Thorin had made a point of treating Bilbo more respectfully. He would not make comments that were uncalled for, nor would he consider the slightest mistake to be a sign of incompetence or weakness. He seemed to have understood that hobbits and dwarves are different in many ways, and that Bilbo constantly would go against many hobbit traditions and habits when helping the dwarves.
However, he wouldn't stay his tongue when he thought criticism was called for, but Bilbo didn't particularly mind that; with the prince being more impartial, he had started to feel like he belonged with the group.
This did not mean he was any less surprised when Thorin sat down next to him by the campfire one night. The dwarven prince acted as if his behavior was nothing out of the ordinary – his pipe between his lips while wearing the same stern look as always – and so Bilbo tried to treat the event as such. He kept himself occupied with his own pipe, letting the familiarity of smoking calm his nerves.
They remained silent, watching the fire and observing their companions. Thorin's pipe-weed had a thick, musky scent, and Bilbo had never encountered something quite like it. Old Toby seemed lightweight and mundane in comparison. On the other hand, it shouldn't surprise him; everything about the dwarves was a little bit more brutal and, well, dense.
"Had you decided not to sign the contract, what would you have been doing now?" Thorin's voice was raspy with smoke, and as unexpected as the question itself.
Bilbo drew a deep breath; he did not feel comfortable talking about his home with men who had none. And yet, as he pondered the question, he came to realize that there was no certain answer.
"I'm afraid most answers would seem ordinary and of little use, as the life I used to lead was not very exciting." He breathed in, pondering the question some more while savoring the taste of the leaves. "Many of the things I used to do would perhaps have lost their appeal. Reading of adventures of others, for example. But I do not doubt that other pastimes would take the place of that which is now inadequate. I do miss my garden."
Thorin remained silent for a long time, his face never giving away what thoughts he might have had on the subject.
Despite feeling quite comfortable sharing the silence, Bilbo felt like he should think of a question of his own.
"Had you been back in Erebor, had you never been forced to leave, how do you expect you would have been spending your time?"
At that Thorin turned to him, something like a sad smile on his face.
"I do not know, halfling. My life would have been very different."
They sat in silence for a while longer, most of the company having gone to sleep or murmuring amongst each-other.
Finally Thorin spoke again, this time his full attention on Bilbo.
"It is a curious thing," he said, in a much thoughtful manner, "to dream of something so intensely, yet being uncertain of what to do had it been in your possession."
At that Bilbo could do nothing but nod. While they had been separated from their homes in much different circumstances, they shared a longing. Thinking of this he politely ignored Thorin’s intense stare; even if the words might have seemed ambiguous there was no need to make a fuss of it.
Thorin never seemed like a sociable person. Once they stopped for the day he would give orders of how to proceed, sometimes speaking briefly with Gandalf or his companions, but as the night enveloped them all in darkness he would not huddle together with the others. He would not speak of memories or tell stories the way the others did – merrily and careless – but every once in a while he would tell a tale or sing a song, always with a grim complexion and a passionate yet distant voice.
The other dwarves wished to reclaim their homeland, and they wished to gaze upon the marvelous treasure again, that much was clear, but while all of them carried this burden – and desire – none were as consumed by it as the prince himself.
Yet despite this, Thorin started seeking out Bilbo’s company, and Bilbo himself, well, he was not too sure what to make of it. He did not know whether the change in Thorin’s behavior was something dwarvish; perhaps dwarves would only engage in conversation with one who had earned their respect? Or perhaps the dwarven prince simply wished to apologize in the only way he could think of?
They would speak of the oddest things. While Fíli and Kíli would ask questions about hobbit appearance – what exactly is the purpose of having such feet – and Bofur would merrily talk about hobbit food and brewery habits, Thorin’s questions were both surprising and welcome in comparison.
