Bilbo Baggins had noticed a difference in Thorin Oakenshield's behavior. Thorin had been a bit warmer. He had smiled a bit brighter. Thorin situated his horse a bit closer to Bilbo's pony. Bilbo noticed these things, but overall, it didn't seem overly important. The changes in Thorin were nothing, surely. Thorin was a king, important and courageous, and Bilbo was, well, nothing more than a hobbit, really. However, Thorin's behavior soon grew so unexplainable that Bilbo could not help but consider the reasons for it.
"Halfing," Thorin said gruffly from his spot by the fire.
"Yes?" Bilbo asked, a bit too eagerly. He still found himself striving to impress the dwarf, even now, to show him that yes he deserved to be here.
"I require assistance," Thorin grumbled, not bothering to look up.
Bilbo hesitated. "Are you sure… I mean, you need my assistance?"
"Did I call another?" Thorin asked, raising an eyebrow sharply.
"Oh no. No. Of course not," Bilbo muttered to himself, standing and walking reluctantly to Thorin's side.
Bilbo stood over Thorin, his brows raised expectantly. Finally Thorin said, "My sword requires attention." He thrust the weapon up towards Bilbo.
Bilbo felt his expression morph slowly into a look of pure bewilderment. "Wh-what? Is this a joke?" he asked, his voice growing higher-pitched with the last words.
Thorin looked up at the hobbit and for the first time, met his eyes. His gaze flickered to search Bilbo's small face. "It is no joke," he said.
"You expect me to take your sword, care for it, return it to you, and then go on my merry way? Just because?"
"Precisely," Thorin agreed with a single nod.
Bilbo let out a sharp laugh and shook his head, tugging nervously at the bottom of his coat. "You may be some great king," he pointed accusingly at Thorin. "But I am not your personal servant. I am…" he faltered, only to regain his composure and stand a little straighter. "I am a Baggins of Bag End and I will be treated as such." With that the hobbit, using all the force that he could muster, promptly turned from Thorin and marched away, muttering in annoyance as he went.
As he passed by them, the other dwarves snickered to each other, but he ignored them. They could get a laugh out of anything. With a glance back he saw that Thorin was looking unexpectedly sad. Bilbo felt a sharp pang of pity for the dwarf but he pushed it away, clinging instead to his pride and continuing on his way.
The next odd behavior from the dwarf came only two days later. The dwarves were resting in a clearing from a long day of constant walking. Gandalf was smoking. Bilbo was leaning against a tree, eyes closed, happy to have a moment of peace. He heard a rustling beside him and opened his eyes to find Thorin leaning against the same tree.
"Hello, Thorin," he said, opting for politeness.
Thorin nodded but said nothing. His eyes remained fixed on the ground rather than meeting Bilbo's.
"I was wondering, perhaps," Thorin said, sounding far more uncomfortable than Bilbo had ever heard him. "If you would braid my beard."
Bilbo felt his mouth drop open. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before opening them to analyze Thorin again. Yes, he did seem completely serious. Bilbo hadn't imagined the request then.
He spluttered, unable to find a proper response. "Braid your… I mean, do you really. Me? You-you want me to do that?"
"Will you do it or not, hobbit?" Thorin interrupted, his voice harsh.
"I…" Bilbo saw something in Thorin's eyes and before he realized what he was saying, he had agreed. "Yes, yes. All right. Yes, I will do it."
Thorin settled back against the tree, the hint of a smile playing along his lips.
"Shall I just?" Bilbo leaned forward and gestured towards Thorin's face, unsure of how one goes about braiding another's beard.
"Go on then," Thorin said, closing his eyes and relaxing.
Bilbo let out a long breath, bit his lip, and decided that he may as well get on with it. This was what friends did for each other, he supposed. Assuming, of course, that they were friends at all, which wasn't actually an assumption he'd really been working off of before. He leaned forward and delicately ran his hands through Thorin's beard, finding it far softer than he had expected. Carefully he began to braid small sections of it, working until there were eight small, precise braids.
"Thank you, halfling," Thorin said, standing and pulling away from Bilbo with no further warning. "I must have a word with Gandalf." He left before Bilbo could provide an answer.
When Thorin was gone Bilbo was unsure of how to react, so he simply leaned back against the tree and pushed the troublesome confusion away from his mind. He was able to sit in blissful silence until Fili and Kili spotted him.
"Thorin's beard looks lovely," Kili said with a grin as he settled into the open space beside Bilbo.
"Really lovely," Fili added, dropping beside his brother. Kili nudged him and they shared a laugh.
"Yes, well," Bilbo said. "Thorin has been a bit odd lately, hasn't he? But I suppose I did do a rather nice job." He fixed his eyes on Thorin and even from the considerable distance, his beard looked respectable. Bilbo was proud, despite the unexpected nature of the bidding.
"Odd, yes," Kili chuckled.
"That's it," Fili finished. "He's been odd."
They giggled together again and then the two were up and bouncing away before Bilbo could say another word. Try as he might it seemed that Bilbo might never understand dwarves at all.
Thorin and Bilbo's next interaction took place later on the same day, as the company prepared for bed.
"You are incredibly stout, Bilbo Baggins," Thorin said proudly, stopping as he passed Bilbo.
"Stout?" Bilbo asked, pausing from preparing the ground where he planned to sleep and rising to his full height.
"Yes," Thorin nodded. "You are reasonably stout, for such a small creature."
