nori had stolen it, but the others would have shouted if he refused to share.

“No one can hurt you if you know Her name,” they finally agreed.

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Nori sat and listened to the bad rock when he didn't have anything else he was supposed to do. He sat, very very still and quiet so Thjofr would forget about him, and he tapped tapped his fist to the rock, and put his hand over it to feel, and he listened.

He knew the shapes and names of so many types of stones. He knew faultlines and balance points, but he still didn't know Her name.

But he always kept trying.

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Nori was arrested, and it hurt.

It hurt more than he'd ever known anything could hurt, and he cursed and fought and didn't tell them anything because Thjofr had told him, again and again, that he had to buy him time. Most of the time Nori was following Thjofr around listening to him talk with other grownups, so he knew how important it was to be hard to break. He didn't want to be useless, so he held on.

They sent in a giant of a Dwarf, big and scarred and tattooed. They told him to kill Nori... and Nori knew he was going to die.

He was not ready for a warm touch to the side of his face, for a strong rough hand being gentle. He chased after that touch, and he cried even though no one wants to see that, and he told the big guard whatever he wanted to know just so the hand wouldn't go away, wouldn't stop touching him.

When the bribes Thjofr had taught him how to set up finally came through, he stumbled back home into the creaking and rumbling of the bad rock, aching and exhausted.

The first thing he did, before he even thought of trying to hunt Thjofr down, was make a pile of three rocks, the biggest he could make, because he owed Her. She had protected him even though he'd never been able to understand Her name.

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“Her hands are big,” Nori whispered to sharpeyes' little brother, gaptooth. “Her hands are huge and rough and strong, but Her touch is gentle, so gentle. When She holds you...” he cradled a lumpy little rock in his palms, “When She holds you, you know you're safe, and She'll hold you close and never let you go.”

gaptooth nodded. They put the lumpy baby-rock at the 'foot' of the three stacked stones in the corner of their little hideout cave, too small for any adult to fit in. They couldn't stay and talk about Her for very long, though, or gaptooth's adad would miss him.

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Then there was Toki. He didn't live in the bad rock, he lived on the edges with his amad, and she called him by a name.

“Hah, that's just dumb kid stuff,” he laughed, even though he wasn't any older than Nori, even if he was big. “Tell me you don't believe that stuff, prettyhair,” Toki teased.

Nori didn't say anything because he didn't want to make Her angry with him, but he also wanted Toki to like him.

Toki who's fingers were tangled up in Nori's hair as he whispered warm in his ear, “Do you know what your adad is paying my amad for?”

“He's not my adad, and of course I know. I'm not dumb.”

Toki who said, “Do you know or have you just heard about it?” and whispered: “I could show you...” with secrets and promises in his voice.

Toki who cursed and groaned, “You feel so good.” It hurt a little but it felt so so good cradled close in Toki's arms that Nori wanted to do it again and again forever. He wanted to hold onto Toki and never let him go.

Toki who was laughing with the older kids in the bad rock and yelled, “Stay away from me, what do you want?” and then later alone, quieter, “Aw, hammers, prettyhair, stop crying. We can fuck sometimes, just don't bother me when I'm with my friends.”

Toki who stepped wrong, following the older kids, and fell.

It took three strong Dwarves to hold his little amad back, to stop her from running out into the bad rock. She screamed that they had to go down and look for him, that he could have lived. The grownups were saying that there was no safe way to get down there, and there wasn't really a chance anyway.

Nori had gotten very good at being still and silent until Thjofr forgot about him. He stole a little thief's lamp and two ropes and climbed down down down into the dark, using all his stone sense to find safe paths. He hoped that She had kept Toki safe, even if he didn't believe in Her, or that She had taken him to live with Her even though Toki didn't know Her name...

but She hadn't.

He left three stacked stones so She would know he understood that She was not merciful to those who spoke against Her, and he took Toki's hair clip back up up up out of the dark.

“I climbed down and found...” Nori couldn't finish, looking into Toki's amad's drawn face, the empty sorrow there. He handed over the crumpled hair clip, still covered in blood, with bits of hair stuck in the twisted metal.

She took it and closed the door in his face, wordless, but he could hear her wailing her grief as he left.

He climbed into one of his old hideouts, almost too small for him now, and he cried until he fell asleep from exhaustion.

Nori got into trouble for having disappeared on Thjofr, but he couldn't really care. Nothing Thjofr could do was as bad as what he'd seen down in the dark.

.

Those his age didn't talk about Her anymore. Some of them made fun of the younger kids who did, but Nori didn't.

He would never speak against Her.

He could not afford to lose Her mercy.

His hideouts still held three stacked stones, the roughest representation of a person, a mother made of stone.

Hidden, now, but always there.

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Thjofr was gone, and the money he'd owed fell onto Nori. He was driven out into the worst of the bad rock, where those he owed would not dare try to find him.

Nowhere was safe, but he did his best – he left a hideout whenever he had the smallest feeling that it wasn't right, and more than once was glad he did, when it collapsed and would have killed him.

He could not understand Her name, but She still looked out for him until he could make enough money to pay off Thjofr's debts and live in safer rock. 

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Nori was leading a small group of Dwarves through some very nasty rock, when someone put a foot wrong and it all started to come down.

He only just barely managed to get them all onto more stable rock, and while they all huddled and tried to catch their breaths back, he crouched down and stacked three stones – a debt paid.

He was discreet – he was quiet, he'd learned to be – but one of them noticed with a snort of laughter.

“Oh, fuck, mountaingoat, did you really just...”

“Shut up,” Nori snapped. “Another word, and I'll leave you all here.”

They obeyed, eyes wide, and he felt paths through the bad rock that would carry them all, and he led them safely to their destination.

“You know it's blasphemy?” one of them murmured, quiet. Nori wordlessly darted back out into the bad rock, taking paths that would hold only him.

He did know. He'd not had much schooling, but he knew enough to know that there was no room in the story of the Dwarves for Her... but he knew Her, could almost hear Her name. She'd kept him safe, and he needed Her.

He knew he shouldn't, but he couldn't lose Her. He would never speak against Her. He tried not even to think about Her, as his hands stacked rocks so She would know him, and know that he knew Her.

. .

Nori had known he was going to die, but then he didn't. After he was trussed up over a Troll fire, after he was whipped by Goblins, and chased by Wargs, and fell from a tree over a cliff – after he was attacked by spiders and imprisoned by Elves and rode down rapids in a barrel while fighting Orcs – after he saw a Dragon bearing down on him – after he waited for the Dragon to return and find them and instead heard news of the Dragon's death – and after the Battle he'd never expected to survive. He stacked three roundish rocks one on top of the other, the largest at the bottom and the smallest at the top. Sometimes the Company saw him, and sometimes they didn't, but it didn't matter because none of them knew. And he refused to think about it, or think about why he did it.

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Chapter Text

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Thjofr kept a protective hand on the satchel of goods as they ran, his lad's screamed curses fading quickly behind them – the satchel would yield a rich payout, made richer by splitting between only two instead of three now.

Throwing his lad to the guard had been necessary, Thjofr wouldn't have escaped otherwise, and the lad always did a good job of holding the guard off. He would hold long enough to get the goods to the buyer and for everyone to disappear, he always did. Of course it meant the lad would be having more nightmares, but there was no helping it. A thrown boot was usually enough to take care of that, anyway.

“This way. Stay close.” Olvor hissed, leading the way into the bad rock at a run. Like the lad, Olvor was faster than Thjofr at reading the bad rock – harder to follow, though, as Olvor kicked the rock to feel it where the lad used his hands, so all Thjofr had to do to follow him was mimic his feet.

Olvor was trickier... and wasn't that true in more than one way. The lad was a known risk, Thjofr had trained him carefully – his lad could be trusted for many things, and where he couldn't be trusted he could be predicted. Not so with Olvor, gorgeous Olvor so very good at distraction and information gathering, who used a name despite being of the lad's generation, but was maybe even more secretive than most otherwise.

Thjofr didn't like having to work with Olvor, but for a payout as big as the one they'd be getting, he could handle working with the lad's sometime-lover more often.

He didn't step wrong. He didn't. He stepped right where Olvor had stepped, bounding lightly across the cracked stone, but where it had held under Olvor, it crumbled to dust for Thjofr, and he was falling.

Fuck the Maker's forge-fires, no! He couldn't fall he couldn't fall he couldn't fall! His boots slid uselessly off the disintegrating rock, a scream choking in the back of his throat as the stone broke under his weight.

There was an instant, half a moment of hope, a tug at the satchel around his neck and he thought that Olvor would save him, pull him to steadier rock – and then there was the flash of a razorblade between the gorgeous Dwarf's fingers – like Olvor and the lad practicing their skills beside the dim glow of the coals in the evening, razors flicking open and closed, appearing and disappearing between their fingers, passed from hand to hand and between each other faster than Thjofr's eyes could follow to their soft-chanted nonsense rhymes and never slipping and cutting themselves or each other.

There was the flash of a razorblade between Olvor's fingers, and the light tug on the satchel strap was gone.

And Thjofr fell.

The last thing he saw was Olvor holding the strapless satchel with a triumphant smile.

The last thing he heard was his own scream, swallowed up in the creaking and groaning of the bad rock.

His last thought, besides the incoherent blaze of terror, was rage that his lad and Olvor had conspired to betray him.

Then there was nothing.

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Chapter Text

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Olvor lay in the dark, listening to the quiet half-snores of Thjofr and his lad over the low never-ending groan of the bad rock.

This was going to work. It had to.

They didn't call the lad pathfinder for nothing. His sense of timing was perfect, and Olvor's information was good, so it would work.

The biggest payoff any of them had ever seen.

...not that anyone but Olvor was going to see a single coin of it.

Pathfinder shifted slightly against Olvor's shoulder, and Olvor smiled a little, a little sadly.

It would be hard on him, but probably for the best. Anyone who wasn't pathfinder could see that Thjofr was jealous of his superior skills, he wouldn't be safe with his sire much longer, and pathfinder's bright hazel eyes were blind to it.

Olvor realized with a small pang that it would be a little lonely to leave pathfinder behind... but even with the size of the payoff it was only going to be enough to pay passage for one, and that one was going to be Olvor.

This had to work.

Even if the distant kin who were rumored to have gone to the Iron Hills couldn't be found, there were always options for someone like Olvor. Anything had to be better than the bad rock of New Belegost.

They said there weren't even interrogators in the Iron Hills.

This would work. It was going to work.

Pathfinder's plan would work, they'd get the goods – Thjofr would insist on carrying them, of course – then Thjofr would get pathfinder grabbed by the guards.

That part was critical, and Olvor's fingers twisted together nervously.

What if Thjofr didn't...

But Thjofr would, for a payoff this big, for a job that showcased how very much better pathfinder was than him.

There was no way Thjofr wouldn't throw pathfinder to the guard – and then there were endless places to drop Thjofr, places where the rock would hold one light Dwarf, but not a second heavier one right after. Olvor just had to keep Thjofr close and grab the satchel of goods before he fell. The lad might be the one they called quickfingers, but Olvor had been a thief just as long and wasn't slow.

There was a chance they would both fall, if Thjofr managed to grab Olvor, but for a chance out of New Belegost?

It was worth that risk. If Olvor fell, at least there wouldn't be any more waiting to finally be eaten up by the bad rock, no more waiting to be caught and given back to the interrogators again and again.

The biggest danger was if Thjofr didn't throw pathfinder to the guard. It would be easy enough for Olvor to take point, but pathfinder would warn Thjofr before he stepped on anything that couldn't hold him. With careful timing it might be possible to drop Thjofr with pathfinder too far away to help... but there was a reason they called the lad rocklizard.

Olvor would never be able to lose him in the bad rock, he could see paths that even Olvor couldn't, was light enough to use rock that Olvor couldn't.

It might be possible to trigger a rockslide above him, catch him in it...

Pathfinder shifted again, nuzzling into Olvor's side, and that sharply painful line of thought was abandoned. It wouldn't be necessary.

Thjofr would set the guard on his lad, and Olvor wouldn't have to hurt pathfinder, the Dwarf it had been so difficult to keep pushing away, to prevent becoming a steady lover to – always so eager to please, in bed and out of it. Just today he'd used up the last of his hoarded herb-dried tomatoes to season the beans and barley he'd cooked, just because Olvor liked them.

