Gandalf lay on his back on the mossy ground, his eyes wide open and one hand on his staff. Above him, burning an arc across the night sky, Eärendil sailed to the sea.
The pull of Middle Earth held Gandalf in place, pinning his body to the dirt. Beside him Bifur snored, the sound echoing in the hollow they had camped in. Gandalf reached out and poked Bifur gently with his staff, making Bifur roll over and the snoring stop.
In the quiet Gandalf let his mind wander free from his body. Dori and Dwalin were watching over the campsite, solid as boulders in their wakeful caution. Gandalf sensed a glimmer of sword and axe like a thread of silver.
To his mind’s eye the hobbit was an island of warmth surrounded by the stone dwarves. Then Gandalf was riding the high winds amongst the stars.
They may have no supplies or ponies after escaping from the mountains and goblins, but the dwarves would still take care of the hobbit. Gandalf was sure of that.
* * *
A faint pad of footsteps followed Thorin out of the camp, past the dozing ponies. Thorin tipped a nod at Dwalin and gestured with his hand, indicating to let both of them pass.
The shine of Dwalin's scalp dipped in silent acknowledgement.
Away from the camp, Thorin sat on the trunk of a fallen tree and waited.
Bilbo slipped into the clearing, so quiet on the dry pine needles that his step made no sound.
"Master Baggins," Thorin said, standing up and bowing low.
Bilbo bowed in return, and said, "Thorin. You wished to speak with me?"
Thorin dropped to one knee and took Bilbo's hand, making Bilbo squeak.
"You saved my life through an act of bravery," Thorin said. "I owe you a debt of honour."
"But…" Bilbo said.
"I formally acknowledge this debt of honour," Thorin said. "I swear, before Mahal, that this debt will be paid by myself, or after my death, by my kin."
"Oh…" Bilbo said. "Um, thank you?"
Thorin let go of Bilbo's hand and unsheathed the small blade he carried on his belt.
"Blood?" Bilbo asked, jerking his hand out of Thorin's.
"Something more important than blood," Thorin said, lifting his blade and pressing it close to his scalp. "Hair."
He handed the under-braid he had cut to Bilbo, who took it with some reluctance.
Bilbo asked, "What do I do with this?"
"Keep it," Thorin said, standing up. "If you find yourself in need and I am not there, show the braid to any of my kin, any in Durin the Deathless' line, and you will receive aid."
Bilbo wiggled his hand. The braid flapped. All Thorin could read from his face was bewilderment.
"Like this," Thorin said, taking the braid off Bilbo and releasing the silver clasp that bound the end. He wound it around Bilbo's wrist twice, then refastened the clasp to secure the ends together, concealing it under the sleeve.
Thorin placed both of his hands over the braid, encircling Bilbo's wrist, and bowed again.
"Back to camp," Thorin said. "Get some sleep, Master Baggins, if you can."
Thorin escorted Bilbo past the watch to the dell where the party was resting on the bare dirt, too hungry for sleep and too tired to stay awake. Bilbo touched Thorin's arm and mouthed, "Thank you."
Thorin watched Bilbo lay himself on the ground and curl up, knees against his chest.
When Thorin closed his eyes, his body ached from the blows and bruises he had received. His conscience was easy, though, after having made his pledge to Bilbo. No rock or stone under his back could keep Thorin awake, but an unresolved debt of honour would eat at his mind.
Amongst the snores of his friends, Thorin could hear the faint scratchscratch of hair against skin, the whisper of fingers over braid, circling and circling.
Gandalf led the group, heading for the home of his friend who would provide shelter and who lived an unknown, hungry, number of day's march away. Thorin dropped back, taking over the rearguard from Balin.
Ahead of him, between the dwarves with stooped shoulders and heavy feet, Bilbo glanced back at Thorin, and Thorin nodded to Bilbo.
Bilbo stepped out of the line to inspect the wild strawberries beside the path and collect a berry. He held out the berry to Thorin, a tiny nugget of colour on his palm, and Thorin took it.
"Thank you," Thorin said, and Bilbo smiled sideways. "Gandalf said many things about you, when he chose you for this expedition, but I believe he understated your courage and heart."
"Gandalf talked about me?" Bilbo asked.
Thorin nodded. "He said he believed you had never married because you have longed to travel and have adventures."
"That may be part of the truth," Bilbo said. "How much is it prudent to tell a wizard?"
Thorin chuckled behind his beard. "I would advise you to answer any direct question he asks."
Bilbo laughed, a small sound, sweet as the berry lingering on Thorin's tongue. "But any questions he doesn't ask?"
"Do not require answers."
