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Affairs of the Heart

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“A kingly gift.”

Bilbo startled and snatched his hand back against his chest looking faintly guilty. Nori wasn’t sure why he should feel so; the piece invited touch. Perhaps one of Bilbo’s parents had been a proponent of the same school of parenting as Dori: Look, don’t touch.

Subterfuge no longer necessary, Nori emerged from the shadow of the shop awning and strolled over to stand shoulder to shoulder with Bilbo. The Hobbit’s body went loose with familiarity and he offered Nori a quick smile before he gave a self conscious tug of his vest.

As if I’m one to judge sartorial choices, Nori thought to himself. Bilbo looked as well put together as he always did. Nervous fidgeting aside.

Looking down, Nori reached out and ghosted his hand just above the curve of the amrâbjazar Bilbo had been admiring in a mirror of Bilbo’s own aborted touch, although Nori very deliberately did not make contact with the cool metal.

Some things were sacred and Bilbo had obviously made his choice. Even if Nori was certain that their Hobbit had no idea what he’d chosen.

“Do you think?” Bilbo asked with a sidelong look. His fingers gave a twitch but he didn’t reach out again. Instead he gave an odd shuffle that had one of his hairy feet rubbing along the back of his calf and folded his hands in the small of his back.

Nori’s eyes caught it all, although when Bilbo made to look at him again, he quickly turned his full attention to the piece. He was no jeweler but he did know how to appraise a bit of swag. It wasn’t made of the most expensive metals or rarest of gems. It wasn’t ostentatious as he was sure other such gifts for royalty had been. But for all of that, there was an skill and care to it that made it stand out from the others on display. It was obvious why it had caught Bilbo's eye.

“I do,” he offered with full sincerity.

Bilbo squinted at him but there was no lie to be found. It was an impressive piece. Both the artistry of it - a master commission surely - and the appropriateness of it for it’s intended. It was quite literally a gift fit for a king.

Bilbo’s hands migrated from his back to the table to the display case and back to the amrâbjazar in a roundabout journey that set Nori’s teeth on edge. Thankfully he reached out and lifted it before Nori was tempted to shove it into his hands. The Hobbit tilted the piece to inspect it from various angles and, at one point, went so far as to flip it wrong side over and stare at the runes as if they made any sense in that orientation. Nori sighed and gave into the impulse to correct Bilbo’s hold though again he was careful to not touch anything other than Bilbo’s hands.

He guided Bilbo’s hands and adjusted his grip so that the amrâbjazar was oriented correctly, allowing the net of sapphires suspended along the face to drape low and veil the heartstone. The delicate links chimed and a murmur of low excited voices broke out behind them. Bilbo’s head whipped around and he tightened his grip dangerously.

There was entirely too much interest in Bilbo’s actions today. Nori sidestepped quickly to block Bilbo’s view of the open storefront, and not coincidentally, block the view the gawkers had into the store. He herded Bilbo deeper into the shop, the Hobbit conveniently too intent on his gift to give much notice to his actions.

A turn in the display cases offered an opportunity for privacy. The proprietor could still see them, attention riveted on this potential sale to the exclusion of any other customers, but the dwarf was tactful enough to allow them their space. He nodded once to Nori - and wasn’t that a kick in the arse, being recognized and acknowledged with a look of respect - and went to stand by the open front doors. His presence would be enough to keep the lookers at bay, hopefully.

The slowly gathering crowd and their not at all successful attempts to remain circumspect had drawn Nori’s interest from clear across the District. Whatever had caused the market to stir like that had to be just the sort of entertaining distraction that he’d been looking for. And when he’d sidled close to a pair of gossipy dwarves whispering in voices not at all low enough to remain unheard and heard rampant speculation on the King’s Consort? Well, he'd been proven right.

Considering that Thorin had no Consort and never would as long as his One continued to be a Hobbit, the gossip had definitely warranted investigation. He didn’t know what he’d expected to find when he'd tracked the whispers back to their source but it most certainly hadn’t been the Company’s Hobbit perusing a selection of amrâbjazar. How the Hobbit had found this particular storefront or why he’d been tempted to browse within, was a mystery for another time. The opportunity it presented for Nori to balance the scales had been too much to pass up.

“A kingly gift,” he repeated, his words drawing the Hobbit’s attention back to himself and away from his own internal musings. “But one that's not lightly given.”

He could see that Bilbo was confused, both by the object now cradled carefully in his hands and Nori’s serious tone. Nori fought the urge to sigh.