Pathfinder would be alright. It would be hard on him, but he was clever. He'd land on his own feet finally, or maybe he'd end up playing second to another Dwarf like Thjofr, but he wasn't Olvor's responsibility.

Olvor's only responsibility was to Olvor, and right now there was a chance to escape, and it was worth any cost.

Pathfinder's hand reached up, gently closing Olvor's eyes.

“Sleeeeep...” he whispered, petting Olvor's cheek, and that small sad smile twisted Olvor's lips again.

It would be lonely to leave him behind, but the payoff was only enough to pay passage for one.

Just one chance to be free.

Olvor would take it, no matter what the cost.

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Chapter Text

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In the last breathless moments before the battle, Dwalin kissed Nori, surprising exactly no one. Even if Dwalin hadn't been wearing Nori's intricate braids in his hair, no one in the Company was so oblivious to not notice that they had been lovers for a while. They'd had a strong bond from the beginning, and had only grown closer during the quest.

No one could miss how protective Dwalin was, and how Nori didn't let anyone else touch him, and few could miss how they touched when they thought nobody was looking, with Nori shivering into Dwalin's hands, or the way Nori could make Dwalin blush red with nothing more than a slightly raised eyebrow, or how they tended to disappear together in the Mountain and reappear looking relaxed and sated.

They kissed before the battle, finally hiding nothing from anyone, and it wasn't surprising, but it was at the same time.

Who hadn't pictured, at least once, what it might be like to be with Dwalin? Who hadn't imagined being thrown against a convenient wall, pinned helpless against it by huge brutal hands – sharp biting kisses until Dwalin could force his tongue inside to fuck their mouth with it, his knee forcing their legs apart, a big hand twisting and pulling in their hair – clothes torn off, offering no resistance to the strength of the killer's hands, being shoved to the floor, powerless to resist – Dwalin's teeth sinking into their neck as he shoved his way roughly inside, so big and so strong and...

uh...

that is...

The kiss that Dwalin gave to Nori was not like that at all. It was... soft... careful and gentle and slow. Far too intimate to be stared at. Everyone looked away.

Who would have pictured Dwalin having that kind of gentleness? It was surprising, but it probably shouldn't have been. Not after the way Dwalin took care of Nori in the early days in Lake-town, when Nori was still in an exhausted stupor. Not after seeing the way they fell asleep side by side every night on the way from Lake-town to the Mountain and woke up with Dwalin wrapped completely around Nori, sometimes half-burying the smaller Dwarf. Not after seeing the way Dwalin tended to Nori's bruised eye after Thorin's gold sickness drove him to violence – the big warrior growling and shouting and tearing Oin's medical kit apart and then treating Nori's eye so so so gently when he'd found the bruise cream.

It shouldn't have been a surprise that he would kiss Nori that way, for what might be the last chance to kiss Nori ever, in the last breathless moments before battle.

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Chapter Text

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Agna, Captain of King Dis' royal guard, tried not to stare at Nori.

He'd come to know the King's Eye well in the time they'd been working together, as well as anyone could know a Dwarf who never spoke of anything but the work at hand. Nori was intensely focused, with a sharp mind that twisted in directions Agna was still learning to follow. His original thought that Nori had been appointed as a purely political move had been dismissed almost immediately. Agna had grown to enjoy their regular meetings, pouring over the chalk maps that Nori could draw so effortlessly, discussing how best to use their resources to keep the royal family safe. King Dis and the princes overwhelming popularity made it unlikely that they would be attacked, but neither he nor Nori thought it wise to become lax.

Agna tried to focus on the map of Erebors markets he and Nori were discussing, positioning guard pebbles here and there so they would be unobtrusive but there if needed.

Nori was usually so... fastidious with his appearance, his hair in his elaborate peaks and never a hair out of place unless he'd been sparring or demonstrating to the royal guards that 'yes it is possible to get into the palace like that'. Not to say there was anything wrong with how Nori was wearing his hair today, it was certainly better than young prince Kili who could never be bothered to do his own or sit still enough for anyone to do it for him – but of all the Dwarves Agna would ever expect to be wearing crooked braids, Nori would be the last on the list... or the second-to-last, after Dori.

One of Nori's small braids fell out of the big braid at his neck, swinging loose from his temple over the slate table he'd drawn his map on.

Nori's sharp eyes softened, crinkling at the corners in a smile he didn't let reach his mouth, stroking his fingers down the messy strands tenderly and hooking it behind his ear instead of tucking it back into his braid. That expression...

Ah, it was just like Agna's little Trana, his daughter, the first time she'd worn a lover's braid.

Agna smiled slightly as he began to push the three pebbles that represented Dis and the princes through the market again, going over the security with Nori one more time.

. .

“...please?” Nori's voice was quiet, his shoulders hunching in uncomfortably, bright hazel eyes begging as he pressed his comb back into Dwalin's hands. That beautiful, beautiful red-brown hair was already brushed out into a silk waterfall, all that was left was...

braiding it.

Nori hadn't asked him to, not since before the Battle. They had a routine. Every morning Dwalin would comb Nori's hair, then Nori would comb Dwalin's and put a simple braid or two in it, and then braid his own. It was a warm, comfortable habit, sharing soft touches and gentle kisses before they faced the rest of the world, and it had been working for them... or at least Dwalin had thought it was.

Only now Nori was asking, when that was so hard for him, but...

Dwalin closed his hand around Nori's and the comb, stroked his clumsy hand down the softness of that perfect hair, leaned forward to brush his lips gently across Nori's before resting their foreheads together.

“You should have beautiful braids.” Dwalin murmured, shaking his head slightly. His husband deserved only the very best. Nori was so careful about his appearance, weaving a seven-strand braid across the top of his peaks to honor his family, never a hair out of place if he could help it.

Dwalin would not shame him with his own clumsy braiding. He'd never even learned more than just a basic three-strand.

Nori closed his eyes briefly, his face going blank as he drew back, lowering his shoulders to an appearance of calm. His comb and his hand both slid effortlessly from Dwalin's grip and he said nothing, didn't react, but there was something... something maybe in the press of his lips that might as well have screamed “I knew you would get tired of me asking for things' and 'I will never ask for anything ever again', hitting Dwalin like a fist directly to his lungs. He'd spent so long trying to convince Nori that he could ask for anything and now for the simplest little thing...

Nori was pulling back further now, slipping away, out of Dwalin's fingers – it was pure instinct to grab onto him, to wrap his arms around the smaller Dwarf and pull him into his lap, hold him so he couldn't escape – not that Nori was trying, even a little.

“Don't.” he managed to choke out. He had to explain, somehow, so Nori would understand – or he could be right back to having a Nori who couldn't even ask for a spoonful of honey to go with his porridge, and if telling him that he deserved better than what Dwalin could give him wasn't enough he didn't know what to do. He did have to tell Nori 'no' sometimes, of course, but never without giving him a good reason, and if that wasn't a good enough reason...

He buried his face against Nori's neck, stroked his hair, his shoulders, brushing his fingers on the back of Nori's neck where it always made him shudder.

“I love you.” he said, because that was true, the most true thing, and he could never tell Nori enough, and it was a good place to start, “You can ask for things, I want you to... but I can't...” he flexed his big hands helplessly. He couldn't say much about them. Anything he said about his hands Nori had an answer for – 'good enough to sew me back together' or 'strong enough to save Kili's life' or if he were in a particular mood, burning hot whispers about how very much he liked the way Dwalin's fingers felt inside him, or how good they felt all over his body, usually with a demonstration, Nori moaning and shuddering as he drew Dwalin's hands across the softness of his skin. Nori who never saw his hands as a killer's tools, refused to see them as anything but good – and Dwalin loved that about him but that didn't mean he had the skill to give him a braid to do him justice.

“I can't give you what you deserve.” He finished, “I would if I could, but I'm not...” he didn't want to say 'not good enough for you' and drifted off a little lamely, holding his Nori close, stroking his hands down that beautiful scarred back. Nori finally relaxed into him, not so still anymore, a warm armful of Dwarf, the two of them just breathing together.

“...but I want...” Nori started, cutting himself off sharply, looking like he wished he could swallow his own tongue when Dwalin sat back to look at him.

“Tell me?” Dwalin asked, one hand resting warm on the small of Nori's back, the other coming up to stroke the soft hair on his chest, the tender skin along his collarbone.

Nori slumped against him, voice muffled against Dwalin's chest but understandable “I don't care what I deserve, I want to be yours. I want to wear your braids and I don't care what they look like... I'm sorry...”

“You are mine, Nori.” Dwalin tried, holding him close, “And I'm yours. You don't have to let me mangle your hair to prove anything.”

“I'm sorry.” Nori curled in on himself a little... hammers and coal, nothing Dwalin was saying was helping at all. It might be easier to just braid his hair and let him see for himself that it wasn't something he wanted... Dwalin closed his eyes against the possibility.

Blond hair, it had been, thick and smooth, not as soft as Nori's, and he'd tried, flinching at every pained hiss as his big clumsy fingers caught and pulled – and when he was finally done his lover had laughed in disbelief, combing the braids back out immediately, explaining how he couldn't be seen with braids like that out in public...

Braiding a lover's hair wasn't something Dwalin could do. His hands were too big and too rough.

“...I'll hurt you.” he whispered.

Never.” Nori's answer was automatic, and Nori believed it, he really did – once after a particularly brutal nightmare where the Dwarf he'd killed wore Nori's face, Nori had wrapped both of Dwalin's killer hands around his slender throat, pulse calm and steady beneath Dwalin's palms, holding them there as he met Dwalin's eye without the slightest trace of fear.

“You would never hurt me.” there had been no doubt in his voice, and Dwalin had shattered like a sheet of ice, Nori his only anchor.

“I'm too rough. I'll pull your hair.” Dwalin tried, and Nori stilled in his arms again, just a little less soft, less close, and Dwalin fought the instinct to hold him harder, to try to get that back.

“There wasn't an interrogator in Belegost Prison who could break me.” Nori reminded quietly, something hard under his voice. A reminder that he was anything but weak, he might enjoy being treated gently, but never as if he were incapable.

“I know you're strong, but you deserve... I'm not...”

he couldn't say 'I'm not good enough. You deserve better.' Nori deserved only the very best, and Dwalin couldn't give it to him.

“...I'm sorry.” Nori whispered, apologizing again for asking, for wanting to wear his lover and husband's braids in his hair, as thought that were something to be ashamed of.

The more Dwalin argued, the more miserable Nori became. He was just going to have to show him that Dwalin's best wasn't good enough for him.

“Give me the comb.” he said.

. .

Agna and Nori both looked up when Dwalin came in, the Captain of the city guard's eyes going wide as he saw Nori's braids, and Nori let his smile reach all the way down to his lips. Dwalin, who usually only wore a braid or two, had his hair oiled and braided into elegant gleaming coils, so the rough warrior was almost beautiful.

Dwalin joined them at the slate table, and Nori quickly walked him through what they'd been discussing.

“I don't see any holes in it.” Dwalin said, and that was good. It was always good to get a trusted pair of fresh eyes on a plan.

“I think we're done then.” Nori said, clearly pleased, “Are you done for the day?” he asked Dwalin, winding his fingers around the loose braid at his temple, an eyebrow slightly raised.

“Aye.” Dwalin said gruffly, his face a bit red as he batted Nori's hand away and gently gently tucked the braid back into his main braid. Nori leaned into his husband's side, Dwalin placing an arm around him as he whisked his pebbles and chalk back away wherever he kept them, fingers too quick to follow, erasing his map completely – just one of the quirks he'd picked up as a thief, never leaving any evidence of his plans behind.

“Until next time.” Nori nodded to Agna, and Agna nodded back.

He smiled to himself as he watched the battle-wed couple leave together, heard Dwalin rumble “You're a terrible Dwarf.” and Nori's answering laugh, neither of them with eyes for anyone else.

Battle marriages, made in haste, did not always last. A good shield-mate did not always make a good spouse and the marriages often fell apart, the stories fading quickly away, an embarrassment to be forgotten.

Nori and Dwalin, the warriors of smoke and stone in the songs they sang of the Battle, were clearly only drawing closer as the months passed, and Agna could only think it was a good omen for Erebor.

