So this idea just came to me, and it needed to be written, so I'm writing it
Also, age-wise, I divide things by 3 to get the equivalent: Ori is 12 in dwarven years, which is like 4 in human years. Nori is 32 in dwarven years, and (about) 11 in human years. Although I haven't actually given Dori an age, I'd probably put him at about 84 (that's 28 in human years). In relation to these ages, this story would happen just over 60 years before the events of the Hobbit.
Nori was as good a thief as ever there was; he could pick your pocket without you even realising he'd been standing next to you, he could pick a lock as quickly as you can blink (or even quicker), and when it came to using those knives of his... let's just say you'd be lucky to get away alive, and if you did, it was probably only because he'd let you.
It was generally accepted, among the criminal classes where he was well-known, that Nori had either taught himself these skills, or had been taught by some forgotten stranger, long ago when he was just a dwarfling.
No-one would think to guess the truth, for Nori had actually learned these skills from his elder brother.
Times had been hard for the Brothers Ri, and the world had not been kind.
Azanulbizar had claimed Dori's father; his body never accounted for, but his absence telling of his fate just as well as a grave would have done.
Then along came Nori and Ori's father; always quick and stern, but kind. The death of their mother got rid of him quick enough; Ori's birth was hard, one their mother did not recover from, and before they had even laid her to rest, their father had vanished. Nori didn't blame him – he probably would have done the same.
And so, circumstances being what they were, Dori had to do his best to provide for his brothers, and if that meant lightening the pockets of the rich, then so be it.
Dori would change his braids and beads every time he went out stealing, and although his soft blue-grey hair colour was still recognisable, it was not so uncommon that he wouldn't be mistaken for someone else, and someone else mistaken for him. It was because of this that Dori managed to get away with almost every theft he ever committed, and though they were only ever small thefts from market stalls and pockets, the spoils were enough to keep the Brothers Ri fed and clothed, as well as pay for a brief education for Nori.
The eldest Ri brother hated what he had to do to provide for his family (yes, his – he was the eldest, and he provided for them), but tried to console himself with the fact that his brothers didn't know what he was doing, so they wouldn't learn bad habits from him. Dori constantly thought about finding a more honest job, and searched whenever he could, though that was not often.
Then, one day, Dori stood in a side street after a good day of pickpocketing, waiting for an opportunity to go home without being noticed. As he glanced round the street, a notice on an old wooden door caught his eye. Glancing around to check no-one had seen him, he quickly crossed the street and began reading it.
'Wanted: cloth weaver. Experience preferable, but can learn on the job for lower pay. Apply within.'
Dori smiled, pleased at the opportunity Aüle had presented him. Taking a breath to steel himself, he lifted his hand to knock...
...and was roughly grabbed by the shoulders and shoved into the nearby wall.
"Got you, you thief," growled a low voice from behind Dori's left ear.
Dori groaned inwardly – he didn't like what would come next – before slamming his head back and headbutting the guard hard. He was always careful how hard he did things, because he'd inherited an incredible strength from his mother and her side of the family, and he knew that if he used all his strength, the poor dwarf who'd caught him probably wouldn't live to see another day.
Said dwarf howled in pain, quickly stepping back and clutching his face, where blood was pouring out from his nose. Dori took his chance and ran. He ran out the street into the market square, rushing past people as he tried to get lost in the crowd. After weaving back and forth among the stalls and dwarves, he rushed down the main street, in order to turn down a different alleyway that was a convenient short-cut.
But not this time.
This time, he encountered a few city guards strolling towards the market square, their garb clearly showing that they were on duty. They took everything in in one glance, before sprinting towards him. Dori whipped round to head back to the market square...
...only to crash right into the chest of the dwarf who'd first caught him, bowling them both over.
Although Dori was strong, he stood no chance against all three tall, muscled guards as they handcuffed him and took him to the cells.
Luckily for him, he was only charged with stealing one large loaf of bread from a baker's stall and injuring the guard – the rest of his small crimes that day, and for the past few years, had gone more or less unnoticed, or had been blamed on someone else. Therefore, Dori was sentenced only to a week in gaol, for which he supposed he should be lucky, though he was terribly afraid of what would happen to his brothers while he was there. The judge had said some food would be sent to them, though other than that, Dori's pleas had been useless. He would just have to wait.
When Dori was released a week later, he lost no time in rushing home to see his brothers, having imagined all sorts of scenarios whilst in prison.
And yet he opened the door to find two, perhaps a bit messy and untidy, but happy and well-fed children.
"Dori!" Nori dashed over from his place by the fire to hug Dori tightly, Ori waddling along behind him. "Ori was upset at first, but I told him you'd upset the guards and you'd be back soon, so not to worry."