It wasn’t Bilbo’s fault that he and Thorin were stuck circling each other. Courtship rituals were considered afâhn and as such he (and every other dwarrow of the Company and the Mountain) was forbidden from speaking of it until after Bilbo made an offer - any offer - to Thorin. If he had fallen in love with a simple, traveling smith, perhaps the rules could have been bent a little. But his One was the King Under the Mountain and the entire business had to be above reproach. No one could share knowledge of the Rituals of Courtship until after an offer was accepted and the offer must come from Bilbo.

It was a mess. And there was so little Nori could say, so little he could offer until Bilbo made his choice.

The Company had been on the watch for any sort of Hobbity declaration for months. They had agreed among themselves that even the simplest of gifts would serve if offered in a suitably serious manner. But Bilbo had gone about his life as usual. And now, here he was considering offering an amrâbjazar, something that was so far beyond a first declaration that it could take years to reach that point. Not that Nori was going to discourage him; it would conveniently skip a goodly portion of the process with no fault to anyone. And if all went well, it would honestly be thought of as rather impetuous and romantic by the dwarrow of the Mountain, never mind Bilbo’s ignorance.

“This is an important gift.” he cautioned with deliberate emphasis. Even if Bilbo didn’t understand what he held, he should at least grasp the significance of offering it as a gift to Thorin.

Bilbo’s eyes sharpened, his quick mind latching on to the unspoken undertone. And this was one of the traits they shared - a love of clever things, an ability to find enjoyment in the untangling of a complex set of circumstances.

“Important,” he mused aloud, scrutinizing Nori’s face.

Nori nodded slowly once.

“The sort of gift that one might offer to someone … close?” Bilbo asked tentatively. His expression was one of cautious hope and Nori wanted nothing more than reassure him with a triumphant grin. But he needed to be sure that if nothing else, this point was clearly understood. This was not the sort of gesture that could be easily rescinded. Especially considering all the notice Bilbo had already drawn. Better that he left the shop with nothing than to leave with an amrâbjazar that was not followed closely by an announcement from the Royal Family.

“A once in a lifetime gift,” he finally settled on. He prayed to Mahal that there was enough shared history between them for Bilbo to understand.

Bilbo worried at his bottom lip in thought, eyes turned to his hands but gaze unfocused. Nori forced himself to wait patiently as he puzzled through the choice of words. Part of him breathlessly anticipated that moment when Bilbo’s decision was writ clear across his face; part of him felt like he was trespassing on something painfully intimate. The conflicting urges to stay and leave made him itch.

Bilbo thankfully didn't keep him waiting long. “I…” He looked up at Nori, face determinedly set. “Yes,” he said and nodded to himself as if it were so easily settled. “Yes.”

Apparently, for Bilbo, it was. Nori felt an exultant grin split his face. The shy smile that Bilbo offered in return was perhaps a bit surprised but no less happy.

“Well, that’s sorted then,” Nori replied with just a hint of cheekiness to mask the sudden hope that warmed his chest. Hope was a dangerous and fickle thing.

He motioned to the shopkeeper and in very little time the gift was paid for and packaged. Bilbo had surprisingly chosen a small, uncarved chest that had been consigned to an out of the way shelf. Both Nori and the shopkeeper had pointed out several chests and boxes made of oak but Bilbo had only shook his head and insisted on the chest made of a wood neither recognized.

“Elder,” Bilbo had offered with a mysterious smile. Nori could only assume it meant something to Hobbits because the proprietor had looked as confused as he felt by Bilbo’s insistence. He was sure however, that elder wood was suddenly going to be very popular under the Mountain.

When they emerged from the shop, gift carefully tucked away from prying eyes, it was to find that the secrecy was no longer necessary as the immediate vicinity had been almost entirely cleared of dwarrow. Bilbo looked around blankly but shrugged it off without an apparent second thought. Nori, on the other hand, immediately noted the broad form lurking not so far away.

“I need to borrow some carving tools,” Bilbo said said in an offhand way. “But I can’t imagine that it would take much more than a week to finish.” It was offered as a statement but the question buried there was obvious.

“A week is allowable,” Nori assured him. “Although you should purchase carving tools. Bifur would be honored to help you choose something appropriate.” Bilbo probably would have approached one of the Urs to borrow the tools anyway but this way there would be no misunderstanding the importance of the request.

Bilbo nodded solemnly and reached out to grasp Nori’s upper arm tightly. “Thank you, Nori. Truly.” He said it with the easy sincerity that he offered to every one of the Company. Nori didn’t understand how he did it, how he forced himself to be so transparent in his regard for them. Just the thought of offering a similar sentiment made Nori’s skin crawl.

