Ori was an unusual child.
His brothers always put it down to him being the youngest, and so much distance between them. He was twelve when Dori was married on the mountain, and he danced awkwardly with Noreen, who kissed his cheek kindly and whispered that he would make someone special very happy someday. His ears burned crimson at that, and Ori had scuttled away to a quiet corner to write it down, to try to catch the moment in ink and paper. It made it real.
The writing of things, and the idea of memory, were a consuming passion for Ori. While his brothers and cousins on the mountain worked in the mines and in honest manual labour, Ori threw himself into books and study, amazing the teachers at his tiny school in Tyndrum. He would have begged to be sent somewhere better, but there was no money, and he knew it - not after their parents were gone, and Dori and Nori were both working themselves ragged to see to his needs. He kept his mouth shut and wrote it down, though, as he did all of his hopes and dreams. He knew what he wanted. He had a plan.
He would do his best through school, of course, and do well on all of his exams, and then the future would open up to him. He pressed colourful brochures about potential courses of study into his carefully-kept book, though he had chosen by thirteen. He would go to St. Andrews and read history, and then the entire world of pressed pages of memories would be open to him. He wrote about it in loving detail, and had envisioned it all a thousand times by his fourteenth birthday.
He was fourteen when Smaug came, and their homes burned, and Nori kept him far from the smoke and chaos and screaming, and didn't listen when Ori thumped frantically on his arm and shouted that he needed to get something - that something important was burning. His book, all of his careful memories and hopes and dreams, burned away to ashes that night, and his future with it.
Ori was a determined lad, though, and he kept his chin up as they ran for those first few days. He scrounged pen and paper and made notes - so many notes - reworking his plans. He could make up for the lost days of school, explain his absence, and not fall behind. His teachers would understand. But as days stretched into weeks, and then months, his notes grew more frantic and less in tune with reality. His brothers would not let him go back to the mountain, and Noreen did her best to cheer him up, but Ori watched the dates on the calendar flip faster and faster away from his hopes, and he had to put his face in his hands and breathe slowly so as not to panic.
By the time he was sixteen, Ori had rewritten his plans, given the circumstances. He kept up with his studies as best he could, on the road, and didn't ask where Nori got the books he begged for. He would have to do his best on his own, keeping his head down, and as soon as they had sorted things out, he could get back on track. He might even be a figure of importance by then! He daydreamed of being the one to bring Smaug down, of using his wits and intellect to outsmart the evil worm - of how they would look at him with pride, then, even Thorin. He would still be able to follow his dreams, with his head held high.
Fíli was born on a brilliant January day, exactly six months after Ori had turned sixteen. He went to see Dis and her baby after they had settled in, but shook his head as she held the baby out to him.
"Go on, then!" she said with a laugh, dark eyes flashing. She had always frightened him. "You won't drop him, love - and if you do, he'll likely bounce. We Oakenshields are made of stern stuff!"
Ori sat down, cowed, and let the little pink and golden bundle be placed in his arms. He felt immensely awkward holding the baby - all hands that were too big and sweaty, and arms that shook like noodles, and hair that he knew was too long falling in his face as he gazed at the minuscule perfection of Dis' baby.
"He's very small," Ori muttered awkwardly, and Dis chuckled.
"And so were you, once." She patted his shoulder firmly, and Ori tightened his grip on the baby, afraid of letting him slip. "Look at you now! He'll look up to you, you know." She nodded solemnly at Ori's huff of disbelief, and leaned down to put her eyes on a level with his. "I mean it. He has no shortage of people to teach him to fight and run, but who will teach him to be wise, if not you?"
"Balin?" Ori tried weakly, and Dis shook her head, not breaking that intimidating stare.
"You," she said firmly. "Teach my son your love of words, Ori, and I will hope he will grow to be as wise and kind a young man as you are now."
There was no arguing with Dis Oakenshield, so Ori just nodded dumbly and looked down at the baby, whose eyes hadn't quite learned to focus yet. He knew babies were meant to be a sign of hope, of new life, and he steadied his courage and took it as hope to them all.