As much as Bilbo enjoyed talking about hobbit cuisine he found it much delightful to talk about his parents and hobbit history. The prince seemed to have paid much more attention to him than Bilbo would have assumed; Thorin had asked why he kept mentioning things like “Took” and “Sackville-Baggins”. Once Bilbo had explained the families of The Shire, Thorin had asked to learn more, and if Bilbo had any stories of his mother’s adventures.
Bag End being built must seem like a very mediocre accomplishment compared to the halls and craft that Thorin’s family line was so famed for, yet Bilbo’s tales were never belittled, but rather shown great respect.
“This garden of yours; I have never kept one of my own, and so it strikes me as a much peculiar interest. What is it that you find so pleasant about it?” Instead of looking somewhere far away – the way he normally did when engaging in conversation – Thorin’s eyes were on Bilbo this time. He tilted his head just a little, as if the hobbit was a riddle as intriguing as the hidden runes on their map.
Bilbo found himself bewildered at the question. How someone could not understand the point of gardening was beyond him.
Stuttering at first, trying to find words to describe his dedication, he eventually figured out what to say. “It is the joy of watching something grow; of starting with an empty patch and caring for it until life springs forth from underneath, colorful and strong. There is also something to be said about being able to produce your own food, however, my garden could not possibly feed me during all seasons; it is much too small. Yet, it is more than simply a hobby.”
As he tasted his pipe once more the silence grew heavy between them. Thorin came with no reply, but seemed as intrigued as before; perhaps even more so. Bilbo focused on producing a smoke-ring as distraction, but when Thorin showed no indication of saying anything, he once again ended up stuttering. In a company of dwarves the habit of hesitating and addressing everyone politely was more of a burden than anything else. From time to time the dwarves would still manage to surprise him with their bluntness, and every time he would tell himself that he should know better. It was the same with Thorin’s silence; something he should be used to, but never was.
“I guess I do not have the words to properly explain”, he finally said, huffing enough smoke to impress even Gandalf while doing so. “You are creating, but not entirely on your own. It is a tender work with a living thing. You may shape it, but you can never entirely tame it.”
At this Thorin nodded, his eyes shining a little brighter with understanding. “You talk of plants as a dwarf would talk of the mountain and the treasures within. It seems you halflings share the dwarves love of creation, yours is simply directed elsewhere.”
Around them the company was already asleep, apart from the shadowy silhouette of the guard at edge of the camp. Bilbo had barely had time to actually form the thought that he should sleep, much less mention it, before Thorin was already on his feet and offering his hand to help the hobbit up.
Accepting the hand Bilbo was quickly pulled up, only to have Thorin place his hands on his shoulders; eyeing the hobbit thoroughly, much like he had after their first embrace.
“While I do not understand the point of half of your traditions, your people are a fascinating one.”
And with that Thorin left. While he did have a habit of leaving a conversation when he considered it done – whether the people he was talking to thought so or not – Bilbo had never before felt so surprised. Despite his interest it was rare for the prince to express such things so clearly, and more than anything it felt like he had started a new conversation only to leave before it began. The thought of Thorin running from anything seemed ridiculous to Bilbo though, so he assumed that something had gotten lost in translation, or that he had simply misinterpreted something.
As they started getting closer to The Lonely Mountain the weather would change. Not much, but the nights would get a little colder, and to a hobbit unused to surviving in the wild it was a frustrating turn of events.
Bilbo did not wish to mention his discomfort as the dwarves would either laugh, or even worse; show him some kind of dwarvish way of staying warm. Instead he would sit closer to the fire at night, trying to act as if he did not seek the warmth the way a thirsty man would seek the mountain stream.
And despite his best efforts Thorin noticed, because apparently the dwarven prince was very attuned to the company and their needs. While he should be thankful, Bilbo could not help but to feel a little grumpy about the whole thing.
Thorin sat down next to him one night, and instead of lighting up his pipe or asking a question about hobbit jewelry, he wrapped his cloak around Bilbo. The cloak itself was not very big and definitely not meant for two, and so they ended up sitting very close; the cloak bringing their shoulders together. It also brought their heads together, and Bilbo was both surprised and annoyed to find that Thorin’s long hair was soft and very tickling.