. .

“You wore them all day...” Dwalin touched Nori's messy hair, his braids still in it. Nori made it look good, of course, nothing in his hair could look bad, but...

He'd expected Nori to take his crooked braids out before he had to do any real work, before he went to the palace... only to see him still wearing them unashamedly at the end of the day.

You gave them to me.” Nori said, as though it had never occurred to him to take them out, and it felt like something cracked in the center of Dwalin's chest.

There was nothing for it but to pick Nori up, and kiss him.

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Chapter Text

.

Ori arrived a little out of breath. It was a long run from the palace kitchens, up several long flights of stairs, to the Raven balcony.

“Hraf!” he grinned, and his favorite Raven flapped her wings, cawing happily in greeting. He put his bowls down in front of her, a few fatty beef trimmings and a bigger serving of juicy fresh fruit, chopped up into conveniently sized pieces for her.

“Let's get this off of you, hm pretty?” he asked, and she obligingly leaned down to give him better access to the buckles of her harness as she bolted down her beef scraps and settled in to enjoy the fruit at a more leisurely pace. He took the harness off, tucking the letters in it into his pocket, and handed it off to one of the young Ravenhelpers with a quick word of thanks.

He gently preened where her harness had sat, smoothing out her feathers with two fingers, and she ruffled her feathers in pleasure.

“How was the flight?” He asked.

“Not bad.” she rasped, tossing a slice of apple and snapping it out of the air, “No storms. Good wind off Misties. Carried almost home.”

“Good!” Ori said, picking up the last piece of melon that Hraf was having a hard time getting out of the bowl. She plucked it gently from his fingers with the thick beak that might be able to take his fingers right off if she had a mind. He scratched gently behind her ear, and she krrr'd happily, eyes closing.

“How were Bilbo and Bofur?” He asked, and she gave the harsh coughs of Raven laughter.

“Nesting.” she said. “Stay there this winter. Steal eggs soon.”

“Nesting? Eggs?” Ori didn't quite follow. While she'd taken beautifully to westron, Hraf was still a Raven, and they didn't always understand each other right away.

She cocked her head to one side, “Both male, yes? Make nest. Steal eggs. Fledgelings.”

“oh... Oh!” Ori grinned, “They finally figured that out? Good for them. But Dwarves don't, ah, steal eggs to make a family.”

Hraf readjusted her wings in the Raven equivalent of a shrug, “Nest. Preen. Feed... Fledgelings next. Egg-thieves always best nests.”

“I'm sure you know more about that than I do, pretty.” Ori assured her, and she laughed at him, tapping gently at his hand with her beak to remind him to keep preening her, and he complied, smoothing her glossy feathers.

“Roac? Hraf asked.

“She's conspiring with Lady Dis again today.” Ori said, smiling. It had become a common sight for the Raven matriarch to perch beside the King on the arm of the throne, their heads tipped together as they talked. Each was a force to be reckoned with alone, but together...

Hraf made an approving sound, and Ori finally finished smoothing out the last of her ruffled feathers.

“I'd best let you go.” He said, “I hear Gauk was missing you...” Hraf's feathers ruffled with pleasure, but she smoothed them quickly down, looking away and flicking her tail dismissively.

“Nest not shiny enough. Ori better.” she said, eying the amethyst pendant on a chain around his neck, leaning toward it while pretending to look elsewhere.

“None of that, you heartbreaker.” Ori chided, tucking it away into his tunic. Hraf did her very best 'innocent Raven' impression, pecking at her empty fruit bowl, but she hacked out a laugh when he poked her, spreading her wings out to their full impressive span.

“Launch?” she asked, lifting a foot.

“Only for you.” he said, holding his arm out, and the huge Raven perched on it, careful with her sharp claws. She was surprisingly light for her size, but still heavy.

“Kiss for luck!” he requested. She tapped her beak to his lips with a short bark of laughter, and he flung her skyward with all his strength. He watched her wing her graceful way toward Ravenhill before gathering up the bowls and turning back into the mountain.

Fili was leaning against the entrance, a small smile on his face as he watched Ori.

“You know they eat carrion?” He asked, falling into step beside Ori.

“You're just jealous of our forbidden love.” Ori said lightly, and Fili laughed, putting a hand on his shoulder to help guide himself down the stairs. Going up stairs was easier for him than judging the steps going down, with only one good eye.

Ori didn't mind helping.

“Who did they send letters for?” Fili asked. Ori drew the letters out of his pocket.

“one for Bifur and Bombur from Bilbo and Bofur... one for King Dis from The Emissary to the Hobbits... and one for 'the entire Company, all at the same time, no cheating' from Bilbo and Bofur.” Ori read off.

“Read me the one to King Dis?” Fili asked.

You are not King Dis, and neither am I.” Ori reminded him with a raised eyebrow, and Fili grinned at him.

“I know... but you know my mother is going to assign me to the trade agreements with the Shire, which means you're going to read it to me anyway. Why wait?” he wheedled, and Ori sighed, opening the letter, glad that at least it didn't have a seal to break to advertise what he was doing.

 

My Lady Dis,

Bilbo is kind enough to write this letter for me. The Shire is beautiful as always. I had a hard time making friends at first, but I helped the Proudfoots (Bofur wants me to write Proudfeet but I won't because that is the incorrect pluralization of the family name. -b) dig a new pantry in their smial and that seemed to help, but not as much as going down and having a drink at (No. I won't write about the debacle at the Green Dragon. It took me weeks to apologize to everyone. No. -b)

I have gotten farmer Maggot to agree to send a shipment of Old Toby pipe-weed to the Mountain to see if anyone likes it. (Bofur wants me to write disparaging things about Old Toby here but I won't because it's the best and he knows it. -b) BILBO IS MEAN. (Sorry. Bofur got a hold of the parchment. -b)

 

Ori leaned helplessly against the wall, gasping for air, unable to continue reading through his laughter.

“Did they really, you're not teasing me?” Fili asked, trying to see the letter in Ori's hand. Ori handed it to him, and the Prince held it to the light, making his good eye focus on the letter with a disbelieving laugh.

“It just gets worse!” he laughed, “It's all crossed out and written over each other by the end.”

“I can't...” Ori gasped, “I don't think they meant to send that one.”

Fili blinked quickly, rubbing at his temple as he handed the letter back to Ori with a laugh, “I'm glad they did. Read me the rest?”

Ori took a few deep breaths, wiping at his eyes as he tried to control his laughter, smiling at his prince before he tackled the rest of the letter.

.

 

. Coda .

 

Lady Dis.

I am so sorry. Please find attached the official letter. I don't know how the first draft was sent with Hraf.

Please accept my sincerest apologies. I have never been so embarrassed in all my life.

Humbly yours,

- Bilbo Baggins

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Chapter Text

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“It's not right and he won't stop, I can't make him stop, I'm sorry sir, it's not right he's just a kid.”

Dwalin dropped the reports he'd been reading and paid full attention to the young guard who was babbling at him, a younger Darrowdam, Iron Hills trained, trembling lips and eyes close to tears.

“You have to stop him, he's hurting him and it's not right.” she begged, and Dwalin felt the sharp burn of rage, his hands clenching in his knuckledusters, standing so fast his chair fell behind him.

This did not happen. Not in Erebor. Not in his guard.

“Show me.” he growled, and she nodded, wide-eyed, marching quickly through Erebor's jail with Dwalin right behind her, signaling other guards he saw to follow.

He was one of the few they'd rehired from New Belegost's guard, one of the ones who'd seemed to take well to the retraining – though obviously he had not. He'd found an out-of-the-way corner, far from other prisoners and guards, and rigged up a way to chain the kid's hands above his head, since Erebor's jail did not have a setup for torture.

The kid was yelling and cursing and fighting back still, and had very few visible injuries – the guard had not had long with him, then. The damn guard was so engrossed with what he was doing he didn't even notice Dwalin and half a dozen fellow guards enter the cell behind him.

Dwalin grabbed him, spun him around, and lifted him off the ground with a single hand twisted in the front of his uniform.

“Not. In. Erebor.” Dwalin snarled, the hot pounding of his rage crowing in triumph at the desperately terrified look on the guard's face.

He dropped the guard and punched him, once, sending him spinning dazed to the floor at the feet of the other guards... and Dwalin bit back hard on the rage, on the part of him that wanted to pick him up and punch him again and again until he didn't move anymore.

He took a deep breath.

Dwalin was in charge here, and there were things that had to happen, which meant he was the one who needed to be assigning tasks now. He had to be in control of himself.

“Fire him.” he delegated, nodding to one of the guards,

“Arrest him for prisoner abuse.” The next guard.

“Find out how this happened and make sure it can never happen again.” the next two in line.

“Bring me the medical kit.” the second to the last.

“Key.” He ordered the final guard, the one who'd alerted him to the problem in the first place. She handed it to him quickly, and he knelt in front of the kid, unlocking the manacle and rubbing his his skinny wrist – the skin hadn't broken yet, so at least he wouldn't bear those scars.

“I'm so sorry.” He said quietly, meeting big frightened brown eyes, “This should never have happened.”

The kid sniffled, and then threw himself forward, burrowing his face against Dwalin's neck as he sobbed, wrapping his free arm around his neck to hold almost too tight.

Dwalin had immediately tensed for attack, but there wasn't one. There wasn't. There was just a terrified little kid who for some reason saw him as safety instead of danger.

How did that even happen?

It was so much like what had happened with Nori, but this time they wouldn't... this time they would do things right.

“You're alright.” he soothed gently, rubbing the kid's back, and unlocked the second manacle, checking that wrist to see that it wasn't too badly hurt either.

The kid wrapped that arm around Dwalin's neck too, soaking the collar of Dwalin's tunic with tears and probably snot too, but it would wash out. Dwalin picked him gently up and sat on the cell's narrow cot, settling the kid on his lap, rubbing his back as he choked on his sobs... the way he was crying, Dwalin would bet the kid was even younger than he looked.

The guard who'd brought him was watching with shock-dazed eyes. People still didn't expect Dwalin to be gentle – sometimes Dwalin still didn't believe he could be – but this was familiar, was so much like how he'd been with Nori all those years when he was just a nameless thief who only broke for Dwalin. He knew how to do this.

“You're alright now.” He soothed again, and the kid nodded, leaning back and wiping his eyes and nose on the back of his sleeve.

“What were you arrested for?” Dwalin asked, and the kid started to talk.

When the medical kit arrived Dwalin tended the kid's injuries as gently as he could, bandaging him up, and the kid leaned against him, and smiled, and was happy to answer any questions about himself, and his family, and what he stole, and why.

Dwalin did his best to ignore that this quiet corner of the jail had suddenly become the only route his guards could take to get from place to place, all covertly peeking in at him and the kid as they walked past.

It was only to be expected.

.

“Please, please, I'll pay anything.” the Darrowdam was begging the uncomfortably protesting guard at the front of the jail, “He's my mithril, my baby, he's all I have!” Her dress was a little threadbare at the shoulders, dark circles under her eyes and her cheeks too thin, her bones too prominent – Dwalin could have told she was one of those fresh from New Belegost and having a hard time finding her feet in the new landscape of Erebor, even if his questioning of her son hadn't revealed that.

In New Belegost there wouldn't have been anything they could do for her, but Erebor was not New Belegost.

“Ama!” the kid called out, and she blanched to see her baby holding hands with Dwalin, with the killer.

Dwalin let him go with a pat to the back and he ran to his mother, was swept up into her arms and held tight. Dwalin gestured to the guards and Iron Hills trained lawyers he'd had working on this case, and asked the kid's mother to join them in a private room.

Dwalin sat back and listened while his lawyers carefully explained her legal options. She could fight the charges against her son, have the case seen by a judge, or they could accept the penalty.

Considering the kid's youth, and that it was his first offense, he would be placed on probation. A copy of his penalty was provided to her, and read aloud by one of the lawyers.

He would be enrolled in the school nearest their home, and meet with an Iron Hills trained rehabilitation guard twice a month. After six months, if he was working hard at school and had not gotten in any more trouble, he would meet with the guard only once a month, and at the end of a year his probation would end.

School would mean he got at least one big meal every day that his mother did not have to worry about, and would hopefully redirect his energy into less destructive paths and help him make better friends.

