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Gem

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Miss Beryl Baggins had been known as Bilbo to her friends and relations ever since she was a faunt dashing about the fields of Hobbiton in wee trousers and shirtsleeves, splashing in puddles and scaling trees like a squirrel. Named in honour of her distant foremother, Missus Berylla Baggins, and then quickly gaining a nickname inspired by her forefather, Mister Balbo Baggins, Bilbo had always felt a strong connection to her Baggins heritage, even when her spirit flared its most Tookish and wild. Balbo and Berylla had been the progenitors of the Baggins line, after all: the first Bagginses of Hobbiton, and Bilbo’s great-great grandparents.

A Tookish urge may have lit the fire under her heels and set her running out her door after a band of scruffy dwarves, but Bilbo was just as much a Baggins, down in her very bones. And it was this same Baggins-ness that ruled her as she considered how best to make overtures of friendship, or at least camaraderie, toward her odd companions. She was not quite Tookish enough to ignore her social graces, after all.

By the time Bree disappeared behind them, it seemed as though the whole wide world stretched out before them in the most nerve-wracking, heart-pounding sort of way (at least, heart-pounding for one settled spinster, having now travelled farther from the comforts of home than she had ever been before in all her fifty years; the rest of the Company didn’t seem overly bothered). It was also by this time that Bilbo had managed to memorize all the dwarves’ names (a feat made simpler by years of previous experience with recalling the names of her many curly-headed cousins milling about the Shire), and had privately split them into aptly named groups: sweet, savoury, and sour.

At first, it had only been Bofur, with his easy grin and bright laugh, young Ori, and Kili in the first category; these three had been the friendliest to her immediately, making her feel as welcome as possible, and decidedly not cutting doubtful, sideways glances her way. It hadn’t been too long, however, before Bombur proved himself as sweet as his older brother, asking Bilbo for her help with supper preparations and chatting amiably (if a bit shyly at first) about recipes and ingredients. It had made her feel included, in some small way, rather than simply the mistrusted, useless outsider. She had no idea how to tend to ponies, sharpen weapons, or hunt game, but she knew dozens of tasty ways to prepare rabbit and venison with only a few simple herbs, and which tubers and mushrooms were safe and plentiful to gather along the Great East Road.

Most of the other dwarves, Bilbo labelled savoury in the privacy of her mind: generally fine enough fellows, not inclined to rudeness or overly obnoxious behaviour aimed in her direction, but rather more neutral than actively chummy.

Fili seemed to trust his brother’s judgement to some extent, cozying up to Bilbo on occasion with a warm smile in his golden face as Kili pressed in on her other side. Thorin’s stern glares and judgemental comments at her expense seemed to kept him flitting back to arm’s length, however, and Bilbo didn’t have the heart to feel too slighted about it; it was obvious that Fili yearned for his uncle’s approval, and Thorin certainly did not approve of her.

Balin was similar, though Bilbo didn’t imagine for an instant that the older dwarf’s reserved attitude was because he sought Thorin’s praise as a pup might seek a treat. No, Balin was kind enough to her, quick enough to answer her questions and offer advice, but Bilbo still remembered his doubtful words around her table: hardly burglar material. It felt as though, despite his welcome and his wink when she’d appeared with her contract flapping behind her, Balin still doubted her suitability for the task ahead. She hardly blamed him, of course, for she doubted herself in that regard most every step of the journey thus far, but it also seemed as though Balin had little interest in forming a proper friendship with such a Shire-soft hobbit lass.

Gloin and Oin were both mannerly, though gruff and looked upon Bilbo with the same air of skepticism as Balin did. Nori was something of a mystery, keeping his distance even when she felt his eyes on her, but Dori seemed to be slowly warming to her presence (bringing up the topic of teas and tea service had brought an excited glint to his brilliant blue eyes, and had also earned her an encouraging nod from Ori). Bofur and Bombur swore that their cousin had nothing but kind words for her, but of course Bilbo couldn’t understand a single one of those supposed kind words or strange gestures, and so any friendship between her and Bifur was progressing very gradually.

Dwalin and his menacing scowl had been firmly placed within the realm of sour, until they had been on the road for not quite a fortnight. That was when the rain had started: only a springtime sprinkle at first, but quickly turning into a downpour that lasted for days. Bilbo had weathered the cool drizzle quite staunchly at first, not uttering a single complaint as it began to soak into her pinned-back hair and trail shivers down her neck as it seeped under her collar. She did, however, immediately realize the gravity of her error in not packing any sort of cloak, or even a hat or hood. Her travelling clothes— trousers and a corduroy coat— were sturdier than skirts would have been, but offered little protection from such elements as rain and strong wind.

A week and six days on the road, with home far behind them now and the Lone-Lands ahead, Bilbo was soaked and shivering on the back of a pony, probably looking as miserable as a cat that had been tossed in a bath. After only a few hours of that miserable trekking, however, Bilbo suddenly found herself blind and snared in an ambush of heavy fabric, tossed over her head and back from behind.