He did his best, honestly, though when Fíli was little he could do no more than share the silly nursery rhymes and games that he barely remembered from his own youth, and read the few ragged picturebooks that Nori was able to obtain now and then. Fíli enjoyed them, though he fell asleep more often than not as Ori read.
By the time Fíli was an older brother to a dark and wild infant, Ori was eighteen, and the hope that had bloomed once was quickly fading. If Fíli had been a sign of hope, then Kíli seemed a knell of doom.
He should have been at university now, reading until his eyes went blurry, making questionable choices when he'd had too much to drink, and making friends with people his own age. Instead, he followed his brothers wherever they dragged him, never allowed to do more than quiet, inconspicuous jobs. He had never sat an exam, or so much as placed his name on an application form. They were wanted men, and so he could never have what he wanted. He didn't promise Dis anything this time.
They kept moving, and Ori got angrier and quieter, drawn in on himself to the point that he sometimes forgot to speak to anyone else for days at a time. He barely wrote any longer, though he sat with his battered old notebooks for hours, pen in hand, doodling meaningless sketches in the margins of pages that were meant to contain his notes and plans for how he might make his life right again. His life was wasting away before his eyes, and there was nothing that Ori could do about it.
It was Nori who dragged him out of it, in the end, quite literally - grabbed him by one arm and pulled him out into the streets at night. Ori could never quite remember what happened after that, though he suspected quite a lot of alcohol was involved, and he woke up the next morning with paint on his hands and mud on his boots, and he knew that he had broken laws. It was a beginning.
His mind, long stifled, turned with a wicked glee to mischief, and Ori found he had a positive genius for causing trouble. He became Nori's lookout, providing him with distractions and quick excuses, getting his brother out of one scrape after another even as they plunged headlong into the next. They drank a bit too much, and Dori shook his head and tutted and worried, but Ori ignored it. He found amusement in making trouble, though there was little harm in it, and for the first time since the mountain had burned, Ori felt like the world had stopped folding in around him, cutting off his breath. He ran free, and let his notebooks collect dust.
Whenever Nori got arrested, always under some false identity, Ori had to go to ground with Dori and wait it out. He got good at finding small, quiet jobs to bring in a bit of money, and Dori made him spend time with the remnants of the family who had stayed together. Thorin and Dwalin had little use for him, burdened as they were with all of their fates, and later with Thorin's wild, orphaned nephews. Ori tried to keep his distance from them - for guilt, mostly, that he hadn't done as Dis had asked, and that he didn't intend to. What use was it? What use was any of it, when Thorin insisted on dragging them all deeper into the mud with each crime, each year of running and stealing and hiding? It was Ori's potential that had been wasted, and Ori's future that had been sacrificed. He was bitter, and he did his best to hide it - submitted to Dori's terrible haircuts that make him look like a refuge from a mediaeval monastery, swallowed his sarcastic quips when one of the elders assured him that they would see an end to it soon, this time, that everything would work out. Ori was young, but he wasn't stupid.
But he liked his little cousins, from a distance, and as they all grew older, Ori began to regret his hasty distancing of them. Nori spent longer and longer in prison, and the fever of anger that had pushed Ori into such wildness cooled into a calm, collected despair tinged with bitter regret. He stepped closer to the family when he could, and helped the little lads learn their letters, and shared books with them when he could bear to be parted from them. He taught them mischief, as well, whenever the older members of the family had their backs turned, and delighted in the looks of awe they would turn on him.
When he was twenty-six, Ori had a sudden desperate spell of the desire for a normal life, and he convinced Dori to come to London with him. He found work (under the table, of course) in a dusty second-hand bookshop run by a little old man whose command of English left a great deal to be desired. He spent his days inhaling the dust of the past, fingers flying over cracking leather bindings and brittle pages as he priced and organised the sadly-neglected stock of the shop. It was good work, if not as prestigious as he had once dreamed, and Ori found he could hold a pen again. He opened his notebooks, ready to begin again - but what came from his pen was not words at all, but pictures. His little doodles grew in size and complexity, and he found himself borrowing books from the shop, learning techniques and a whole new vocabulary of a kind of communication he had never attempted before. He put memories to paper again, now in flowing lines and angles and curves, pressing the moment to the page with a wild abandon his younger self could never have managed, and a discipline that would have startled Nori. He showed his art to no-one, but Dori smiled approvingly at him in the evenings.