The rehabilitation guard – rehabilitation guards had quickly become Dwalin's favorite thing about his work. They could bust heads with the best of them, if necessary, but they were the friendliest Dwarves Dwalin had ever met, taking a personal interest in their charges and their families, especially the ones who worked with kids.

The guard assigned to the kid was leaning against the table, already trying to make friends with the kid's mother – who was accepting the probation – and Dwalin almost smiled. If she hadn't helped the kid's mother find a good job within a month he would be deeply surprised.

There was enough work for everyone in Erebor.

“Oh, a seamstress?” the rehabilitation guard said, biting her bottom lip, eyes scanning upward in thought, then quickly taking out a pocket notebook and flipping through it, stopping with a smile.

“Aha! There's a tailor on Marlstone way – that's just a little east of the Chert district, so not too far away – who's been having the hardest time finding someone who can do basic beadwork?”

“I... can...” the kid's mother said, a little dazedly, and the guard smiled hugely, jotting a note on a clean page of her notebook and tearing it off, handing it to her.

“I know it's not the best, but it's always easiest to find something better if you've already got work, isn't it? Just give him this note, he should be able to take you as soon as you can start!”

...that might be a new record speed for a rehabilitation guard meeting someone to finding a new job for them, certainly the fastest Dwalin had ever seen.

“Why?” the kid's mother stopped at the door, clinging to the note and the paper of her son's penalty with one hand, holding tight to him with the other. “Why are you doing all this? I'm not important... I'm just...”

Dwalin stood, and her eyes widened with fear again, she'd been able to ignore that he was present as long as he sat and was quiet.

“Because it's different in Erebor.” He said, “We try to be what we should have been, what we failed to be in New Belegost. The guard are supposed to help.”

It wasn't perfect, it probably never would be, but Dwalin was trying, and he tried to hire guards who were also trying to be the best guards and the best Dwarves they could be. Every Dwarf they helped, everyone they gave a better option to, was a victory, was proof that they could be better.

The kid slipped out of his mother's surprise-slackened grip and ran over to Dwalin, arms up for a hug. Dwalin hunkered down and gave the kid a brief squeeze, hearing his mother's frightened gasp.

He couldn't really blame her.

He pushed the kid back, put his oversized hands on those scrawny shoulders that would probably fill out nice and sturdy once he was getting enough food.

“Be good.” He instructed, “Work hard at school, and take good care of your Amad.”

“Yes sir.” the kid agreed, big brown eyes solemn, and Dwalin sent him back to his mother, watched as they left the jail to make their way home.

“Well done.” Dwalin said, nodding to his lawyers and guards, and made his way back to his office and the endless reports.

They had done things right, the way they hadn't with Nori, the way they should have.

How much better might Nori's life have been if he'd been sent back to his Amad the first time he was arrested instead of being tortured for doing what his sire had required of him?

It was too late for that now, no use wasting time wondering.

He could only keep moving forward, and make sure there was never another Dwarf who woke screaming in the night because of what the guard had done to him.

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Chapter Text

.

“I've got some more for you, if you can take them.”

Fonn, foreman of Erebor's southeastern gem mines, looked over at the King's Eye, his big hair all up in his frankly ridiculous peaks, watching her closely as he waited for her response.

Nori accosted all the foremen on occasion, showing up places he wasn't supposed to be and offering new workers.

It went unsaid that these workers were criminals. They were suspicious Dwarves, trusting no one with even their names. They were sharp-tongued and foul-mouthed and tended to speak to each other in codes that those outside their circles could not follow, laughing at jokes only they understood. They carried sharp blades hidden in their quick hands and Fonn couldn't shake the feeling around them that she was being evaluated – everything she carried being noticed and classified by how much it could be sold for.

They made poor miners, most of them. They didn't tend to have the temperament to work a seam of gems, unable to feel the satisfaction of gradually coaxing the stones from the earth.

They also made the best damn prospectors she'd ever met, once they'd learned how to feel for gem deposits, utterly fearless on even unstable rock as they crawled through the mines, finding what others might have missed.

...and after a few months they usually relaxed a little and stopped being so suspicious, stopped eying everyone for what they could steal from them, shared their names and started telling jokes that everyone could understand.

Nori brought good workers, if you could handle the first few rough months. It had been a few months since the last batch he'd brought her had settled... and he probably knew that, and that's why he was coming back to her again.

Fonn nodded briefly, suggesting meeting at the entrance to her mines an hour before they opened the following day, and Nori agreed to it and saw himself off – so very much like the workers he brought, never wanting to share more than the absolute minimum necessary.

.

Nori and his new workers had preceded Fonn to the meeting place, a spot at the head of her mines where a few deposits had been intentionally left buried in the rock. Nori was playing a quick-moving game of what looked like Fox and Geese with one of them with pebbles and chalk lines on the floor while the other two were playing one of those gut-twisting clapping games they played with gleaming-sharp razors flashing between their hands almost too fast to see. It seemed impossible for them not to lose fingers to it, but she'd never seen a single Dwarf who played it injured by it.

“-keeps-you-safe-and-warm-where-no-one-ever-falls.” Fonn only caught the last few words of the clapping Dwarves' chant before they noticed her and stopped, flicking their razors away and watching her sharply. She would guess they were brothers – if not twins – they looked exactly like each other. Nori's game concluded and he swept his pebbles up while the third new worker, a Dwarf with big curly hair, completely erased the board.

It was pointless to try to do introductions or get to know them before they got to work, Fonn had learned that the hard way.

“I'm Fonn, the foreman of this mine.” she said simply, “There's a gemstone deposit over here, come feel. We're leaving them here because it's a support beam, and there's higher quality deposits elsewhere. These are the kinds of things I need you to learn to feel.”

She stood back and watched them. The Dwarves Nori brought sometimes had unusual methods to their stone-sense, being mainly self-taught instead of trained the way most miners were. The brothers seemed to have a fairly standard kicking method, working side by side, taking turns kicking the wall and sharing soft words with each other.

The third stomped hir boots heavily, then slumped against the wall, eyes closed in concentration.

Fonn sat on a stone near Nori and waited. They would get it or they wouldn't, but Nori tended to choose well. Very few of the Dwarves he brought failed.

They were crawling up the wall now, all three of them. The brothers were still kicking as they went, seeming to feel off each other's kicks as well as their own, which was unusual, while the third was tapping with hir fingers, arms spread as wide as ze could as though triangulating. Fonn hadn't seen that before.

The curly-haired Dwarf kicked off the wall, flipping neatly in midair to land on hir feet.

“Chalk.” ze said, holding a hand out toward Nori, who tossed a lump over with a small smile. The Dwarf hunkered down and began to draw a rough map on the floor.

“They're clustered like this.” ze told Fonn, “they feel hard and sharp and... a little green? Am I feeling the right thing?”

Fonn kicked the wall and looked at the map, smiling as what she felt confirmed what she was seeing. The map was an accurate depiction of the deposit.

“Emeralds.” Fonn said, nodding. To be able to tell the color was a rare gift! “There's another deposit somewhere on that wall. Find it for me.”

The brothers peered at the map before it was erased, kicking their way along the wall until their faces lit up.

“Oh, that? That's what we're looking for?” and “I was feeling it, but I didn't realize...”

“You've got it?” Fonn asked as they jumped down off the wall, “Good, there are deposits on that wall and over...” She was pointing them in different directions, only to be faced by two Dwarves with folded arms and squared chins staring her down.

“We work together.” the nearer one said firmly.

Fonn shrugged and pointed them off together. If that's how they wanted to do things...

The third Dwarf was clambering all over the wall ze'd been assigned, confident as a spider as ze stomped and tapped hir way across the stone. Fonn would have expected hir to have found it by now, considering how quickly ze'd found the first deposit. It wasn't a hard one to find.

The brothers found their deposit, and Fonn sent them out for a third and a fourth - they seemed to be picking the skill up quickly - before the curly-haired Dwarf finally called her over.

“There's more of those hard green ones here.” ze said dismissively, gesturing to where the deposit Fonn had sent her for was, “And there's a few patches up over there, but they're... yellow-y? and small.” ze said, and Fonn kicked the wall, focusing where directed and surprised to find there were some lower quality beryl – not easy to feel, this Dwarf really was a natural at this.

“But the thing I was trying to feel is... deep down and under that way... a ribbon?” ze sketched out the curving shape of a deposit briefly on the ground with Nori's chalk lump, “And it's... it feels sharp and really red.”

A ribbon of red?

Blood and shale, if it was...

Fonn kicked and tried to feel the direction she'd seen indicated, but it was beyond her range – she'd always been better at the safety management, keeping her mines stable and her miners safe, than she'd been at prospecting. That's why she was the foreman.

“I can't feel that far.” Fonn said, quietly, “But it could be red beryl.”

“Is that any good?” ze asked, dark eyes guileless.

Is that any good?

“Red beryl is very rare.” Fonn explained, “and very beautiful. A deposit of any size would be worth a lot of money.”

She'd have to get a few of her best prospectors in to confirm it, but if it was... even her own meager cut of the take would be a very healthy bonus to her budget.

“Oh...” the curly-haired Dwarf said quietly.

And now Fonn was going to have to explain how to annotate a map so the miners could get at the gems, and explain who got a cut of the take and why, and so many other things she'd not planned on having to explain today at all.

...but red beryl, in one of Fonn's mines...

Nori had taken his lump of chalk back, breaking it in half and tossing a piece to the curly-haired Dwarf.

“Take good care of them.” Nori called back to Fonn, flashing a quick grin and ambling out of the mine just ahead of the first of the miners coming in to work for the day.

At least Fonn wouldn't have to do this all by herself, she had miners and prospectors she could trust to show the newbies the ropes – but she couldn't really be upset.

Nori brought good workers. Criminals they might have been, but they were some of the best damn prospectors Fonn had ever worked with – and with curly-hair's natural talent and luck – who finds red beryl on their first day? – he might just have handed her a legend in the making.

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Chapter Text

.

“What's this?” Dwalin asked, picking up the piece of jewelry that had fallen out of Nori's jacket when he moved it – it was a gorgeous piece, not anything he'd ever seen before, a golden pendant set with hundreds of tiny sparkling sapphires and rubies.

Nori paused, a tension Dwalin hadn't even known was there melting out of him, leaving him just looking tired.

He sat down at the table.

“I stole it from the treasury.” Nori said quietly, a calm over his voice.

Dwalin looked down at the pendant.

Why would Nori steal from the treasure chamber? They had all the money they could ever want. Every month they got the money they needed, and if they needed more for a large expense they only had to ask. If either of them wanted jewelry they only had to ask and it would be deducted from their share by the treasury workers. They didn't need anything, why would Nori steal, take without permission what would be given to him if he asked?

It made no sense.

...and Nori was talking, looking down at his hands on the table instead of at Dwalin.

“I'll take it back. I always take them back, but I can't...” He flexed his hands, those strong clever fingers Dwalin loved so much, “I'm a thief and I can't stop.” His voice ached on the words, despite the calmness of his tone.

Dwalin sat in another chair at the table, the pendant in his hands, remembering Nori's agonized reaction the the treasure chamber when they'd first gotten into it – talking of breaking down each piece he'd picked up, how to get the best prices for each component, and not even sure who he was if he couldn't steal.

Dwalin had thought they'd settled that.

Dwalin looked at the intricate pendant – so many pieces to it – there was a lot of it to break down, so many different pieces that could be sold.

But Nori didn't need that. They had everything they needed, and if they needed more no one would even blink an eye if they asked for their own weight in gold and jewels, why did Nori have to take...

The silence had stretched out between them while Dwalin thought, tried to understand.

“I won't fight it.” Nori said, almost too quiet to hear, still not looking at him. “I'll release you if you want to be released. I'll go if you want me to go. The Iron Hills, or further to the Orocarni... you'll never have to see me again.” His voice and his posture were calm, so horribly calm like he'd been practicing this, these words that sent a stab of pain right through Dwalin's heart.

He couldn't lose Nori, not for this, not even if he'd emptied out the royal treasury... and Dwalin was a bad guard to even think that but he couldn't... not Nori.