They sat in silence for longer than they usually did, and Bilbo could not help but to squirm. He was not freezing anymore, nor did he feel a particular discomfort, but he did not like the idea of being thought of as so weak that a simple change in the weather could break him. After arguing silently with himself for a while, he decided that he should tell Thorin, whether it would end up angering the dwarven prince or not.
“I was managing quite fine on my own, thank you very much.” He ended up sounding much more cranky than he had intended, and decided to take out his pipe to have something to do. While reaching for it he ended up brushing against both Thorin and the cloak, and the heat made him wonder why he was questioning this in the first place.
“I would like to differ, considering how I could hear your teeth clatter from across the camp.” Up close Thorin’s voice was like nothing but a rumble in his chest, and he did not sound amused at all. “However, if you do not wish my help…”
Bilbo quickly patted Thorin’s knee, the way you would pat a pets head in order to calm it down. “It is not that I do not wish it. I just do not need it.”
Thorin pondered the answer for a while, and he seemed confused more than anything else.
As Bilbo finally managed to light his pipe, despite the coat confining his movements and generally being in the way, he decided to treat the event as something normal. It seemed like Thorin had meant only to help him, and silently he cursed himself for being stubborn.
“I have been wondering about Dwalin’s markings”, he said while puffing his pipe. “Is it a common thing among dwarves?”
While he did not look at Thorin, he still got the impression that the prince found his question very amusing. For a while there was only heavy breathing, almost like silent laughter, before he answered the question. “It is. I cannot give you the reason why, though. It is different for each of us.”
At that Bilbo nearly choked on his pipe. Thorin’s words seemed to imply that he as well… but surely that could not be the case? Fearing that it might be a very inappropriate question he still could not help himself. “You make it sound as if you have one of your own.”
“I do. It is not located in a very… visible area.” If Bilbo did not know better he would say the dwarven prince was smiling, but he was a clever hobbit, and he did know better. Thorin had simply stated fact and explained yet another peculiar part of dwarven culture, nothing more.
“Oh.” Every conversation with Thorin was like threading on thin ice – Bilbo spent a lot of time thinking about how his stubborn nature would eventually make him say something unsuitable without meaning to – but now more than ever. Curious to know more he was also overwhelmed by the knowledge that they were talking about Thorin’s skin, skin that would normally be covered with many layers of clothing. For some reason it felt like a very intimate subject; and was it not ironic that an intimate discussion should start with the mention of Dwalin’s head?
“What reason did you have to get yours?”
The warm expression on Thorin’s face was not for Bilbo, no, it was for a place far away and a time that had since long passed. “As a child I enjoyed proving my strength to others as well as myself. While some dwarves will get visible tattoos in memory of battles, companions or struggles overcome, I wished to prove I could withstand the pain.”
While Bilbo knew Thorin would never offer to show the tattoo, the desire to do so was obvious when looking at him. His eyes had an odd kind of gleam, making him look like a man ready for battle more than anything else.
“Would you show it to me, if I asked you?”
Thorin turned to him a little, the gesture awkward with the cloak still holding them close. “I would.”
Taking a determined breath Bilbo met the icy eyes. “In that case, I’m asking you.”
As Thorin started tugging at his shirt Bilbo felt relief running through him. Knowing that the tattoo was on the upper body made him feel slightly less awkward about asking to see it.
The cloak almost fell off both of them as Thorin worked with his many layers of clothing, finally getting them pulled back enough to show dark markings on the right side of his chest. A language Bilbo could not understand trailed along the ribcage, the black letters blending together with Thorin’s chest hair. Used to trailing unfamiliar words in books and on maps, Bilbo only managed to stop his hand inches from touching the skin; he had reached out on instinct, trying to decipher the words the way he would normally do.