Not that he didn’t feel the same way but, well, perhaps he just wasn’t strong enough to show it so freely. For Bilbo - for this - he could try though.

Protected from prying eyes, Nori allowed himself a small indulgence. He leaned forward and gently tapped his forehead against Bilbo’s own. The Hobbit smelled familiarly of the little sachets filled with herbs found far to the East that Dori had gifted him for his wardrobe. But he also smelled of high mountain trees and of the rock of the Mountain.

“It was my honor, my friend,” he offered. He resolutely ignored the small catch in his voice.

Bilbo gave him another bright smile and made off down the street with a jaunty step.

“Thorin won’t appreciate your interference.”

“Perhaps,” Nori cleared his throat and settled his expression. He knocked a feather he'd picked up somewhere free of a pleat in his jerkin and pointedly did not look at Dwalin as the other dwarf joined him. “But I think he’ll forgive me.”

He set off down the street in the opposite direction from Bilbo, no destination in mind, just moving off to allow the customers that Dwalin had driven away to return to the shops. The street quickly filled behind him and several dwarrow made a beeline for the shop he and Bilbo had just vacated.

He didn’t doubt that the story would be all over the district in no time and the Mountain very shortly thereafter. The shopkeeper would of course be discreet, no dwarrow ran such a shop long if they couldn’t hold their tongue, but the fact that Bilbo - and Nori - had been seen there would be enough to feed the rumors. It would be a miracle if they made it the full week without anyone in the Palace becoming suspicious.

The drama of it all would be delicious and Nori looked forward to every moment of it.

He dodged a distracted dwarves and nudged Dwalin further towards the edge of the street as he mentally shifted through which of the Company he could conscript to help keep this quiet. It wouldn’t do for Thorin or the Princes to hear of this before Bilbo was ready. Especially the Princes. They wouldn’t betray Bilbo’s trust but the sheer joy they had taken in their own Courtship would no doubt resurface at the promise of Thorin’s and handily give the whole act away.

Dwalin could, of course, be counted on to assist but only so far as it didn't involve lying to Thorin. Not that he had anything against lying; just that he failed abysmally at it. He couldn't seem to learn the knack of keeping his face neutral, always erring towards an exaggerated innocence that came off as anything but. Although to be fair, Nori hadn't had much interest in breaking him of the habit.

Bofur had the same issue with over acting but Gloin would definitely be of help. He'd approach him first and by then Bilbo would have spoken to Bifur. Between the three of them, they could get a plan laid and call on the others, as needed.

The street was crowded and Dwalin quiet. Nori had mostly forgotten that he was even there when a tight hand on his elbow redirected him through a half crumbled archway. A glance at Dwalin’s face showed it was set in that familiar expression that presaged a “talk” although Nori wasn't certain if it was his interference with Bilbo or something else that caused Dwalin to pull him aside.

He looked down sharply at the hand roughly gripping him but allowed himself to be led easily enough. He knew he'd become complacent. A cardinal sin in most of his dealings. But the Company was exempt from the normal rules - had earned his trust time and time again. And Dwalin, he was a unique exception among a group of exceptional dwarves.

So he let himself be guided into a courtyard that had clearly been forgotten by the repair crews. The public water fountain stood dry, the ram with its intricately carved horns sitting mouth agape, spilling nothing but air into the cracked basin and a couple clay ewers leaned abandoned against the wall in the otherwise clear space. The only exit seemed to be the archway they’d come through - an archway that Dwalin very conspicuously blocked.

Nori folded his arms across his chest and raised an eyebrow. “Was there something you needed?” he asked with a bit of bite to his tone. There was no reason to make this any easier for him than he'd already done.

Dwalin didn't rise to the bait. He just stared silently and his sharp eyes seemed to strip Nori bare from head to boot.

Nori let his smirk slide into something provocative. He'd thought that the crowd had drawn Dwalin to the shop the same as him but if he'd come searching for something more, Nori would be more than happy to help him scratch that itch. Sex was something Nori did well and sex with Dwalin was always a pleasure - literally.

Even better, they hadn’t had sex in public in ages (the last time Dwalin had sworn off any more public encounters through no fault of Nori’s). He’d been trying for months to get Dwalin to forget his vow. The chances of them being seen here were vanishingly slim but a loud moan or two would solve that. And if he allowed Dwalin to back him up against the far wall, he could even ensure that he would be the only one to see if they attracted any attention.