“No.” Dwalin grabbed Nori's wrist tight, felt the twitch pass through his husband, the flicker of terror in his eyes, the brief edges of that sneer he wore when he was cursing, before that resigned calm settled back on him, his shoulders slumping.

No, why? Nori was never afraid of him, and Dwalin had just told him he didn't want him to leave, why?...

oh...

Nori knew he could be arrested for what he'd taken, what the Captain of the city guard had just found on him... the thin manacle scars on Nori's wrist burnt against Dwalin's squeezing fingers, his hand jumped back as if from hot coals.

Hammers, no... he couldn't even think about arresting Nori. Not Nori, who couldn't even visit him at his work – had panicked, scaling the nearest building and running away before they reached the doors the one time Dwalin had wanted to give him a tour of Erebor's jail.

It made Dwalin sick when they had to arrest Dwarves who remembered how it was in Belegost prison, when he heard them screaming and saw the nightmares in their eyes. He didn't know how it had seemed so normal to him, all those years, until he got to know Nori and he saw...

He couldn't do that to Nori, not even if it made him a bad guard.

He was allowed one weakness, wasn't he?

...and Nori would have taken it back. He'd said so and Dwalin believed him because Nori didn't lie to him. He might not always tell him all of the truth but he never lied.

Dwalin placed the pendant in Nori's hands, wrapped his own oversized hands around his husband's, gently stroked those beautiful clever thief's fingers.

“I'm not going to arrest you.” He soothed quietly, “And I'm not going to send you away, but I need to understand. Tell me why?”

The surprised disbelief in Nori's beautiful hazel eyes as he finally looked at Dwalin hurt. Had he really believed that Dwalin was capable of arresting him? Of divorcing him? Of sending him away from the mountain he'd fought to reclaim and still worked so hard to make a good home for all their people?

Dwalin rubbed his thumbs along the backs of Nori's hands. “Tell me why?”

Nori looked back down at their hands, at the jeweled pendant, stroked his fingers across it.

“It's beautiful, and no one would ever miss it.” Nori said, “That's part of it but it's not... that's not why.”

He put the pendant on the table, the fingers of his left hand intertwining with Dwalin's, holding tight, while he poked at the jewels.

“I see years.” Nori said, tapping the gems one by one, “Food. Clothes. Knives. Information...” his eyes flicked up to Dwalin's briefly, “Bribes paid... fail-safes so I can't be locked away...”

“I know it's different here.” Nori said, cutting Dwalin off before he could start, “I know, but I can't stop. I always take them back and I try but...”

He stopped. Took a breath. Caressed the pendant.

“Years.” he said, a little wistfully, and Dwalin squeezed his hand.

“You see safety.” Dwalin said, “Having it makes you feel safe.” and this he could understand. The way he'd lived, treasures like even the smallest things in the treasure chamber were life. It had been naive for Dwalin to think it would be so easy for Nori to change, that a single conversation would suffice.

Nori was a thief.

He was a thief raised to be a thief, but he was so much more than just that.

Nori could have asked for almost anything out of the treasure chamber, he didn't have to have stolen anything, but Nori didn't ask for things. He was so much better than he'd been, but asking for things he had no legitimate use for...

Of course it was beyond him.

And Dwalin again felt that tired rage at Thjofr, for teaching Nori so thoroughly that asking even for things he needed was shameful.

Dwalin reached up and cupped the side of Nori's face, brushed his fingers through the edges of soft silk hair while Nori leaned into his touch, picked up the pendant with his other hand.

“I'll take it back tomorrow.” he said softly, and Nori leaned over the table to kiss him, aching relief in his eyes.

.

“Here.” Dwalin said, gesturing Nori over with a turn of his head, placing a big handful of jewelry on the table, spreading it out a little so Nori could see all of it. It was a magpie's mix, dove-gray diamond drops in gold, bright-gleaming emeralds, smokey sapphires, turquoise and pink corral in silver – pendants, bracelets, rings, hair pins, ear-cuffs – the only things they had in common were that they were beautiful and had small gems and settings Dwalin imagined could be easily pried apart, sold piece by piece.

The treasury workers had looked at him a little strangely, but he'd ignored that as he went through the things that had been classified already and were slightly damaged, or missing pieces, were from unknown makers – things they would normally sell to the smith's and jewelers guilds for materials – looking for things that Nori might like.

“These are for you.” Dwalin explained, “The treasury workers deducted them from my total. Take them, make caches, carry them with you, set up bribes... whatever you need to feel safe.”

Nori's hand hovered over the jewelry uncertainly, glancing up at Dwalin as though he half-expected it to be some sort of trap.

Dwalin nodded to him, encouraging, and Nori pounced on him, holding tight – kisses harder and sharper than usual but Dwalin was more than happy to reciprocate until Nori was whimpering hungrily against him.

“Why are you so good to me?” Nori panted against his neck, perfect lean body pressed deliciously tight against him.

“I love you, and you're good to me.” Dwalin answered, nuzzling down to kiss Nori slow and deep, backing him against the sturdy table – by the time he lifted Nori up onto it, the jewelry had disappeared, unseen.

It might not be enough to keep Nori from needing to steal, not alone, but it was a start. He'd tried, and he would keep trying as long as it took – to the end of their lives if necessary.

Dwalin had married a thief, a thief but so much more, and he could live with that.

.

Chapter Text

.

The King's Eye was a busy Dwarf. He worked on security for the palace and the royal family. He wandered through low-town and high gathering news, seeing and hearing and saying nothing, the whole of Erebor his claim though he did nothing with it, didn't mind smaller claims run inside it. He took the time to be sure all those he found honest work were happy where he'd placed them. And he consulted with the restoration crews bringing down the bad rock, his sensitivity reading the stone a boon to them.

Nori was a busy Dwarf, an important Dwarf, but Ljomi did not hesitate to run to him.

If anyone could, it would be him.

“Stonedancer.” She gasped out, saw the tension leap in his shoulders as he knew what she needed of him by the name she chose.

No one could match him in bad rock.

“Slashpurse.” he greeted, the sharpness of his hazel eyes cutting through her. They'd worked together a time or two, but never been close – he'd never let anyone close.

“...L...Ljomi.” She corrected, still so strange to use her real name, and he nodded once to show he understood that she was honest now... or mostly honest. Nori had helped her cousin find work with the restoration crews, and her cousin had helped her, but that part wasn't important.

“There's a child stuck in the bad rock over Dolostone and we can't get her out.”

With a single sharp nod he took off, both of them running fast as they could, anything the King's Eye would have been doing instead dismissed without a thought.

So much was different in Erebor, but it was good to know that this much at least had not changed.

Nori was a cautious, wary Dwarf, but he'd always helped any children he could, even if he didn't like their parents – for as long as Ljomi could remember.

He'd helped her, when she'd been the crying child stuck and unable to feel a safe way out, and he probably didn't even remember.

It was good that this hadn't changed, because this time was bad. No one could see any safe way to get the child out, and if anyone could do it, it would be stonedancer.

He was the stone's favorite, after all.

. .

Nori took it all in in an instant.

The bad rock over Dolostone was one of the worst spots of bad rock still left – there wouldn't be any left in a few years. The restoration crew were everywhere, those who were New Belegost bad rock raised were swarming the rocks to either side of the bad rock, kicking and tapping and whistling quietly back and forth – he could tell from the tones they were having no luck. The more classically trained were gathered in groups, arguing desperately, bristling and waving their arms at each other as they refused to give up even though they weren't feeling any viable options.

“Ushaaaaar!” the child's thin wail drifted over everything, and there was the girl's parent – an Iron Hills trained restoration worker he recognized in passing – it looked like they'd given up fighting against the Dwarves comforting and holding them back, tears rolling down their cheeks.

“Stay still!” they called, “Stay still jewel-of-my-heart! We'll get you!” trying to keep the desperation out of their voice and failing.

And now Nori was close enough to see the child, perching on the tumbled rocks and staying obediently still despite the shaking of her shoulders in sobs – pretty glass beads in the neat crest of braids falling over one side of her head.

Nori tapped his fist against the rock and slapped his palm over the spot.

Nori saw paths and possibilities, it's what he did, but he saw what he'd known he was going to see. There were no good paths. If all these Dwarves couldn't find a safe path, why should he be able to? He was no better than they were.

Maybe when he was younger, lighter... he was still quick and light on his feet, but not enough to make any way through this safe.

There was a stillness gathering around him, as he was noticed, as the restoration crew began watching him, expecting him to do something, young Ljomi gazing at him with worshipfully trusting eyes.

There was no real way to rig a rope across – it would have to be the stone.

There were no safe paths, so that left only unsafe ones.

Nori tapped his fist twice and put his hand back over the stone, feeling as carefully as possible, weighing possibilities.

It might be possible to run across, dance on the edge of the almost-inevitable rockslide, grab the girl on the way and run out the other side... but a stranger grabbing her, carrying her away from her Ushar – she would almost certainly struggle in panic, and even an instant's loss of balance would be fatal to them both.

That wasn't ideal.

tap tap palm

If he was very very careful, he could get near her, and guide her back to this side – if she could follow instructions exactly.

Even the slightest mistake would, again, be fatal to them both.

tap tap palm

Nori had gone through worse, of course, but not with a child. And that was before, before he had his work as the King's Eye, before he had Ori and Dori, before he had Dwalin... before he had so much he wanted to live for.

He was afraid of dieing now.

But the restoration crews didn't have any options, and the girl was shaking and crying, terrified out in the unstable rock, and her parent was sobbing with their heart bare in their eyes and...

tap palm

Nori saw paths and possibilities. It's what he did. The stone didn't have to be able to hold him, it just had to hold enough of him for just long enough. He felt what the stone could handle, and he knew what his body was capable of, and in the middle he saw his path, tenuous as it was.

He did not allow room for anything else.

“I can't promise you anything.” He said to the girl's parent, saw them cringe, pushed that away, turned to Ljomi.

“Tell Dwalin...” he started... but he couldn't, shook his head.

“...he knows.” he murmured, to himself, really. Dwalin knew that Nori loved him, he didn't need to send Ljomi as a messenger of his death... and he pushed this away too.

There was silence now, and he didn't know if it was outside him or just inside, just that he'd pushed everything out.

tap tap tap palm

There was just him now, just Nori and the stone, and he threw himself into it, as quick and light as only those raised in the bad rock could be.

. .

Stonedancer lived up to his name, as he always did, dancing lightly, tiny quick steps out across rock that would never have held anyone who wasn't the stone's favorite. He perched near the girl, balanced on the tips of his toes as he hunkered down, arms around his knees, making himself small.

“How did you get out here?” he asked softly, audible in the breathless silence as they all watched him, and the girl explained how she was trying to show her Ushar she was big enough to help at their work, but the rock had shifted and she couldn't...

Nori was explaining, very calmly and quietly, about balance points and possibilities – just the way he had to Ljomi so long ago – she could still remember the burning weight of his eyes on her as he made sure she understood what they were going to do, saw the girl calming just the way Ljomi had in the face of his businesslike attitude. He'd made her believe it could be done, and then they'd done it.

“A rock doesn't have to be stable to be stable enough for someone quick and light, but it's always dangerous to use unstable rock.” he was saying, just the way he'd told her – the lesson had stuck, had saved her life so many times, but she'd never been as good as he was... Nori was teaching the girl a few hand signals, follow and stop, had her tapping her boots to feel where they would be going, making sure she was ready.

“You have to be fast.” He was saying now, “And you have to step exactly where I step. Can you do that?” Ljomi could remember the hypnotizing weight of his green and gold eyes that made anything seem possible – the girl was nodding, tear-streaked face set with determination, her parent squeezing their hands together so hard as they watched Ljomi was afraid their fingers would break.

Nori stood, turning back the way he'd come, tapping at the stones with his hand and his eyes on his path and nothing else.

They came back the way Nori had gone, quick dancing across stone that shouldn't have been able to hold them, pausing and restarting here and there, the girl's feet following just behind Nori's, stepping only just where he stepped – the stone groaning and popping under them, speaking beneath their boots but never giving out – and off onto stable rock.

The stone's favorite doing what no one else could have done.

. .

The silence shattered into screaming cheers, the girl and her parent tumbling together into a heap, sobbing in relief as they were mobbed by the rest of their restoration crew.