The party shuffled along the path in comparative silence, though Thorin would have sworn that he could hear Gloin's belly rumbling with hunger.
Later, when the day's journey was broken beside a stream, Thorin sat beside Bilbo, who dangled his feet in the chilly water.
"Why?" Thorin asked, and it pleased him that Bilbo didn't pretend to misunderstand.
"We are not all made to marry," Bilbo said. "If I did take a wife, it would be unfair to her. Are you married?"
Thorin shook his head. "There are not many dwarf women. I still could have found a wife, maybe even from my own line, because I am of Durin's blood. We are similar, in that a wife of mine would not have a fair life either."
Bilbo lifted his feet out of the stream and shook the water off them. Thorin stood and held out a hand to Bilbo.
When Bilbo was standing, Thorin kept hold of his hand and pushed Bilbo's shirt cuff up with a thumb. The double loop of Thorin's hair slid down to settle around Bilbo's wrist.
"It would please me, then, if you would wear this openly," Thorin said, bowing over Bilbo's hand.
Thorin let go of Bilbo's hand and bounded up the bank of the stream to where the others were being roused to their feet by Gandalf and Balin.
"How many miles before dark?" Thorin called out to Gandalf, looking up at the westering sun.
"Many," Gandalf said.
When the party had begun to move, Gandalf dropped a hand on Thorin's shoulder, and Thorin paused.
"You do not look like a dwarf who has had nothing to eat except sorrel leaves for days," Gandalf said in a low voice.
"Hmm," Thorin said. "I've had a berry as well. More than enough to fill my belly."
Gandalf shook his head, then strode past straggling dwarves to take his place at the front of the group, leaving Thorin as rearguard.
If Thorin looked closely, he could see the bands of braid around Bilbo's wrist, no longer hidden by shirt. His hunger pained him.
They sheltered for the night under the lee of a small cliff, with only a fire for warmth, and whatever food they had been able to glean from the wilderness. Fili and Kili had planned on hunting rabbits or grouse until Gandalf stopped them. Too close to the house of Gandalf's friend, Beorn; all the wildlife belonged to Beorn.
Thorin's dear friend Balin was the first to speak to Thorin, in a whisper of Khuzdal.
"Does the hobbit know what it means?" Balin asked.
Thorin settled his armour back against the raw cliff face behind him, easing his bruised spine, and shrugged.
"Probably not," Thorin said.
"Are you going to tell him?" Balin asked. "Or will you wait for Fili or Kili to explain?"
Gandalf was staring meaningfully at Thorin across the fire. Thorin uncrossed his knees, shifting his boot-clad feet away from the warmth.
"I will tell him," Thorin said.
Balin said, "Now?" and angled his head across the gully, to where Bilbo was sitting in the firelight.
Bilbo followed Thorin to the very edge of the camp when Thorin tapped him on the shoulder. The two dwarves on guard were hidden by the darkness of the night, but they at least would be watching Thorin.
"Why is everyone staring at me?" Bilbo whispered, sitting down beside Thorin.
The back of Thorin's neck prickled, and he revised the number of watching eyes upwards.
"Amongst dwarves of Durin's line, braids are given as tokens of many kinds of pledges and vows, not only honour debts," Thorin said. "The staring is an attempt to identify the meaning of the braid."
Bilbo shivered inside his clothes and stared out into the wilderness.
"It could mean other things?" Bilbo asked.
Thorin lifted his shoulders briefly. "It could."
Something brushed against the side of Thorin's hand where it rested on the ground. When Thorin glanced down, Bilbo's hand was beside his own, little finger to little finger.
Thorin lowered his own finger over Bilbo's.
Bilbo exhaled. "Does it?" Bilbo asked, and Thorin could hear something like hope in his voice.
Bilbo's skin was warm under Thorin's, and Thorin let his hand cover Bilbo's completely.
"It is my wish," Thorin said.
When Thorin glanced across, Bilbo's gaze was on his face. Only the watching eyes behind them stopped Thorin from leaning over and touching his lips to Bilbo's.
Thorin settled for lifting Bilbo's hand up and pressing his mouth against Bilbo's wrist, where the braid coiled.
"Another promise," Thorin said, standing up and helping Bilbo to his feet.
Thorin woke in the deep of the night, cold from the rocks seeping into his bones. The fire was a faint glimmer of coals, no longer providing warmth.
On the way back from relieving himself amongst the trees, Thorin paused close to where Bilbo was asleep.
Bilbo had curled himself into a tight ball, his arms wrapped around his knees.
Thorin shucked off his matted, filthy fur weskit and settled it over Bilbo. He would be warm enough in his gambeson.