Nori licked his lips and took a swaggering step forward, eyes intent on Dwalin's mouth. Now that it was on offer, there was nothing more he wanted in this instant than to taste. But Dwalin didn’t not return his leer and made no move to welcome his advance.

An icy finger ran up Nori's spine, freezing his heated imaginings. Whatever Dwalin wanted, Nori was suddenly very sure he would only find disappointment. The thought was unbidden and sharp enough to crack Nori in two. He felt his swagger stutter on stiff limbs and stopped an awkward half step from Dwalin.

Where before he'd been all grace, he suddenly didn't know what to do with his hands. Defiant, he planted them at his hips and waited. Waited and tried not to glare.

“For the longest time, I assumed that I would wake up one morning with braids in my hair, an amrâbjazar brazenly nailed to the door, and a witnessed contract waiting.” Dwalin’s voice was soft and rueful. He shook his head once and the braids in his beard swung in slow counterpoint.

Nori tried not to flinch. He’d heard the joke often enough from ale barrel friends. Nori the Thief, bold enough to claim anything. And woe betide the poor dwarf Mahal had made to match his soul for Nori would claim them as well without a word to the contrary.

He forced a sly smile to curve his lips regardless of how leaden his stomach suddenly felt. “Have I disappointed?” he demurred.

Dwalin shook his head and stepped closer. Nori stepped back then realized what he’d done and forced himself to stand firm.

“Even now that we’ve settled, that you are rightly celebrated, that there is every opportunity and no reason not to, you still made no claim.”

Dwalin stepped close - too close but Nori refused to give way. He stood firm as Dwalin’s hand gently cupped his jaw. His thumb smoothed along the cheekbone and Nori fought the instinct to lean into the familiar touch.

“So I must not be what you want. Or maybe you never felt the call for more than your craft.”

Dwalin’s expression was painfully open and the hurt Nori had inadvertently caused had carved deep chasms. He wanted to say something but he didn’t know what there was to say and Dwalin didn’t seem interested in a response. His fingers curled beneath Nori’s chin and his thumb moved to trace Nori’s bottom lip, effectively blocking any words Nori might offer.

Denial sat on the tip of Nori’s tongue. One joke about Dwalin’s sense of self importance would stop this conversation cold. But it would also close this possibility forever. And Nori had lied often in his life but never to himself.

Dwalin was important.

He was intimately familiar with the hurt that creased Dwalin’s face. Knew all too well the sharp pain of wondering why Dwalin hadn't seen fit to speak of this. Not in the days they had spent convinced that they would die. Not in the weeks they had spent reclaiming and repairing their home. Not in the months spent welcoming their brethren home. And not in the year they’ve spent settled into this new life with friends, family delivered safe, and a King they both lived to serve.

“But now I think maybe I've allowed my expectations to justify my own laziness, to cover my own fear.” Dwalin pulled away and Nori forced himself to breath in a deep, steadying breathe.

“There should be no confusion between us, Nori.”

He stood straight, feet planted solidly as if rooted in the very stone. Nori suddenly noted that his clothing was rucked into untidy creases under his belt, as if he'd been in a scuffle or dressed hastily that morning. And he understood with the sudden, vivid clarity that characterized all such important moments in life that he would forever remember Dwalin standing here, clothes mussed and determined to ask this of Nori.

Nori didn't allow himself hope. It was a messy sort of emotion that too often led to disappointment. But today it might be worth it to chance a little hope.

Dwalin unsheathed the dirk at his waist - a long thrusting dagger, meant as a final defense against an enemy that had slipped past every other safeguard. It showed its age in the well worn handle and darkened runes along the flat of the blade but the edge was meticulously maintained and sharp. He flipped the dirk in his hand so that he grasped the blade just below the guards, the gesture not showy but rather one of intimate familiarity with a cherished weapon, and offered it grip first to Nori.

Nori could only stare at his hand and the blade in dumb wonder. The sudden pounding of blood in his ears drowned out the sound of the traditional offer from Dwalin. And he only realized that he’s missed something important when he noticed the sudden tightening of Dwalin’s hand and glanced up to see his face clouding over.

Before Dwalin could retract his hand, retract the offer Nori hastily grabbed at the handle. He fumbled his grip and for a moment thought he'd dump the whole of it to the flagstones in his eagerness. He recovered his composure and forced himself to pull it slowly from Dwalin’s hand, infinitely careful not to draw blood. Not the auspicious beginning to a Courtship that anyone wanted.

Men kemgu,” Nori choked out around a suddenly tight throat.