Dori smiled, gently brushing a hand through each dwarfling's hair. Then the meaning of the words sank in.
"Upset the guards?"
"They don't like your work, do they Dori?"
"My work? Why shouldn't they like it?"
Nori turned up his large amber eyes to look at his brother. "Well they didn't like it when I did it – they called it thieving," then an impish grin tugged at Nori's mouth, "but when I pretended to cry, they let me go, and they paid for the bread too!"
Dori's eyes widened in shock. "And why were you thieving, Nori?"
"Cos I watched you do it before, and I practiced, and got really good at it, and then the guards took you, and we had no food, so I had to go thieving so we could eat – I couldn't let Ori starve."
Dori sighed wearily and picked up both his brothers, settling one on each hip (though Nori was getting a little big to be picked up, Dori was strong enough to still do so easily). "Now listen to me, Nori: thieving is wrong, and you should only ever do it when times are so bad you couldn't survive otherwise. You did right by Ori, and my thanks for looking after him, but when he gets old enough to understand, don't ever tell him about all this thieving business, do you understand?" His words came out sterner than he intended, but Nori didn't seem to mind.
"Aye, Dori – it's just between us."
"Now, I need to go and see about a proper job; one that will mean no more dishonest thieving. Think you can look after your brother for a bit longer?"
Young Nori scoffed. "Of course I can, Dori – I've looked after him for a whole week already!"
"That you have, Nori, and I'm right proud of you for it."
And with that, Dori went into his room to change his braids back to his Dori ones (the ones that told people he was the family patriarch, and a big brother, rather than the ones intended to make him inconspicuous) and left.
When he arrived in the alleyway, looking for the door with the job advertisement, Dori thought he must have taken a wrong turning (despite it being something he just didn't do). Or, that is, he desperately hoped he had taken a wrong turning, because the notice was no longer there.
Dori sighed. Always my luck – a job I think I can do, and someone else gets it first because I get arrested for something as petty as stealing a loaf of bread. Might as well knock anyway.
And so knock Dori did.
The door was opened by a smallish dwarf sporting raven black hair with a few grey streaks. He raised an eyebrow at Dori in question.
"I'm here about the job – I tried to come last week, but was prevented by...various things, and now I've come and the notice has gone."
The dwarf looked at him regretfully. "I'm sorry lad, that job's been filled..."
"Do you have anything else?"
The dwarf regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, then held the door open for him. "Come inside 'n' meet my wife – then we'll see."
The dwarf led Dori along a hallway and up a flight of stairs, before opening a door and ushering him inside.
"Jarla, I've got a dwarf here wants a job."
Dori bowed. "Dori son of Kori, at your service."
The brown haired dwarf sitting in the rocking chair looked him up and down.
"Can you weave cloth?"
"Can you knit?"
"Can you sew?"
"Can you cook?"
"Can you read?"
"And do your numbers?"
"Anything else to say for yourself?"
Jarla interrupted him; "Spit it out – we haven't got all day."
"I'm very strong, and I need the money to raise my brothers."
"How many brothers?"
"Of working age?"
"The youngest is 12, but Nori is 32."
"What have you been doing to feed them before now?"
Dori hesitated, before deciding that he'd better tell the truth. "Thieving."
Jarla raised her eyebrows, then leant back and set her chair rocking. Her husband had, at some point, though Dori didn't know when, left the room, clearly leaving the decision up to her.
She thoughtfully sat rocking her chair as time passed, while Dori did his best not to fidget; though he was patient, he disliked standing idle.
After fifteen minutes, Jarla looked up at him.
"Here's what I'm going to offer you, and you either take it or leave it. You will do whatever work I give you; it might be cross-checking accounts, reading if my eyes get tired, cooking if I'm not well enough to do for myself, or coming with me to market to carry the cloth. For this I will pay you ten coins a week." Dori took a breath to speak, but Jarla ignored him. "I will also teach you my cloth weaving business; I have none others to teach it to, since my sons prefer different trades. What say you?"
Dori thought for a moment. "Are you willing to negotiate?"
Jarla raised an eyebrow.
A moment passed, and Dori feared he'd overstepped the mark and completely ruined his chance. Well done, Dori, you clot.
Then Jarla smirked. "Ten coins a week, but if you bring your brothers here when you come in the morning, they will be cared for and given a midday meal, as long as your Nori is willing to run errands when needed."
A grin split Dori's face, as he offered her his hand to help her from the chair. Jarla smiled and took the offered hand, instantly knocking their heads together to seal the agreement once she was standing.
"No thieving while you work for me."
Dori nodded. "Understood."
"Now go home and be here tomorrow two hours after dawn."
"I will...thank you."
"Don't be foolish – if it wasn't beneficial to me, I wouldn't have given you a job; you'd have been back in that alley quicker than you can say Erebor. Now get."