“Did it hurt?” His voice sounded much more breathless than he expected it to. Sure, these kinds of traditions were rare – if they even existed – in The Shire, but they were hardly shocking.
“Obviously. It is a very sensitive area.” Thorin glanced at him, almost as if daring him to touch the markings.
And so Bilbo did, because sometimes he got tired of constantly being challenged. The skin was hot and surprisingly smooth beneath his fingertips, while the chest hair was harsh. He was barely able to feel the words as they blended in perfectly, yet he traced them with his fingertips nonetheless.
“What does it say?”
Thorin seemed to hesitate for a moment before answering. It was not rare for him be silent for long stretches of time, but as Bilbo finally tore his gaze from the markings to look at his face the dwarven prince seemed almost distracted.
Well, Bilbo thought, memories will do that to you.
Moments later Thorin covered up his chest and blinked hard, as if clearing something confusing from his mind. “I cannot tell you.”
At that answer Bilbo could do nothing but huff in response. “Well of course you can’t.”
Thorin reached up and ruffled Bilbo’s hair at that, the cloak falling off their shoulders while doing so.
“Go to sleep. I will make sure you do not lie too close to the fire.”
Bilbo did not pay much attention to the nature of his interactions with Thorin, but eventually he too realized how much things had changed between them. Not only would they sit side by side, but more often than not they would travel side by side as well. Their conversations were still sparse, especially while on the road, but often they did not need to speak to enjoy the company of the other.
During cold evenings Thorin would wrap his furs around Bilbo whenever they sat next to each-other, and he would go about it as if it was something they had always done. Bilbo was thankful for the warmth, and as the days passed he would lean against Thorin's bulk a little more. Thorin's hand would occasionally end up on his head, sometimes to simply ruffle his curls, but more often than not to play with them absentmindedly for the remainder of the night.
Bilbo assumed it was customary for dwarves, and would sometimes return the gestures by curling Thorin's mane between his fingers. While horribly tangled, the hair was soft and pleasant to the touch, and some nights Bilbo would end up trying to braid it. He was not very skilled at such things, but Thorin seemed amused by his attempts all the same.
The day came when they stopped for the night only to discover their supplies were running low. It was one of the first times Bilbo had noticed the dwarves being downbeat about anything that wasn’t related to Erebor. However, the sadness quickly fled as Bofur produced a barrel of ale, seemingly out of nowhere. Most of the dwarves seemed ready to dance out of pure joy, but they all awaited Thorin’s reaction. The prince seemed surprised rather than annoyed though, and the celebration quickly commenced.
Compared to the dwarves Bilbo was very moderate in his drinking, and he ended up by the fire yet again, observing his companions and trying not to laugh too audibly when they stumbled or slurred. Thorin, rather than brooding the way he would normally do, drank with the others, and while he did not smile or laugh as much as the other dwarves, he obviously enjoyed himself. Eventually he too sat down next to Bilbo, extending an arm to wrap his cloak around both of them.
“Do hobbits not drink?” Thorin’s voice was a little louder than normal, the ale obviously affecting him; the prince had probably had more than any of them, perhaps simply to prove that he could handle it. Without meaning to, Bilbo’s mind wandered to the dark writing he now knew marked Thorin’s chest. To him it seemed like Thorin spent a lot of time trying to prove his own worth, to others as well as himself.
In response to the question Bilbo gestured with the pint he had yet to empty. “We do. I prefer to actually savor the taste rather than gulping it down, though.”
Thorin did not giggle; his laughter was more of a rumble at the back of his throat. “Good.”
They sat in silence after that, watching the others go from singing to fighting to laughing in a matter of minutes. Thorin would lean against Bilbo, his hand once again in the hobbit’s hair, playing with the curls almost as if he was not aware of his actions.