The cloud of anticipated refusal broke under Dwalin’s smile. And Nori smiled back with the smallest twinge of shyness. He suddenly felt very much akin to Bilbo. Had the Hobbit felt an echo of this same joy at his decision to offer for Thorin? Did the same happiness that he’d marked on Bilbo’s face now paint his own?

Something must have shown through because Dwalin didn’t hesitate to take the next step. He pulled a small knife from his pocket and reached up to separate a thick strand of hair from behind his ear. Carefully, he used the sharp edge of the blade to shave along the skin. It was acceptable to only shave a thin line - just enough to gather the hair needed for the next declaration and no more - though Dwalin did nothing by half. He shaved a sharp line, two fingers wide from the nape of his neck to the bald crown of his head. The thick line of bared skin would clearly proclaim to all dwarrow that he was newly courting.

Nori’s fingers itched to pull his own knife, or better yet steal the knife from Dwalin’s hand, and shave a mirrored line through his own hair. But first there was this. Under Dwalin’s heavy gaze, he tugged a long strand of hair free from one of his peaks. He reached up to ensure that it wasn’t caught in the braid extending from his eyebrow but he needn’t have bothered. Dwalin was there and his touch was reverent as he smoothed Nori’s hair between thumb and forefinger.

A shiver worked its way down Nori’s spine. The touch was intimate, yes, but it wasn’t unknown. Dwalin enjoyed nothing more than burying his fingers in Nori's hair and causing it to come undone in their passion. It was the purpose that gave this touch meaning: a declaration of intent.

Dwalin carefully compared the two strands then separated his own hair into a comparable thickness. He tucked the extra hair into his palm with his last two fingers then set to work.

With the fingers of his off hand, he measured the length of Nori’s hair from the root to his second knuckle then grasped the strand and laid his own lock of hair parallel to it. With a family bead he fixed the end of the strand to Nori’s hair. Carefully, he braided their hair together in a four strand plait that evenly distributed the black-brown of his own hair amongst the reddish-brown of Nori’s. The resulting braid was bold and unmistakable; it would never be considered tastefully understated or elegantly subtle like the fashionable set. Nori found he cared not one whit for subtlety in this instance.

Dwalin braided the full length of hair he had to offer then secured the end with a plain onyx bead. He stared at the finished braid for such a long time that Nori finally took the braid back and worked it into his coiffure himself. He ran his fingers along the length from bead to bead. The Durin bead sat prominently at his temple whereas the last bead was far enough down the line to be lost in the peak of his hair. He would need to find a mirror but it felt right.

This time, he paid careful attention to the traditional offer as Dwalin braided the remaining hair in his hand, secured it with two small bits of wire from a deep pocket, and held it out on his open palm for Nori to accept.

Nori forwent the traditional response and kissed him. It wasn’t a kiss from the ballads. He was greedy and he nipped at Dwalin’s mouth until he stopped trying to talk and instead allowed Nori to take everything he needed. Dwalin tasted of stale ale and his lips were rough and dry. Nori was sure that he tasted no better and he could feel the spit gathering in the corner of his mouth.

It’s perfect.

When he finally forced himself to break away, he felt raw and stupidly exhilarated. If the look on Dwalin’s face was any guide, he was far from alone in his feelings.

“Why now?” He panted, eyeing Dwalin’s neck.

“I realized something,” Dwalin answered roughly.

Hmm?” Nori hummed. He laid his nose against the curve of Dwalin’s jaw, lips seeking out the thin skin beneath the softly oiled hair.

“You’re a romantic.”

Nori pulled back in surprise, mind going blank. There was so much to say to that but Dwalin took the opportunity to seize control and placed distracting kisses of his own.

“You helped Bilbo purchase his amrâbjazar.” The words are accompanied by a soft kiss to his lips that Nori distractedly returned.

This time it was Dwalin the pulled away. Nori frowned but Dwalin gently took his face in his hands and captured his gaze. His eyes were deep and sincere and the look of adoration made Nori feel a bit weak.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” Dwalin whispered before he bestowed a kiss just above Nori’s left eye. “Maralmizu.” He declared with a kiss to the opposite brow.

Nori’s chest expanded with warmth and in this moment he found it suddenly impossible to articulate his love for this dwarrow. So instead he kissed back and tried to say everything he wanted without words.

He had two Courtships to keep him busy now, Bilbo’s and his own. And he would need to think of some suitable punishment for Dwalin calling him a romantic; he was of course, but you couldn’t let such declarations slide or his reputation would be ruined. But right at this moment, there was only Dwalin and the new, unexpected weight of his beads in Nori’s hair.

And today was a day for hope.