Nori stumbled toward the nearest stable wall and pressed himself against it as tight as he could, soaking in the feel of unbroken rock – his breaths coming out huge and gulping.

He never never wanted to have to do that again, to feel the rock shifting and breaking under their boots and not knowing if they would make it.

It was one thing when it was only himself, when no one else was going to fall with him with their parent watching, when he didn't have anyone waiting at home for him.

He never wanted to do that again.

...and there went the rocks, crashing down where Nori and the girl had loosened them, and it was only just a bare step above luck that it hadn't happened when they were still out in it.

He had to go.

There were things the King's Eye had to do... or maybe he would go back home and hide in bed until Dwalin came home, that sounded good... but he had to go.

He didn't want to be here, didn't want anyone thanking him for anything, or pledging their service to him, or trying to hug him.

He took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the wall, glancing around to be sure the restoration crew were still distracted by the rockslide before he slipped away – only to be stopped short by young Ljomi's worshiping eyes gazing at him, flicking to the side where...

...three small stones, stacked one atop the other without thinking about it...

He squared himself and stared her down. He would not even hear a word against...

She brought her hands close to her chest, quickly signing stone with the bottom hand and mother with the top.

“...beloved of the stone... you understood... you know her name...” Ljomi breathed, and others, other young Dwarves of New Belegost's bad rock were watching now... and he couldn't let them believe that – he'd endured the lies they believed about him from the songs of the Battle, but this was too much.

He shook his head, unable to meet any of their eyes, he hadn't spoken of her, had tried not to even think of her for so many decades, not since he was a child.

“I never could. I still listen.” he whispered.

He ran before they could react.

.

Chapter Text

.

The gossip started trickling through, and at first Dwalin didn't pay it too much mind – until he realized it was Nori they were talking about.

It was Nori who had walked out into crumbling rock as if it was nothing, and walked back out, calm as you please, with a child on his heels and the stone crashing down behind him.

Dwalin could picture it, so clearly, and it left him cold clear through.

One wrong step, just one, and he... he would have fallen – like the too many Dwalin had seen fall in New Belegost – and Dwalin would be alone.

Nori knew how much Dwalin hated when he put himself in danger, hated it when he went out into the bad rock. Dwalin hadn't asked – never would ask – Nori to stay out of the bad rock, to stop helping the restoration crews, but he had asked him to be careful. Nori had agreed to be careful, to not take unnecessary risks but now...

Dwalin's guards were discussing how some member of one of the restoration crews was impressed enough with his stone sense to be considering offering to bear a child for him – though the general consensus among the guard was that Nori probably didn't want children, seeing how busy he always was.

Dwalin knew that he didn't want children, but how had this become a discussion that was happening at work?

The prisoners, the regulars who were in and out for little things all the time and were on good terms with the guard, were chatting through the bars about how Nori had always been a little mad – and how useful his willingness to go into suicidal rock could be. The general consensus there was that it was a damn shame he'd gone honest.

How had that become something to discuss right under Dwalin's nose?

Why did Nori have to risk himself this way? Why couldn't he see that he wasn't there to be thrown to the Wargs or sacrificed to the bad rock? That he never had been? That he was important?

He'd promised not to take unnecessary risks, why would he do this to Dwalin?

If Nori fell, Dwalin would... he would...

Nori just could not fall.

Dwalin slammed down the report he'd been reading over and over without seeing, rubbing his hands over his scalp to try and settle himself.

“Go home.”

Dwalin looked up from his desk to see Vild, one of his head guards, staring him down, arms crossed.

“I have...” he started, pointing at the endless reports, and she snorted.

“You're useless here today, it'll wait. Nori didn't stick around after he saved that girl, and he didn't go in to the palace to work, so you'll probably find him at home.” Vild said, adding “Go!” when he would have argued again.

Dwalin left.

He almost hoped Nori wasn't at home, so he would have time to calm down, to organize his thoughts so he could explain to Nori why thoughtlessly risking himself in the bad rock was not ok. Dwalin just wanted him to be careful, that was all. Why did Nori have to show off?

There were entire crews of Dwarves who'd job it was to deal with the bad rock, and Dwalin knew some of them were from the bad rock just like Nori. It didn't have to have been Nori.

So why had it been Nori?

Dwalin stomped his way into the house, his and Nori's quiet little house, and Nori was home, but he wasn't... he didn't seem like someone who was high off danger.

Nori was curled up tiny in the kitchen chair, his knees up to his chest, clutching a cup of what was, from the smell, unmistakably what he called 'tea' and anyone with tastebuds called 'boiled sludge'. He only ever made it when he was upset about something, vulnerable.

“Dwalin...” Nori's voice was so small...

Forges, Nori.” Dwalin reached for his husband, who discarded his cup of tea and threw himself on him, holding tight, burrowing under his furs with a whimper, fingers digging into Dwalin's back. At least this much had changed, at least now Nori never hesitated to take the comfort he needed from Dwalin.

Dwalin wrapped himself around Nori as tight as he could without hurting him, feeling the smaller Dwarf shaking clear through.

He could have lost Nori.

The Dwarf in his arms was not someone who'd done something dangerous casually, thoughtlessly, no matter what the gossip had said.

“...can't fall. You're not allowed to fall...” Dwalin realized that was his voice begging Nori not to fall and he stopped himself, hiding his face against Nori's neck, breathing in the scent of sweat and stone and warm skin and the oil Nori used in his hair.

His Nori, who had not fallen.

“I didn't want to.” Nori said quietly, a bit muffled as he burrowed deeper into Dwalin's clothes. “I didn't want to but there wasn't a better way...”

And Dwalin had to trust that, that Nori wouldn't have done it if it weren't necessary, much as he hated that Nori had put himself in danger. He made what he hoped was a soothing hum as he rubbed Nori's back, trying to ease the shaking tension out of him.

He would get the story from him later, hear what had really happened. Right now Nori just needed to be held, and Dwalin needed to hold him. They clung tight for long moments, unwillling to have any distance between them. When Nori turned his face up, Dwalin kissed him, slow, slow and gentle, tasting the sticky-sweet bitterness of his tea on his lips.

His Nori, who was alive and here and had not fallen.

They still had each other.

.

Chapter Text

.

Fainn was honored when the King's Eye chose her to give him his first ink. Though, to be fair, it was likely Dwalin, Captain of the city guard, who had made the choice.

Fainn was proud of her reputation for inking clean lines that healed well, for replicating even complex designs quickly and accurately – for being gentle with first-timers. She tattooed all types, from huge old scarred warriors who wept the instant the needle pierced their skin to tiny Dams just past their majority who grimly bore through the pain without a sound – and the opposite. Fainn knew how to handle all types, and she was honored when the famed battle-wed couple came to her to give Nori his first ink.

“Can you do this, on my back?” Nori asked, hazel eyes sharp and bright as he unrolled a sheet of paper across her table. Fainn weighted down the edges with stones and nodded as she contemplated it. It had the look of a design that had been drawn and redrawn over and over – simplified and improved until every line was strong and clean.

It was a well-designed piece, the entirety looking like a map of Erebor from a distance, drawn with ink in a bold hand – and down at the bottom the artist had signed it. Ori, the warrior-scribe. Nori's younger brother who was always at the princes' sides.

There were meanings hidden in the bold lines – here a stylized representation of what could only be Dwalin's famous axes, across the shoulders the interlinked symbols of Dori Nori and Ori inset in the crest of their House. There was protection over the symbol of the Royal House, representing Nori's work as the King's Eye. There were other things, things Fainn did not recognize but would probably mean something to Nori.

Ah, and here... at the center of the design. When she lived in the Iron Hills Fainn had never seen these shapes and symbologies. It was only on those refugees who had barely survived in the fringes of New Belegost that she saw these.

Most Dwarves liked to talk about the symbolism of their tattoos, but none who got this inked. 'it just looks pretty' or 'I just like it' were the only answers Fainn got when she asked, 'it doesn't mean anything.' snapped far too sharply to be truth.

There were infinite variations, but there was always symbolism of danger and bad rock mixed evenly with maternal care. This design was beautifully done in the stylized shape of three stacked stones, and it included – as most did – what Fainn had come to call the listening child. They reached for each other, in almost every variation she'd seen.

They reached, but they never touched.

Her fingers had lingered too long tracing those shapes, and Nori's eyes were hard and bright when she looked up to meet them. Daring her to say anything.

It was an ambitious design for a first ink.

I can do it, but can you?” Fainn asked, “It will hurt like your entire back is on fire.”

“Of course.” Nori said, as if there was no question of it. Dwalin nodded as he put one arm around his husband's shoulders and Nori melted against him. The captain of the guard's expression was complicated, pride and pain.

“He won't have a problem with it.” Dwalin agreed, and Fainn nodded. They would know better than she did what Nori was capable of.

“Then let's see the canvas.” Fainn said, getting down to business. Nori glanced to Dwalin, his confusion obvious, as she tacked the design up where she'd be able to see it well as she worked, and began to set up her inks and the needle combs to tap it into his skin with.

“Your back.” Dwalin explained and Nori nodded in understanding. Dwalin took his shirts as Nori shrugged out of them, and Fainn gestured him to a convenient place to put them as she gestured Nori close and to turn around.

Her breath caught at the sight of his back. She'd inked her fair share of warriors, but the rough, ragged lines across his back...

“Goblins.” Dwalin said simply, his face hard, and Fainn nodded. They had already shaved Nori's back for her – Dwalin would have known to do that as an old hand at being inked – and she was glad for it. There would have been too much chance for her to catch the blade on the roughly sewn scars.

She reached out to touch the scars, to evaluate their texture for her work. She slid her palm down Nori's spine, fingertips gently exploring, and Nori's entire body tensed with a shudder.

Half a moan escaped his throat before he'd spun away from her with his eyes wild and a snarl on his face.

“Don't touch me.” he spat, clearly just an automatic reaction because the expression only lasted and instant before he snapped his mouth shut and threw a pleading look toward Dwalin. Fainn lifted her hands, disarmed gesture, as Dwalin put a soothing hand on Nori's shoulder.

The King's Eye was an intensely private Dwarf, keeping a circle of space around himself that only the Company of Thorin were ever allowed to pierce. He did not like to be touched, everyone knew that.

Or perhaps it was that he liked it too much.

It would not be the first secret Fainn would keep. That was just a part of being a tattooist, as much a part of the art as the inks and needles were. You never told the things you learned when you had someone under your needles.

“I didn't realize you were ticklish.” she said, giving him an excuse to cling to. “We don't have to do this today... but if you want to, I'll be more careful.”

There was a breathless moment of consideration when Fainn was almost sure he was going to walk out of her shop and never return, before Nori nodded. She set him straddling her work bench and sat behind him. Dwalin sat in front of him without even being asked, giving Nori an encouraging smile.

Fainn kept her touch firm and clinical as she evaluated Nori's scar tissue, keeping up a running commentary as she did so he would know what she was doing. He twitched slightly from certain touches, and Fainn avoided them.

Looking from the design to Nori's back, it was clear someone who knew tattoo work had helped with it. They had avoided placing fine details on the thickest of his scars. It would help.

She cleaned his back with stinging distilled spirits, and began.

Fainn had instructed him to stay as still as he could, and he did not flinch at the first tap of her inked needle comb. She worked quickly and neatly, building the main lines of the design to fill in. Nori was completely still and silent until she tapped her needle comb across his spine on his lower back.

The curse he snarled was... astonishingly foul and detailed. Dwalin, who had been sitting in silent support, was there immediately – his big hands cupping Nori's face and concern in his eyes. Fainn drew back, let them have a moment. Nori hadn't flinched away still, but Dwalin knew the King's Eye better than she ever would.

“You alright? Still with me?” Dwalin asked softly, and Nori's entire body shivered even though Fainn kept her workshop warm.

“I know where I am.” Nori answered, his voice roughly strained. He'd been so still and quiet, Fainn was surprised at the pain in his voice. Different Dwarves experienced things different ways, she'd thought he was one who felt it less.

“We can work on it more another time, if it's too much.” Fainn offered. It was an ambitious design for a single session.

“I just... want it done.” Nori said.

“Tell me what you need.” Dwalin said, and Fainn looked politely away from the tenderness in his expression as he gently stroked along Nori's collarbone, pretended not to hear Nori's soft-whimpered moan as he pressed into it.