Bilbo could not help but think of his first encounter with his companions, and how Gandalf had noted how they were very merry and pleasant, once you got used to them. Resting in Thorin’s warmth – almost in his arms – and listening to the slurred singing of the others, he knew that Gandalf had been more than right. With Kíli and Fíli dancing, and Thorin looking appropriately ashamed of his nephews, Bilbo could not think of a time he had felt this much at peace.
Despite sitting close, Thorin still seemed to feel the need to lean in even closer to speak, his voice nothing but a soft purr against Bilbo’s ear. He would make comments about the others, or ask how halflings enjoyed their drinks and if they were anywhere near as loud as his nephews.
Bilbo would simply laugh, or keep his replies short.
That night he did not curl up in his bedroll, but fell asleep in Thorin’s arms. It was not a conscious decision, and had it been so he would not have considered it a wise one. Enveloped in warmth he simply could not keep his eyes open, but drifting off to sleep he was sure of one thing; the touch of wet lips and a rough beard against his forehead.
It was a silly thing, really, to decide to speak with Thorin about such a delicate thing while they were traveling. There was no darkness to hide in, nor a roaring fire to shelter them.
“What do you say we should call this?” He asked, trying his best to keep an even pace with the dwarf.
“This?” Thorin’s voice was the closest to startled Bilbo had ever heard it, and so he glanced at Thorin’s face and was surprised by what he found there. For a moment the majesty that was normally present in Thorin’s features was nowhere to be seen, and instead of a presence that commanded respect he seemed almost fearful and lost.
Despite that Bilbo decided to explain himself, because no matter how the dwarven prince felt about what he was trying to say, he would probably be even more insulted if Bilbo simply went quiet. “Us.”
Thorin turned to him at that, the fear now gone from his features simply to be replaced by anger. Bilbo expected him to yell or curse as he opened his mouth, but there was nothing but silence. Then the dwarven prince muttered a few words in Khuzdul – that sounded much too harsh to be flattering – and walked away, only slowing his pace as he reached Dwalin’s side.
Bilbo spent the remainder of the day in silence. Once or twice he would answer a question, but most of the company seemed to have realized that he would prefer to be left alone. He was not exactly sure what answer he had expected, but judging from the tightening in his chest this was clearly not it.
Perhaps he had misjudged the situation, and Thorin had simply been treating him like a fellow dwarf. Perhaps it had been an act of little emotional attachment; something simple that he did not wish to complicate. Whatever it was, Bilbo felt regret clawing at him as the night grew closer. While he knew he would freeze more than he had in days, it was the loss of a friend he grieved more than anything.
Once they had set camp for the night, and all members of the company had eaten their fair share of the dinner – which this night was a quite horrendous stew – Bilbo huddled by the fire like always. The flames did little more but send puffs of warm air in his direction, yet he stubbornly remained by it; not wanting to bother anyone else with such a trivial matter as being cold.
Too focused on not letting his teeth clatter too loudly, he barely noticed the movement of someone sitting down next to him. However, the company became obvious when an arm wrapped around his shoulders and held him in what could be described as an embrace.
“Call it whatever you wish.” Thorin’s voice was deep and low, but the admission in it was clear.
It was the first time Bilbo dared to snuggle up close without hiding his intentions, and Thorin did nothing to stop him, in fact, he loosened his embrace a little to make sure he held the hobbit comfortably. After a moment’s hesitation Bilbo reached up to curl a few strands of that black hair between his fingers. When noticing Thorin actually leaning into the touch Bilbo moved on, trailing the sharp jawline and enjoying the texture of the rough beard beneath his fingertips.
He felt that he should say something, but not being sure of what was appropriate he ended up stammering, fearing that he would manage to insult some kind of dwarven customs if he spoke too freely.
“Thank you.” It was much too simple and taciturn, but still better than mumbling nonsensically. Leaning against Thorin’s shoulder he got a murmur in response and the soft pressing of lips against his forehead. If he was to be honest with himself he did not know what to call this, however, there was no doubt in his mind that they would figure it out eventually.