"Good to see you've finally gotten your head back on straight," he told his little brother. It was more than a little fussy, of course, but that was Dori through and through. "I thought we'd lost you for a while."
Ori bit back the sarcastic remark he would have made if Nori had been there, and let his fingers curl soothingly around the pen in his hand. "Just trying to find my feet again," he said with a shrug. But a part of his heart was thrilled to have made his brother so proud. If only there were a way to please both Dori and Nori at once, he might have a chance at peace someday!
It came as a surprise, but a very pleasant one, when Thorin rang to tell him brusquely that Fíli and Kíli had begged to be allowed to come and visit him.
"They say you're never around anymore, and that the least you can do is show them around London." Thorin's voice was as intimidating as ever, and Ori tried not to shrink from it, aware that Thorin couldn't even see him from away up in Scotland. "Mind, I expect that you'll only show them the bits that are safe. And appropriate."
"Yes," Ori stuttered, voice quick and weak "Of course! Nothing Nori would like, I promise!"
"Good," Thorin said begrudgingly. "I'm sending them down on the direct line from Edinburgh tomorrow. They'll get in at Kings Cross at noon, so be there on time." He hung up quickly, leaving Ori staring at the receiver in startled dismay. He glanced up at Dori, who had been listening to the whole conversation, and his brother threw up his hands quickly.
"Not my business!" he said quickly. "They've turned my head grey already - them and you. You can watch them for a day." He smiled comfortingly as Ori crumpled into a chair. "You can take them to the Zoo, maybe show them a few of the tourist attractions. Good way to blend in, if you can keep them from setting fire to themselves or spilling all of our business to passing strangers."
Ori tried not to wail in despair, but under it, there was a sudden swell of pleased pride. They must look up to him after all, if they wanted to come all this way to see him! Of course, it might just be Thorin trying to get a day or two of peace, but it seemed like his little cousins had missed him in his absence. He was rather absurdly pleased by that, and spent the best part of his evening sketching a rough memory from what seemed like a distant past - Dis, cradling Kíli in her arms as Fíli leaned over to stare at the baby. It was the last time Ori had seen her. He let his mind wander as his pen moved, wondering if the lads might like this little gift.
He was an hour early to pick them up, and spent the time looking between an outdated tourist guide to London that he'd snatched from the bookshop and the platform where their train was due to arrive.
Ori nearly panicked when the train came in. He raced up and down the platform, looking for the familiar forms of the two little boys, but as the train emptied and the crowd shuffled away, they were nowhere to be seen. He sank down on a bench, breathing deeply, and wondering how to go about telling Thorin he had lost them before ever finding them.
"Hallo, Ori!" Kíli chirped, sliding onto the bench with enough force to knock Ori over a few inches. "Did you know we were coming? Did Uncle Thorin tell you? I told him he should say we were coming or you might not be here!"
" 'Course he told Ori, you noodle!" Fíli scoffed fondly, crashing down on the other side. "Hullo, Ori. Did we surprise you?"
Ori gaped at them, relief and surprise battling for prominence, and grabbed each of their sleeves to keep them from melting away again. "How did you do that?" he gasped, looking back and forth from them to the train.
"Trains are easy," Fíli said loftily, though his feet barely touched the floor. "You just have to know how to move right and keep out of sight."
"Trains are boring," Kíli corrected, hopping up and tugging at both of them. "Come on, let's go see things! Uncle Thorin said you'd show us everything, Ori!"
"Because you know everything," Fíli added, jumping up to join Kíli. Together they pulled Ori to his feet and began to propel him toward the exit. "We want to see all the good bits."