Thorin had wished for many things by the time Gandalf led them all to Beorn's house. Food. Ale. Something softer than rocks to sleep on. Food, again. Also, ale, again. Balm for his bruises.
Mostly he wished for a way to ease the smudged tiredness from Bilbo's eyes.
Bilbo sat across Beorn's table from Thorin, nodding into his scones, cream and honey, until Gandalf sent him off to sleep. The dwarves were settling in for a night of mead and song celebrating their safety but Thorin had no taste for mead and little for song that night.
His belly full, Thorin took himself off to sleep as well, leaving the dwarves and Gandalf drinking, singing and telling tales.
Thorin woke to the sounds of snuffling and shuffling outside, as well as the slow heavy breathing of sleeping dwarves. When Thorin sat up, the hall was in darkness, apart from the embers of the fire and a splash of moonlight through the vent in the roof above the fireplace.
He wasn't the only one awake.
Bilbo's eyes were peering at Thorin over the top of blankets when Thorin looked down the row of sleeping pallets.
Thorin dipped his head in acknowledgement. He wanted to go to Bilbo in the gloom so much it hurt.
Thorin lay back down on the straw mattress and stared at the underside of the rough-hewn wooden roof. A whisper of movement made him turn his head to find Bilbo crouched beside Thorin's mattress. Bilbo made a hushing movement with his finger, his eyes wide with uncertainty.
Thorin wasn't uncertain. He lifted the edge of his blankets and eased himself across the rustling straw mattress, leaving room for Bilbo beside him.
Bilbo climbed onto the mattress and slipped into the gap Thorin had made him, and Thorin pulled the blankets up high, hiding them both.
Heat poured off Bilbo's skin when Thorin trailed a finger up Bilbo's bare arm. Thorin suspected Bilbo wasn't shivering because he was cold.
The smell of honey was in Bilbo's hair, when Thorin pulled him closer. He tasted of honey too, lifting his mouth up to meet Thorin's. A wild exhilaration rushed through Thorin as he touched Bilbo's skin. No mead had ever been this heady, no battle cry and axe swing had made him feel so exuberantly alive. He wanted to shout and sing.
Bilbo was breathing tiny sounds into Thorin's mouth, and his hands were bold on Thorin's arms and back, working their bodies together. He pushed against Thorin and Thorin could feel that the fire was upon him as well.
The skin on Bilbo's back was smooth beneath his undershirt, and he twisted against Thorin as Thorin's palm slid down and pushed under Bilbo's trewes.
Over the pounding in Thorin's ears, he could hear dwarves snoring and straw rustling. The reminder of watching eyes and listening ears was needed, stilling Thorin and fanning the spread of flame through his body.
Thorin eased Bilbo's trewes down and slid a hand between their bodies. Bilbo's hands were there as well, pulling Thorin's clouts open and touching. Thorin could feel the rough band of hair on Bilbo's wrist against his flesh.
If they had been alone, Thorin would have stilled Bilbo's hand and held himself back for other pleasures, other deeper touches. The sound of Nori snoring on the next pallet was a needed reminder. Concern for Bilbo’s propriety kept Thorin quiet and stopped him from guiding Bilbo over and pushing Bilbo into the straw mattress.
Silently cursing the straw for crackling was pointless, but Thorin did it anyway. Would Bilbo shy from his touch if Nori woke? At that moment, Thorin would have given much for a silent bed of dirt and rock again.
Bilbo's body was stuttering in the curl of Thorin's palm, his feet kicking against Thorin's shins, the mattress speaking every move they made. Bilbo was close, his breathing gone against Thorin's neck.
Bilbo shuddered and squeaked. Moisture seeped through the hair on Thorin's belly and slicked Thorin's forearm and Thorin could not help his answering moan.
Bilbo's touch slowed while Thorin counted Nori's snores, steady and deep. Before he reached five, Bilbo's hand tightened again and began to move. Thorin clenched his teeth and willed himself to stay silent as the fire uncurled in his belly, spreading out through his aching body. His spill shook him, leaving his body weak and trembling, his pulse ringing in his ear.
Caution said he should rouse Bilbo, who was slipping into sleep beside Thorin. Caution could wait, this time. Warmth was working into his bones, easing his aches and worries. He would wake Bilbo, but not yet.
Thorin found Bilbo's hand and tucked it between their chests, his fingers lingering over the braid for a sleeping moment.
* * *
Bilbo's pallet was empty and fear touched at Gandalf for a moment, until he found Bilbo's glowing warmth beside Thorin's sleeping strength.
Gandalf settled back into his own body, finding much to take comfort from.