Dori bowed to her and left.
Thus the brothers Ri set into a rhythm; every morning, Dori woke first, swept and cleaned the house, woke, fed and dressed his brothers, and himself, and then left for Jarla's house.
Ori and Nori were cared for by Jarla's husband, Breven, who seemed to be a quiet dwarf who let his wife make all the decisions (as is rather common in dwarf society). And yet he would happily read to Ori and Nori and play with them, giving Ori a piece of leftover cloth which the babe now refused to part with, and challenging Nori to word games to keep his mind quick. He also taught Nori knot language, showing him knots and sending him home with leftover thread to practice, as well as lending him a book on it occasionally.
Dori did not like all the jobs he was given, but he refused to complain. Initially, he did little more than fetching, carrying, passing messages, and reading to Jarla when her eyes became too tired. But as time passed, and Jarla came to trust him a little more, he was trusted with the checking of accounts. Jarla also began to take him with her to the market when she bought thread and wool to weave into cloth, and when she went to sell newly made cloths. Thus, Dori learned what cloth, wool and thread were worth, and he learned how to haggle; soon, Jarla began letting him do lots of the haggling, once she'd picked out the wool.
Five years passed, and Dori had become invaluable to Jarla and the cloth-weaving business; he had learned what was fine wool, and what was bad wool, he had learned how to haggle the price of cloth as high as a buyer was willing to pay, and to haggle the price of wool as low as a seller would take. But, as of yet, Jarla had made no move to teach him how to weave cloth. Dori had not spared too much thought on this, since he simply didn't have the time, but he was reminded of it when, one day, at the time Jarla would normally send him home, she asked him to stay for another hour.
"It's been exactly five years since I took you on, Dori Korison, and I've had little enough cause to regret it. So today, we'll start your education in cloth-weaving, if that is agreeable to you."
Dori nodded enthusiastically. "If it pleases you to do so."
"It does, otherwise I would not have mentioned it. Now sit."
So Dori sat at Jarla's feet for the next hour, watching and learning as she began to show him how to weave cloth. Jarla taught him for an hour every day from then on; even though Dori was a master at it in a few years time, Jarla would have him sit at her feet weaving for an hour each day, and there was still the odd occasion where she could teach him something he didn't already know. Sometimes they would weave together, making complex patterns that required two pairs of hands to hold the many threads being used.
Things went on like this until Jarla died; Dori arrived one morning eight years later with his brothers and was met at the door by Breven, who, to anyone who didn't know him looked well. But Dori did know him.
"Jarla's dead. Died in 'er sleep. Found 'er cold this mornin'..." Breven broke off and took a shaky breath.
Dori frowned and pursed his lips, before saying, "I'll take care of business until you're ready to think about it." He turned to his brothers and said gently, "Nori, take Ori home – Breven can't take care of you today."
"No, no, let 'em stay," Breven smiled weakly, "mebbe they can take my mind off things."
Dori took care of the business completely by himself for the next two weeks; the first week was the traditional week of mourning, and Breven wasn't allowed to work even if he'd wanted to, which he didn't. Jarla was returned to the stone on the fourth day of that week, and Breven spent most of the time sitting listlessly in her old rocking chair, only perking up when he was with Ori and Nori.
On the fifth day, Ori, who could talk by now, decided to ask, "mister Breven, where Jarla?"
Nori frowned. "Hush Ori, I'll tell you later."
"No Nori, don't chide your brother." Breven then took Ori on his lap and proceeded to explain. "She's gone, my lad; she died in 'er sleep. 'er body is returned t' stone, and 'er spirit revels in Mahal's banquetin' 'alls."
Young Ori frowned. "She not come back?"
"No Ori, she's not comin' back. But one day, I'll see 'er again, when I go to Mahal's banquetin' 'alls meself."
Ori nodded, content with that answer. "So why you sad?"
"No, Nori, 'e can ask." Breven smiled sadly. "Because it might be a long time afore I see 'er again."
Ori frowned. "But we here!"
Breven smiled, and patted Ori on the head, "that you are lad, that you are."
Dori and Breven settled into a business partnership that lasted until Breven's death, nineteen years later. From then on, Dori ran the business by himself, sometimes taking on apprentices to teach, or a young dwarf to run messages for him.
It wasn't until years later that Dori found out about Nori's thieving. Nori had grown into a tall, attractive dwarf with a quick mind, and even quicker fingers. Dori was very proud of him. Nori's small trade, though he had little need for one because of Dori's business, was knot-making; Nori would tie knots with meaning, or ones that lacked meaning but looked pretty, and he would sell them in the market once a week, sometimes even taking special commissions or requests. Ori had been apprenticed to a scribe who lived across the city, since Dori was now able to afford education for his brothers, and Ori had shown a preference for writing and drawing.