“Hold me?” Nori requested, a childlike vulnerability in his tone. Dwalin only pondered their setup for a moment before he straddled the bench in front of Nori, lifting the smaller Dwarf's legs to straddle his as he pulled him forward. Nori lay against Dwalin's chest, his head cradled against the big warrior's neck, and Dwalin softly stroked his shoulders and sides.

“Ready?” Dwalin asked, nodding to Fainn to continue when Nori answered in the affirmative.

“You can swear if you need to, I know it helps.” Fainn offered with a smile as she picked up her tools again. “I promise it's nothing I haven't heard before.”

“I doubt that.” Dwalin said, and as she continued Fainn had to admit that he was right.

Nori held himself still and swore more creatively and filthily than Fainn had ever heard.

He did not repeat himself in the hours she worked, and as much pain as the King's Eye was in – it might be Dwalin who hurt the most. He gently cradled Nori, rubbed his cheek against the smaller Dwarf's, agony in his expression as he listened to Nori swear.

Dwalin asked Nori if he was still alright every time Fainn took a break to keep her hands from cramping or to switch tools.

“I'm with you.” Nori answered, and Fainn continued her work.

It was a beautiful piece, and it would be far more beautiful once it was healed and not so raw and red. With the strong lines and the intertwined symbolisms, Fainn felt she'd had the honor of illustrating a piece of Nori's soul on his skin.

“Done.” she said, drawing back from inking the last of the fine details. “Just let me wash and bandage this...”

“Dwalin.” Nori answered quietly, and Fainn looked to the captain of the guard for understanding.

“Let me.” Dwalin requested, “I'll clean him up.”

“I'll just take me a moment.” Fainn protested, setting her inking tools aside and reaching for the washing supplies.

“Dwalin!” there was an edge of fear in Nori's tone, the lean Dwarf grabbing onto Dwalin tighter, pulling away from her.

Please.” Dwalin said, and Fainn relented.

Dwalin carefully untangled himself from Nori and moved behind him, taking Fainn's space. She supervised, instructing him in the proper technique while he gently dabbed the fresh ink clean, and left him to it with the healing salve. He'd been inked enough himself he knew the right technique for that – dabbing it on with surprising gentleness in his big warrior's fingers while he stroked Nori's side soothingly with the other hand.

“I'm so sorry.” Dwalin said, almost quiet enough Fainn couldn't hear, his voice thick, “You should never have had to learn how to...”

“I know.” Nori interrupted, glancing back over his shoulder with a little smile for his husband despite being pale with pain, “How many times have you told me that?”

“Not enough. Never enough.” Dwalin answered, and caught Nori's hand where he'd been patting Dwalin's on his side. He lifted it to press his lips to the thin scars across Nori's wrist, his eyes never leaving Nori's – the tenderness between the battle-wed couple too intimate to be looked at.

Fainn took her tools away to clean them, and when she returned Nori's back was neatly bandaged and Dwalin was gently helping him back on with his shirts.

They took the paper with the original design, and Fainn reminded them again how to take care of the fresh tattoos and that she was more than willing to do any touching up it needed – though she prided herself on the quality of her work. There shouldn't be any needed if they cared for it properly through the healing.

She accepted with thanks a little extra on top of her agreed pay.

“It was an honor.” she told them, clasping Nori's hand. It truly had been – it always was, to be allowed the intimacy of inking another Dwarf's skin, and above that to see just a glimpse of the depth of the connection between Nori and Dwalin. It was one thing to hear the songs of their love, and another to see that it was true.

Nori smiled slightly, and Fainn watched them leave – the King's Eye leaning just slightly against the Captain of the city guard for comfort as they walked.

Fainn was more than honored they had chosen her for Nori's first ink.

. .

Ori cried the first time he saw Nori's back.

The Company were celebrating the restoration of Erebor's steam baths by using them in a private party. Ori was offering Fili a hand down the steps into the heated pool, just a little extra support because it was harder for the prince to navigate down stairs with only one eye.

He nearly dropped the Golden Prince when he saw Nori's back for the first time, the scars had faded a little with time, but they were rough and ragged. They always would be.

Ori cried, and Dori commented that it had healed better than he expected from the wounds he saw, and the entire Company were talking about the Goblins and what Nori had done.

At least they knew better than to ask if they could touch, but Nori was uncomfortable under all their eyes, his shoulders tense and tight with discomfort. It was a little bad etiquette for the public pools, but Dwalin wrapped himself around the back of Nori to offer him a little protection.

“That would have been me.” Ori said, tears in his wide brown eyes, “That would have been me, but then you...”

“No.” Nori said, “Thorin was going to step forward to protect you.”

There was a moment of stillness, the Company still having mixed feelings about their lost King.

“It would have been Fili or Kili.” Nori continued, “They would have given themselves away if Thorin stepped forward.... Better me.”

“No.” Dwalin said, holding Nori tighter. Conversations like this always made Nori revert back into those thoughts of not being good enough, of being dispensable, worth less.

Luckily Balin seemed to realize that the subject needed to be changed, and brought up another topic of conversation. Nori relaxed once everyone's attention wasn't on him, but Dwalin still noticed that he was careful to keep his back from being seen.

His back was beautiful, marked with the warrior's scars of his bravery.

He should never feel as though he had to hide it.

.

It was Nori who brought up the subject of tattoos that night, when it was just the two of them in their home, wrapped up together in their bed.

Dwalin had mentioned it to him more than once, how beautiful he would look with ink to decorate him.

“I want something I chose.” Nori finally said, when they'd finally teased out the reason he wanted it.

He wanted to show the world something he had done , not a reminder of something that had been done to him.

The next day Dwalin helped him begin to draft possible designs for his warrior's ink.

.

The second time Ori saw Nori's back, he clapped his hands over his mouth with a little squeak.

“It's beautiful.” he breathed, “I mean, I helped with the design but... it lives on you.”

Nori smiled, a little shyly, and Dwalin smiled as he watched him. There were not too many people in the steam baths, and Nori was more than happy to recommend Fainn's name to the few who asked after his ink.

It was a striking piece, and Dwalin knew he didn't understand half the things Nori had worked into the design. Nori wore his claim – the map of Erebor on his back, and his loyalty to King and Family and Dwalin dyed into his skin for any to see who could see it.

That night he caught Nori admiring his back in the mirror, a little awkwardly.

“It is beautiful.” He said in explanation when he noticed Dwalin there.

In answer, Dwalin could only run his hands over it to make him shudder. He followed with his mouth to lick and kiss at his tender ink and scars, Nori arching and moaning shamelessly at the attention.

“It always was.” he murmured against Nori's perfect skin.

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Chapter Text

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Erebor was full of songs of the Battle – from the officially commissioned ballad to childrens rounds – there were so many songs of the Battle, and almost all of them mentioned Nori and Dwalin, because they had been married in it.

Nori disliked all of them.

Dwalin could see why, with some of of the less accurate and poorly written ones, but Nori disliked even the good ones.

They'd gone out for a few pints with some of the Company to celebrate Bilbo and Bofur's return to the Mountain, Nori snuggled warm against Dwalin's side, laughing with Bofur who was doing his best to keep Bilbo blushing red the entire evening – not that the Hobbit seemed to mind the attention. Dwalin stroked Nori's beautiful red-brown hair, his own simple braids in it this evening – regular practice meant that at least they didn't come out crooked anymore – Nori's more elaborate work decorating his own hair, and things couldn't be more perfect.

Songs were sung, the entire tavern joining in on favorites.

Someone started what was, in Dwalin's opinion, the best song of the Battle, and he joined in heartily.

Nori groaned and slumped down, hiding in his ale as Dwalin sang of his part of the Battle. The bard who'd written it had spoken to several Company members and read Ori's description of the Battle, so the telling was accurate. Dwalin sang of Nori casting aside his armor, and he could remember it clearly, with the horror of it dulled now. He could remember Nori's bright presence beside him, the intensity of his eyes as he fought, fast and foulmouthed and deadly and never leaving his side, throwing off his armor piece by piece to keep himself light and quick, placing himself in greater danger to keep Dwalin safe. It still made his heart hurt to think of it, there was no one, no one, better to fight beside – and Nori had agreed to marry him, there in the battle. They'd stayed by each other's side that day and every day since.

He kissed his Nori, the husband he was so lucky to have, when the song was finished – ignoring the whistling of the Company – and Nori relaxed, and smiled, and they enjoyed good ale, and good company, and there were no other songs of the Battle that evening for Nori to dislike.

They walked home together, leaning heavily on each other though they weren't drunk.

“No, stop.” Nori pleaded when Dwalin started humming, poking him in the side to make him jump and throw him off. “That's the worst one.”

“It's catchy.” Dwalin argued, “Everyone likes it.”

“That's the problem.” Nori said grimly, steering them toward their front door.

“How is that a problem?” Dwalin asked, opening the door for Nori, closing it behind them.

“Because, someone's going to be drunk, and they're going to be singing about me taking my armor off.” He flung his wrist guards across the room to illustrate, “And they'll think it's so funny to have me keep taking more off.” He threw his jacket away, leaving it crumpled in a corner and giving Dwalin a pointed glare as Dwalin followed him toward the bedroom. He shrugged out of his shirts too, baring his beautiful scarred and inked back to Dwalin's appreciative eyes, tossing them away to land on the dresser.

“And their friends will be laughing and egging them on, and they'll keep singing more and more until they're singing me naked, getting fucked on the field of battle.” Nori had kicked his boots off and stripped his pants off to join them on the floor, and Dwalin had never been so attentive to an explanation before in his life. Nori lay back across the bed, his posture all open invitation and his eyes sharp and hard.

“And it'll be funny and catchy, and in a decade no one will even remember the original. It'll just be another dirty tavern song... except about me... us...” There was some discomfort in Nori's eyes – he'd never been comfortable with how public their lives were, and the thought of someone singing about them making love, of someone turning that tenderness and intimacy into a tavern joke...

Of course it made him uncomfortable. It didn't particularly make Dwalin comfortable either – but at least he was used to being known, and he far preferred being known as Nori's lover to being the killer.

People were not so afraid of him anymore.

Dwalin crawled onto the bed over Nori, bracketing him but touching nowhere except the back of his neck, cradling it in one big hand, leaning down close over him.

“No one would dare.” Dwalin assured him, lips so close to his husband's but not closing in for a kiss, “Not while any of the Company are alive.”

...maybe, while you are.” Nori conceded after a moment's thought, the soft warmth of his breath teasing against Dwalin's lips, “...but I don't fight like that, either.” One of his oldest arguments against any of the songs and stories of the Battle. He always maintained that he wasn't that good, when anyone who'd seen him disagreed.

“You do.” Dwalin corrected softly, rubbing softly with his fingertips on the back of Nori's neck to make him shudder, “I was there.” their lips were so so close now...

Nori snorted, but something softened in his eyes, the edges crinkling up with a slight smile as he finally closed the last of the distance between them to kiss, a soft tender press of lips that grew quickly into something slick and deep with a low-burning hunger beneath. Nori's clever hands made quick work of Dwalin's buckles and buttons so they could share the warmth of each other's skin.

Dwalin shrugged and kicked his way out of his clothes, breaking the kiss as little as possible and diving back to Nori's willing mouth as quickly as he could, until he was as naked as his Nori, warm and lean and squirming beneath him, pulling him in closer.

Nori's hands were everywhere as they kissed long and deep, tracing familiar scars, tangling in his chest hair to tug lightly, running up and down his body as Nori pressed up into him, rubbing his arched erection against Dwalin's hip.

Dwalin ran his hands over every inch of Nori's skin he could reach, could never get enough of the way Nori shivered and pushed into his touch. Dwalin's hip was dampened with Nori's pre-spending by the time he reached between them to wrap a hand around his erection, Nori purring in appreciation as his body shuddered into Dwalin's attentions.

He circled the ball of his thumb over the crown of Nori's erection, through the slickness there, leaning back to pointedly lick his lips.

“Can I...” he started, keeping his voice the low growl that never failed to give the smaller Dwarf goosebumps.

“Yes!” Nori interrupted in a whimper, his erection tensing in Dwalin's hand as his hips jerked upward involuntarily, his eyes wide.