"And the palace," Kíli said solemnly. He looked up at Ori, dark eyes wide. "Do you know where the palace is, Ori? It's very important."
Fíli reached over and cuffed Kíli lightly on the back of his head without looking. "We need to see everything." He stared up at Ori, blue eyes unblinking, and Ori thought he looked rather uncannily like his mother for a moment. "Everything."
"There's a lot of everything in London," Ori protested. "I thought we might see the Zoo today, though." He led them over to a map of the city, pointing it out, and was a bit startled when they seemed to melt together in front of him without ever pushing him aside, heads pressed together as they muttered quietly. Their little fingers raced back and forth across the map, but Ori could make no sense of what they were saying. They had their own language, Fíli and Kíli, and it would take a man more gifted with words than himself to understand it.
"No," Kíli finally declared with a firm shake of his head. "We want to see the-"
"Trafalgar Square," Fíli cut in, somehow stepping on Kíli's toes and elbowing him in the face simultaneously. Kíli just blinked and solemnly pulled hard on a chunk of his brother's hair, and order was restored. "We want to see Trafalgar Square first."
Ori was thrilled by that, if he were honest. He'd never had much use for the zoo - too much manure and danger of being viciously torn apart. Trafalgar Square had excellent statuary and historical markers and was quite close to several decent bookshops. He nodded, and leaned in to point it out to them.
"That means we'll take the Underground for a bit," he said, and a spark of mischief rose in his heart. He hadn't allowed himself much time to play recently. "Wait until you see what you can get up to on the Underground!"
He would later regret teaching them so many of his tricks, little realising they were watching him with such care and attention, but it was nice to have an appreciative audience, and Ori let himself get carried away. By the time they were getting off at Charing Cross station, he felt positively giddy, and the lads were chattering away with easy delight at the things he had shown them. Some patrons of the Underground might never quite recover, Ori thought with a wicked little grin.
They stayed with him all the way into Trafalgar Square, and made appreciative noises as Ori pointed out some of the great sites, and led them over to his favourite spot in the Square. He looked on in pleased approval as they snatched their hands away to look at the historical marker, fingers running over and under the text as they took it in. It took him only a moment to get lost in the words, trying to picture the square as it had once been.
Fíli and Kíli were gone when he looked up. There was no flash of golden hair in the crowd in front of him, no ragged brown jacket in the mass of people behind him. They had vanished again.
Ori tried to breathe. They were having him on, the little devils. They had clearly enjoying winding him up at the train station, and now they were having a bit more fun. He resolved not to give them the reaction they wanted, and turned nonchalantly back to his reading, though he kept his eyes open for them. Five minutes passed, then seven, then ten, and Ori was beginning to get worried.
He couldn't call for them. He couldn't afford police interest in missing children, or someone remembering their unusual names later. Ori studied the square carefully, as he would if he were going to draw it, then set out looking. It took ten minutes to truly convince himself they were nowhere there. They were gone.
Had they been kidnapped? Ori sucked in a quick, panicky breath. Had Smaug sent someone to snatch the children from his unwatchful care? But surely they would have cried out if they had been taken. They were clever lads, he knew; they hadn't merely wandered away and gotten lost, either. They had either been kidnapped with such speed and care that they hadn't been able to call out, or they had wandered away on purpose. Either way, Ori had no clue where they were.
He stumbled to a payphone, fumbling in his pocket for loose change, and dialed quickly.
"Dori!" he shouted, as soon as his brother answered. "Dori, call Thorin! I'm in Trafalgar Square, I've lost Fíli and Kíli!"
"You what?" Dori said, his voice rising to a cracking high note. "How could you lose them?"
"I got a bit distracted reading!" he protested, trying not to cry, or to sound like he was crying. "Please, call Thorin and let him know. I'm going to try to find them, but I can't exactly tell the authorities!"
"I'll call him," Dori agreed. "Then I'll come down, see what I can do. We'll find them." He didn't sound certain, and he hung up with an abrupt click that sounded very final. Ori clung to the receiver for a moment, pressing his head against the glass of the booth, before squaring his shoulders and marching out.