"Are you calling me fat?" Bilbo asked, affronted. "Oh yes, I know. I'm not quite as fit as I used to be." Bilbo brought a hand to his stomach and looked down worriedly. "I didn't think it was that noticeable." He sighed deeply before letting the breath out and fixing a pout on his lips. "That was an unnecessary observation, you know. Downright rude, even."
If Thorin hadn't been, well, Thorin then Bilbo would have sworn that he saw a bright blush creep across his cheeks. "Very well then," he answered, his voice small. "Firewood," he muttered before hurrying away from Bilbo.
Bilbo was left perplexed, working to comprehend exactly why Thorin was acting the way that he had been lately. A large hand resting on his shoulder broke his thoughts.
"Gandalf," he said, looking behind him and acknowledging the man.
"Bilbo Baggins," the wizard's eyes crinkled knowingly. "Having a chat with Thorin, I see."
"Not a proper chat," Bilbo grumbled. "He's insulted me, that's all."
"Called me fat, he did," Bilbo confirmed. "Or stout, I suppose."
Gandalf gave a deep chortle. "Bilbo, my boy," he leaned down to whisper in the hobbit's ear. "Dwarves greatly respect stoutness. In fact, I think that Thorin believes he has given you a great compliment."
"What?!" Bilbo exclaimed before he could help himself. "A compliment? Then I've… well, I haven't been gracious at all. My, what Thorin must think of my manners."
Gandalf patted Bilbo's shoulder softly. "Perhaps you should brush up on your knowledge of the culture of dwarves," he said with a grin. "Sleep well," and he was gone, leaving Bilbo as confused as he had ever been.
Through the night Bilbo tossed and turned, considering Gandalf's words and the recent actions of Thorin. He realized that he truthfully did not know much at all about dwarves. When he finally fell asleep it was with the thought that the next morning he would investigate. When he woke the next day, he did just that.
"Bofur, a word?" he said, pulling the dwarf to the side as the company prepared to move on.
"Of course," Bofur smiled and Bilbo found himself smiling along with him. Bofur was warm and bright, and Bilbo trusted him. He liked him. He was the perfect dwarf to question.
"Have you noticed Thorin acting a bit… strange?" Bilbo asked, keeping his voice low.
Bofur gave an awkward half smile. "I have indeed."
Bilbo stared at him, waiting for elaboration. When he got none he was forced to question further. "So… any idea as to why he's been acting strangely?"
"None," Bofur said, far too quickly.
Bilbo looked at him sternly. Bofur looked nervously away, wringing his hands in front of him. "Bofur…" Bilbo said, his voice deepening. "What do you know?"
Bofur shut his eyes and seemed to have an internal struggle before exclaiming, "He's courting you!"
"Courting me?" Bilbo replied slowly, putting heavy emphasis on the words.
"Oh dear. Oh no," Bofur said. "He is not going to be happy that I told you. This breaks all sorts of traditions."
"Traditions?" Bilbo was finding his mind unable to do anything but repeat Bofur's words.
"You're supposed to recognize his attraction. Compliments, weapon cleaning, beard braiding, possessive behavior… I assume he has done all of that."
"I… Well, no. No, actually. Possessive behavior? What does that mean? No, he has not done that."
Bofur looked increasingly worried. His eyes flitted around the camp that they had set up the night before. He opened his mouth to speak again but a dark figure behind Bilbo had him frozen.
The hobbit turned slowly to face Thorin, standing stiffly behind him.
"Having a talk with the halfling, Bofur?" he asked, his eyes flashing in a way that was almost menacing. "Not saying anything too important, I expect."
"Not at all," Bofur said with a small smile. "Good day, Thorin," he said with a bow. "Bilbo," and with that he was gone, leaving Bilbo alone with Thorin and this new and unexpected information.
"Are you and Bofur close then?" Thorin asked, clearly trying to keep his emotions in control.
"Close?" Bilbo asked, as if he didn't understand the question.
"Do you talk often?"
"Not really, no."
"Good," Thorin snapped. "Very good."
"Possessive behavior," Bilbo muttered to himself.
"What?" Thorin was quick to ask.
Bilbo drew a long shaking breath and tried desperately to find some courage. "I know exactly what you're doing," he said, forcing himself to hold eye contact with the dwarf.
He could actually see Thorin's eyes fill with understanding. "Do you?" he said, seeming to settle on approaching the situation with confidence.
"Yes," Bilbo said, holding his head high. "Yes, I do."
"Then why have you not responded?"
"I- Well, I confess I do not know how."
"Worthless halfling," Thorin said, shaking his head slightly.
"Oi!" Bilbo said loudly. "That is not how you woo someone. Not where I'm from."
"And how do you woo someone?" Thorin asked, taking a step closer to Bilbo. "Where you're from?"
"You, uh," Bilbo grew slightly flustered at the invasion of space. He had never been closer to Thorin. He could, if he liked, reach out and trace every detail of the dwarf's face. Instead he pressed on. "You ask them for tea. And you give them flowers. You- you're kind and pleasant. Sweet, perhaps. Sweet so that they can recognize your interest."
"You want me to be… sweet?" Thorin asked in a gruff voice.
Bilbo shrugged. "You could try."
Thorin considered these words for a moment before taking another step forward and placing a soft, chaste kiss on Bilbo's mouth.
"There," he said, his face stoic. "I can be… sweet." He said the word like it tasted badly on his tongue but Bilbo smiled nonetheless.
"Not too sweet though," he said quietly, daring to pull Thorin in for another, deeper kiss.
"Not too sweet," Thorin agreed once they had pulled apart.
So yes, although Bilbo had taken quite a while to realize it, Thorin's courting had gone all right in the end. It had been well worth the early confusion. Very well worth it.