The first Dori heard about Nori's less legal pastimes was when a young guard knocked on his door, explaining, matter-of-factly, that his brother had been caught stealing and had asked to be bailed out. Dori bailed him out, but he really wasn't happy.
"Nori, what were you thinking?"
Nori shrugged, "I was thinking that Ori needed a new set of quills, and you could have made some very fine cloth with that colour wool."
"Nori! You stole them! What made you think that was a good idea?!"
Nori shrugged again, inciting Dori's anger more. "I wanted to give my brothers presents..."
"NORI NÍRNSON WHY IN THE NAME OF AÜLE WERE YOU THIEVING?!" Dori interrupted. "And don't you avoid the question!"
Nori turned to face his brother with a quiet snarl. "BECAUSE I LOVE THE THRILL, BECAUSE IT MAKES ME FEEL ALIVE, AND BECAUSE, BY AÜLE, I CAN IF I WANT TO!"
"You must stop all this thieving, Nori!"
"You can't make me!"
Though the words sounded childish, the meaning behind them was not, and Dori sat down, defeated.
"No, I cannot, you're right."
Dori sighed, composed himself, stood and left the room, giving Nori a brief pat on the shoulder as he went past.
The next day, Nori was gone, with a jade and emerald hairpin left beside Dori's bed, and a pot of rare green ink beside Ori's. Ori cried for days, but Nori didn't return for months, and as the years wore on, Dori and Ori became used to Nori's absence and irregular visits, and Dori became a little overprotective of his youngest brother, irrationally feared lest the same happen to him.
When, in the same day, both Ori and Nori (the latter was visiting) told Dori about the quest for Erebor, Dori knew what he had to do; he wound up his business affairs, and handed them over to a dwarf he thought capable, he sold off his last few pieces of cloth, and bought warm clothes and supplies.
That way, when Nori and Ori separately announced (the former confidently, the latter nervously) that they had signed the contract for the quest, Dori was prepared. He gave each of them their packs, their weapons, and their thermal clothing. Then he went and signed the contract himself. (He nearly changed his mind and turned round when he saw the guard that led him to Thorin, but it seemed that Dwalin Fundinson did not remember the strong thief that had given him a nosebleed in an alley many decades ago.)
One night, a week and a half after leaving Bag End, Dori sat a little way from the fire, thinking on all he had left behind. He barely registered when Gandalf sat down next to him and said something.
"Hmm, what? Sorry."
Gandalf smiled. "I was wondering what prompted you to come on this quest – I know why your brothers came, but you've said nothing on the subject."
Dori glanced over at his brothers; Ori was sitting by the fire subtly trying to draw Thorin without him noticing, and Nori was impressing Fili and Kili with some sleights of hand.
"My brothers needed me..." he trailed off.
"Even though they didn't realise it." Gandalf finished. "I don't think they realise quite how much you've done for them."
"It would only make them uncomfortable, they don't need to know."
Gandalf considered this for a moment. "Very well, just don't let yourself feel undervalued."
And with that, Gandalf rose and went to impress Fili and Kili with better sleights of hand.
"Mister Gandalf is better than you, Nori," Kili commented, making Gandalf preen just a little.
"That's cos he's a wizard, idiot," replied Fili, as he playfully shoved his brother.
Nori smirked. "But could mister Gandalf have picked your pockets so well?"
Fili and Kili exchanged confused looks, followed by exclamations when Nori produced what he had stolen from them; from Fili a piece of wood he was whittling, and the knife he was using to whittle, from Kili a few arrowheads and the oil used to keep his bow in good condition. Nori returned the stolen items as the boys gaped, and Gandalf laughed heartily.
"Where did you learn all these things, Nori?" Kili looked up, eyes wide and admiring.
Nori didn't let himself glance towards Dori; the Durins weren't the brightest lot, but he didn't want to give anything away to Gandalf.
"From a very good dwarf many years ago," he paused, deliberately teasing them, "but anything more than that is a secret," Nori grinned and Fili and Kili whined, beginning to object. Nori held up his hand, "I'm not telling, so there's no point in trying."
Instead, the young Durins settled for being taught how to do a few tricks (honest ones, of course) and didn't ask again. Dori was glad that Nori still kept their secret from everyone, even Ori and Gandalf, and, in sharing a secret, the eldest Ri brothers were actually closer than most people thought.
This started out as a story about Nori and turned into one about Dori – it more or less wrote itself. I love them both, anyway, so I don't mind too much.
Also, the name of Dori's father wasn't one I came up with – I read it in a story ('Dirty Deeds', I think) on AO3 and liked it. I came up with Nírn myself.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it reviews and favourites always welcome.