He had no idea where to look for two little Scottish boys who had never been to London before. The only thing he could guess was that they hadn't gone to the Zoo. His reference book to London was less than useful, since there were literally thousands of suggestions of places they might have found interesting. Would their gory young imaginations have drawn them to the Tower of London? Or had they sought to wreck more havoc on the Underground?
Ori felt like he was moving in slow motion, and all of that in circles. He darted this way and that, beginning to follow one idea before discarding it for another, and always coming back to Trafalgar Square. If they had been kidnapped, surely the kidnapper would make contact there? And if they had merely wandered away, wouldn't they at least know to come back to their starting point when their goals were accomplished?
By five o'clock, he was growing desperate. He flung himself to a stone step, burying his face in his hands, and tried to breathe, tried to think. Where might they have gone?
His mind threw up an image - little fingers tracing something on a map, a route from Trafalgar Square to somewhere else. Where? What was it Kíli had tried to say, before his brother squashed it out of him?
"The palace," Ori muttered, looking up sharply. "Durin's beard, he was fixated on the palace!" He leapt to his feet, making for the road that would lead him to St. James Park, hardly minding that his arms and legs were flailing awkwardly at all angles as he ran.
It was nearing dusk as he reached the park, and Ori's heart was in his throat as he darted past tourists who were making their way out of the green space. He had no idea why they wanted to go to the palace, but he was sure of it. They had led him to walking distance, then distracted him and snuck away when his back was turned. The small part of Ori that didn't want to strange them was inclined to congratulate them for their nerve and daring. A sudden commotion ahead made Ori speed up, and he nearly collided with a police officer as he rounded the bend.
Uniformed officers had Fíli and Kíli by the collars, and the one with a grip on Kíli was holding him at arm's length as he struggled.
"You have to let us in!" he protested, sounding remarkably composed for a little lad who was currently trying to kick a police officer. "We've got to see her! It's important!"
Fíli had his arms crossed dangerously, and Ori could see the fanatic light building in his eyes. If someone didn't let go of Kíli in the next thirty seconds, they would find themselves under a surprisingly severe assault by a ten-year-old who had been trained in an unholy number of martial arts for his ago.
"Hey!" Ori gasped breathlessly, waving an arm at the whole assemblage. "You - you found them!"
"Sir, are these your charges?" one of the officers asked coldly, staring down his nose at the grubby little hellions. "I'm afraid we found them trying to break into the palace. We take this sort of thing very seriously."
Ori gulped, feeling the blood drain from his face. "I was meant to be looking after them for the afternoon," he said feebly. "They're my cousins. I had no idea they would make this much trouble!"
"It's not either trouble!" Kíli protested, face like a thundercloud. "I've got to see her! I need to explain!"
"See her? See the Queen?" The officer holding Kíli chuckled, her grip easing a bit. "Pull the other one, it's got bells on! You can't just walk up and see the Queen!"
Kíli stilled at that, looking devastated. He seemed to droop, looking up at the officer with wide eyes that were beginning to brim with tears as his lower lip wobbled. "But," he said, voice choked. "But she's the only one who can fix it!"
Fíli, who had been still as stone the whole time, suddenly tore away from the slackened grip of his captor, wrapping his arms around Kíli as if he could shield his little brother from the disappointment. "Shhh, now," he said quietly. "Speak later, right?"
Kíli wiped at his face with a dirty little fist, smearing mud across his cheeks. "I wanted us to go home," he said in a whisper that Ori could barely hear. The police officers were looking down at the two with considerably more sympathy now, and Ori stepped forward a bit, always willing to play on an angle.
"They're orphans," he offered quietly, and watched that sink in. "We do our best, but you can never really put some things right, can you?"
"Well," the officer who had been holding Kíli said, a trifle gruffly. "I suppose they didn't mean any harm. Just you keep an eye on them from now on, young man." She gave a suspicious-sounding cough and shook her head, staring down at them in possibly misplaced sympathy. Ori thanked her quietly, reaching out to grab both boys, and pushed them along as fast as he could. He didn't stop or slow their pace until they were well outside St. James Park, and they had found a quiet bench where they could sit for a moment and get their breath. He didn't let go of either of them, now, but they didn't let go of one another, either.