Dwalin didn't waste any time sliding down Nori's body to settle between his legs, ghosting a warm breath across his erection to make him whimper, licking a broad stripe from root to tip before taking him in his mouth as deeply as he could.

Nori's hands stroked Dwalin's head, shoulders, the hand pinning his hips to the bed – groaning his pleasure in half-formed thoughts as Dwalin settled in to give him a thorough and leisurely suck. He curled his tongue around Nori's erection one way and then the other as he bobbed his head, protecting his teeth with his lips to give his lover the best he could give him.

Everything was sloppy and wet with Nori whimpering his name as he ran his tongue around the crown of Nori's erection, tasting the salty muskyness of his slickness before sucking him deep again, moaning around his length to send the vibrations shuddering through Nori's body.

He was so beautiful stretched out under Dwalin, the muscles jumping and tensing across his body, sweat beading on his chest as he struggled against Dwalin's pinning hand, his body arching involuntarily as he babbled, as though Dwalin had sucked all coherent thoughts out of him.

“...good... y' so good, Dwalin...” Nori groaned, hands clenching on whatever of Dwalin he could reach, Dwalin answering with running a hand up his body, feeling the muscles move and shudder, feeling the heat rolling off his skin, the slickness of sweat. This Dwalin could do for him, for his Nori, could so easily have him so beautifully writhing and incoherent with pleasure.

Nori's breath was gasping out faster now, “I... I... I'm...” he tried to warn, his erection thickening and arching further in Dwalin's mouth. Dwalin groaned, sending vibrations through Nori to push him just that little bit further he needed, and his husband spent into his mouth with a sharp cry, head thrown back as far as it would go and his hips straining under Dwalin's restraining hand as he milked him through his climax until the smaller Dwarf twitched away from the overstimulation.

Dwalin sucked him clean and swallowed his mouthful of Nori's bitter seed, not his favorite, but he didn't want to miss even an instant of Nori's skin as the smaller Dwarf pulled him back up the bed, pressing against him warm and eager as his hand finally wrapped around Dwalin's neglected erection. Those obscenely clever fingers toyed with his foreskin, playing around his crown as they stroked him fast and light, Nori's mouth searching his out to kiss him. His lips were half-numb, but Nori's mouth was inescapable, moaning softly as he licked his own taste from Dwalin's lips.

Dwalin held on tight to Nori, thrusting into that perfect hand, trading moans between their lips as their kisses grew uncoordinated and Dwalin's climax built hot along his spine and tight along the backs of his thighs.

“...yes...yes...” Nori breathed against his lips, his grip tightening and adding just a little twist to his foreskin against the crown of his erection with every stroke, and Dwalin spent with a growl, striping Nori's beautiful skin with the strings of his seed before he collapsed on him, holding him close to his chest. He nuzzled into Nori's soft silk hair to breathe his scent in, Nori's arms around him, holding him close, their legs tangling together, their breaths and heartbeats slowing as they came down together.

Dwalin pressed a soft kiss to Nori's neck, just behind his ear, “Anyone tries to make a song of that, I'll kill them.” he whispered.

Nori laughed, turning his face to kiss Dwalin with his beautiful copper green and gold eyes shining, their bodies sweaty and sticking together with Dwalin's seed, and nothing could have been more perfect.

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Chapter Text

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King Dis of Erebor sat at the head of the room and watched the goings on with a small smile only those who knew her well would be able to detect.

Her Kingdom prospered, and her people celebrated – both out in the city and here in the palace.

It had taken years of hard work, but when had Dwarves ever been afraid of work?

Men of Dale gathered here and there, joining in the dancing where they could. Erebor's relationship to Dale was strong, perhaps not as strong as it had been before the Dragon, but they had nothing but time. In the span of a lifetime of Men it would likely be better than it had ever been.

The Elven ambassador's of Mirkwood gathered in one corner, pretending not to enjoy the ale and looking down their noses at everyone – but they were Elves, so it was only to be expected. With hard work, the relationship between their peoples might someday be repaired.

And there – Bilbo Baggins was flushed with ale and teaching an athletic Hobbit dance to a few of the younger Dwarves, Gimli and Bifur's son Lifur included, Bofur nearby keeping a fond eye on everything. Representatives of four races, meeting in harmony under the roof of Erebor. The official fellowship between the Shire and Erebor did little for either of their people – Erebor got a small amount of very good pipe weed and ale, the Shire got a small amount of very good metalwork, pots and pans mainly – they wanted nothing more of each other, but it would be remiss of Erebor not to acknowledge the help the Shire had provided in the form of Bilbo Baggins.

Her eyes sought out the other members of her brother's Company, the surprising rag-tag collection who'd delivered the Mountain. They were easy enough to recognize, despite the supposed anonymity of the masked ball.

Dori was passing himself around the room, drawing Dwarves in to dance, while still finding time to keep an eye on things, keep things running smoothly as the Master of Ceremonies. He had taken to the work as easily as breathing, and no detail escaped him.

Gloin and Vali were dancing as though they were the only two people in the room, eyes for no one else. They had done so well together to bring all the refugees in New Belegost home – they deserved this time to think of no one but each other.

Oin, master of Erebor's medical college, was playing a round of what seemed to be Fidchell against Lari, Bifur's wife, with Bifur and Bombur and Balin all gathered around to spectate.

Bombur lost his wager with a groan and left the game to find comfort with his wife and brothers-by-marriage. Erebor had a fine resource in the royal architect – the range of his stone sense meant that there was not an unstable rock in Erebor he could not feel – there was nothing built on stone that would not hold it a thousand years or longer – such a change from the instability of the sad refugee settlement of New Belegost.

Dis' kingdom would last far beyond her time, and the thought filled her with pride.

They had built something fine, in Erebor, and they would only continue to make it better – and there, between Fili and Kili, Ori was laughing as they collapsed into chairs, breathless from dancing – the brave little warrior scribe who did not even seem to realize how influential his telling of a tale could be. He would keep the history of their people - where they had gone and how they had returned - accurate and unforgotten, and that was just as important as building on sturdy rock.

The King let her eyes travel over the assemblage again, and her small smile grew just slightly. The Captain of the city guard and the King's Eye were attempting to dance. To watch them spar – Dwalin all confidence and strength, Nori all grace and agility – one might assume their dancing would be just as flawless. It was not. Dwalin knew all the forms, but once he was on the floor he could not seem to remember which foot went where when, and Nori only knew the most basic idea of the forms. The result was them going in the wrong direction, or in opposite directions, arguing about which steps they were supposed to be using, tripping over each other's boots, and Dwalin bodily picking Nori up and moving him around when he wasn't where Dwalin thought he ought to be... and inevitably they got to laughing too hard, and took themselves off the dance floor to share an ale and cuddle and laugh at each other's dancing.

There was no faking the kind of love they had, and that was good. They'd become something of a symbol of Erebor, and the fact their love was true and real made that so much easier. They were not as much a symbol as the princes were, but they were public none the less. It broke Dis' heart a little to watch how hard Fili and Kili worked to be what their people needed of them, even as she knew how necessary it was, how inevitable it was for members of the royal family.

As a King she knew it was better that Dwalin and Nori were real, a true symbol of how different things could be in Erebor. As a cousin, she was happy for Dwalin.

He wasn't so afraid of himself anymore, didn't treat his hands like they were dangerous and unpredictable, and as a result people were not so afraid of him anymore either. He was happier than she'd ever seen him, and she was happy for him. Nori was good for him, she'd seen that even in New Belegost when Nori was quiet and suspicious and wore a desperate hunted look in his eyes – but he'd trusted Dwalin implicitly even then.

Dis doubted she'd ever hear the story of why that had been, when by every reckoning thief and guard should have been at odds.

Nori drifted over to one of the undercover palace guards and had a few words, leaving her with a quick nod of acknowledgment – always working, always keeping the royal family safe, even when he was having an evening off. So dedicated to his work – he and Dwalin matched each other in that too.

Dis took it as a measure of their love and loyalty that they'd both tried to resign.

Dwalin had caught her by surprise, stomping up to her and informing her that he could not serve as the Captain of the guard.

She'd had the presence of mind to ask him why, at least.

“Because I would not arrest Nori, even if I knew he had committed a crime.” he answered, and something in the firmness of that statement made her suspect this was something he knew, and not something he merely imagined. “You need a Captain with an unquestioning respect for the law.”

Dwalin had thought his heart made him unsuited to be Captain, when that was the reason she'd chosen him for it. She'd thought to have him serve as the King's Axe, standing behind her to look intimidating during tense negotiations, but she'd changed her mind the moment Balin wrote her to say that Dwalin was committed to making Erebor's guard fair and kind.

With him at the head, the entire face of the guard had changed, and she would not lose that progress or the one who had given it to her, even if Nori had moments of backsliding into his old habits of crime.

It was easy enough to talk Dwalin around to admitting that he would stop Nori if Nori were hurting anyone, but only after strenuously arguing that Nori never would, and then it had been easy to convince him that he was suited to be the Captain of the guard.

King Dis took it as a measure of Dwalin's dedication that he would attempt to recuse himself the moment he doubted himself, that he valued the importance of his work over being the one to do it.

While Dwalin's resignation attempt had been simple and instinctive, Nori had torn himself apart before he offered his.

He'd found her in the late evening, his eyes haunted, red-rimmed from tears, taking to a knee when he bowed to her – always treating her with respect that nearly bordered on worship, and she did not know what she had done to earn that.

“My King.” he'd said, misery in the lines of his shoulders, “I must resign.”

She'd drawn him to sit at her table, sharing the simple cheese and bread she'd been having for her dinner, pouring him a small measure of wine – because he obviously needed something to take the edge off.

“Why can't you be my Eye?” She asked him, “Your work is exceptional. The royal family has never been so safe.”

He'd looked away, unable to meet her eye.

“If I have to choose, then I...” he'd looked down at his fingers, clenched tight on the delicate stem of the goblet she'd given him, “...I have to choose Dwalin... I'm so sorry, my Lady.”

“How are you being made to choose between us?” She'd asked gently, placing a hand on his shoulder for the few brief seconds before it made him uncomfortable. Nori looked up at her with his brilliant hazel eyes full of trust, and she'd learned that the King's Eye took his responsibilities far further than she had imagined. He worked with her royal guard, but beyond that he kept an ear on all the criminal dealings in Erebor, keeping lines of communication, so that he would hear if anyone was planning anything against the King.

He knew who had been behind a great many small crimes, and how to catch them, but the essence of his arrangement was that he would not move against anyone who left the Company and the royal family alone. The moment he let slip what he knew, he would never hear another whisper, and he needed those whispers.

Dwalin had a case that was frustrating his guards, and he'd demanded Nori's knowledge, and if Nori gave it to him he would no longer be able to serve as the Kings Eye effectively – and so he had to resign.

He'd torn himself apart over the decision, trying to decide which side to choose, and knowing how much he loved Dwalin – it could only be seen as a measure of his loyalty to her that it had been such a difficult decision, and that he was so unhappy making it.

Dis had placed her hand over his, squeezing it and giving him a smile.

“I think we can solve this a better way.” She'd said, and sent a runner for Dwalin.

Dwalin had not realized how deeply his frustrated words had cut, how important Nori's reputation for silence was to his work... that what he had done was forcing Nori to choose between him and the King.

Once he was made to understand, he had immediately retracted his demand for information, and they had both returned to their work – her Captain of the guard and her Eye, she knew she was lucky to have them both, as she was lucky to have all of her brother's Company to lend their support to her rule.

Because of their support and hard work, her Kingdom prospered, and her people celebrated – both out in the city and here in the palace.

King Dis of Erebor sat at the head of the room and watched the masked ball with a small smile only those who knew her well would be able to detect.

Fili stopped in front of her, her hard-working and radiant Heir with the scarred half of his face hidden behind a mask of thin beaten gold in the shape of a lion. Fili the Golden, she sometimes heard it whispered.

“It is a shame for such a beautiful lady to sit alone.” he greeted, bowing elaborately, his visible eye laughing at the game of anonymity. “May I beg this dance?”

“Of course, kind sir.” she answered, making sure her raven mask was firmly settled and taking his offered hand, laughing as she allowed him to sweep her expertly into the dance.

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