"Care to explain yourselves?" Ori asked icily, drawing on every ounce of Dori's righteous rage that had been directed at him so many times.
"Was gonna see the Queen," Kíli said stubbornly, snuffling rather pathetically and wiping his nose with his sleeve. "She could have fixed it."
"We were going to ask her to put Smaug in prison and let Uncle Thorin and everyone go back to the mountain," Fíli explained. "She's the Queen, so she could do that."
"You were going to march in there and just tell her everything?" Ori asked, horrified.
Kíli nodded. "I'm good at telling people things," he said, though he sounded woebegone, not proud. "I know she would have understood."
Ori shook his head, bewildered by the strange little people that his cousins were becoming. "What would your mother have thought of you, breaking into the palace?" he asked. It was one of Dori's best tricks for making him feel guilty.
Fíli straightened, looking defiant. "Mama would have been proud," he said certainly. "Mama said we don't give up, not ever, and we stick together."
Kíli glanced up at his brother, not looking at all as certain. "But I got it wrong!" he objected. "Would Mama have liked me anyway?"
"Of course she would," Fíli insisted. Ori somehow felt like his presence was unnecessary. "She would have been proud of both of us."
And it was likely true, Ori thought ruefully. Dis would have thought it the greatest story, and would have made them all hear it again and again - her sons, ready to stand before the Queen and plead their case.
He kept them close after that, not even taking his eyes off them for an instant. They had time for food, and then Ori took them back to the shabby little flat he shared with Dori, who was apparently still out looking for them. Thorin turned up before he could try to work out how to find his brother, though, and then all Ori could think about was melting into the rug and vanishing.
Thorin was incandescent rage, divided fairly evenly between Ori and the lads. He roared for a few moments, then grabbed both of their hands and marched them away. They glanced back at Ori with forlorn little waves, and he couldn't help but feel it would be a while before he saw them again. Bofur had come down with Thorin, and he hung back for a moment, and patted his shoulder sympathetically.
"Don't mind too much, lad," he said gently. "He's all bark, you know. It'll be forgotten in a fortnight, now that they're safe and sound." And then he was gone, trailing along in Thorin's wake, and Ori was alone.
He stung at the reprimand, and even Bofur's commiseration was tinged with pity for a boy, little more than a child himself, who had made a grievous mistake. He didn't envy Fíli and Kíli the journey back with their uncle in such a temper, even as he knew they deserved every word of the scolding they would get. He sank into a chair, fingers reaching automatically for his pen.
He couldn't draw a thing. His fingers shook - shame and resentfulness and the lingering feeling of being so very useless - and he stared at the blank page. There was no memory he wanted to put down now. Not that it mattered anymore.
Fíli and Kíli were young, and so very bright, despite everything. He gripped his pen tighter, until his fingers hurt. They were young and bright and full of plans and hopes that he had long since watched burn away in the fires of the mountain, and crumble with useless years of fruitless waiting for a future he would never had. They had their lives ahead of them, and both of them together, facing the future without the fear of being alone. All he had - all he would ever have, now, was dreams that were growing dusty and a notebook full of drawings that no-one else would ever see.
The bitterness was a lump in his throat and a twisting sickness in his stomach, and Ori closed the book with fingers that shook, and went to pack his things. He would find Dori and leave the next day.
He never went to London again.
It has been a truly shameful length of time since I updated here, and I offer my sincere apologies. I'm working on getting back into better habits of working on both this and my other story at the same time. Ideally, I hope to update them back and forth on a much more regular basis. For now, I hope my take on Ori has been of some amusement!
Please know, though, that Ori is wrong. His drawings in his sketchbook eventually become the illustrations in Bilbo's bestselling book about their adventures, and he goes on to become a very well respected artist indeed. He never does go to uni, though. We can't have everything.