She had flailed then, nearly tipping from her pony as Myrtle snorted and shook from Bilbo’s panic. A very large hand had steadied her before she could take a tumble, gripping firmly on her arm, and the accompaniment of Dwalin’s deep rumble of a voice was both calming and shocking in nearly equal measure.

“Easy, lassie,” he’d said, then tugged the fabric back away from where it had fallen over her face. A heavy cloak, in a drab mossy green colour that was growing darker with the heavy slick of rain over its oiled length, had been draped over Bilbo from head, down past her feet.

The cloak had smelled mostly of pine, smoke, and the heady musk of very masculine sweat— Bilbo had a vague sense that she shouldn’t have found the aroma as comforting as she had. It was also body-warm already, which brought an unwelcome, answering heat flushing up over her face, scorching under the chilly rain.

When she’d turned, favouring Dwalin with a terribly confused but grateful sort of wide-eyed stare, he’d waved off any and all arguments, and offered not a word of explanation for his generosity, even as the rain splattered down over his bald pate, beading in his eyebrows and bushy beard.

From that day forwards, Bilbo had assumed a tentative sort of accord with the big, burly dwarf warrior, and Dwalin hadn’t corrected her increasingly cordial conduct. He was rough around the edges, certainly, but he still thanked her every evening when she passed him his supper (with a word and a glance, rather than simply a grunt as Thorin was wont to do), and had even lent her a natty little travelling haircomb when her own had met its ignoble end under a pony’s hoof one evening. It wasn’t the same sort of easy rapport that she shared with her sweet dwarves (dwarrows, Ori had corrected her kindly, with the tone of someone sharing a secret), but despite a rocky, intimidating sort of beginning, Dwalin had unquestionably earned his way out of his initial label of sour.

Thorin, from the moment he’d stepped foot inside her smial, had been tart as a lemon. She looks more like a seamstress than a burglar, said with such dismissive humour, had not endeared Master Oakenshield in her eyes, and his attitude had not improved overly much in the weeks since. He may have given in to Gandalf’s arguments and pressed the contract into her hands, but he had no faith in her, nor any compunctions about telling her so.

All things considered (including all the rumours Bilbo had heard about the standoffish nature of dwarrows when it came to outsiders), she believed it was a rather impressive ratio for so early in their journey: four sweet friends, eight fellows who were not by any means unsavoury (and who might just warm up to her yet, if she played her cards right), and only one sour, stubborn old goat (who Bilbo hoped, very privately, she might one day impress enough to earn at least a nod, for if she could squeeze even a flyspeck of support from the stony Thorin Oakenshield, then perhaps she might be able to survive this madcap quest after all).

But impressive or no, Bilbo was not content to sit on her hands when it came to her place in the Company. She would prove herself— somehow, eventually, hopefully— but in the meantime, she had made it her mission to win a few more dwarrows from savoury into sweetness. She had managed to charm her stuffiest Baggins and Boffin relations into accepting her spinsterhood in Bag End with some amount of good grace (except the Sackville-Bagginses, of course, but the less said about that, the better); surely she could charm a few hard-headed dwarves if she put her mind to it.

There were a few topics every hobbit, from rowdy tweens to white-haired gaffers, and muddy-fingered farmhands to plummy old gentlehobbits, understood as respectable conversation. The weather, food, and family were considered the safest and most popular, the majority of the time.

The weather was not a subject apt to inspire good feelings, with the rains having lingered on and off as they trudged across the forested Lone-Lands, and few of the dwarves save Bombur seemed overly concerned with food. Or, at least, not overly concerned with the intricacies of ingredients, recipes, and techniques; they were certainly all concerned with quantity, and availability of food, but that was hardly enough to be going on for Bilbo’s purposes.

That left family, which was a subject Bilbo hesitated to bring up immediately, for fear of putting her foot in it. No, with these secretive dwarrows, Bilbo decided to test the waters first. She was still a bit cross with Gandalf for keeping her in the dark about all of this from the beginning: marking her door, filling her home with dwarrows, and cajoling her into such an adventure. There were many things she would trust him with, her life not the least among those things, but she wasn’t about to trust him with wading through matters of propriety with their Company when he’d already proven willing to toss her in headfirst and watch her flounder.

It wasn’t until their journey had brought them within sight of the craggy hills and thick forest of the Trollshaws that Bilbo was finally able and willing to shore up her nerve, and try to broach the subject. She hemmed and hawed for a short while about which dwarf to approach first, but in the end chose Bofur, whom she considered the most easygoing of the bunch, despite his tendency to let his mouth run away with him on occasion.

It was evening, after sunset, and their fire was crackling merry and bright in the centre of their camp; it hadn’t rained all day, and by some miracle, Gloin and Oin had managed to track down some relatively dry wood, though it was still smokier than usual. Supper had come together with spit-roasted hares and some delicious oyster mushrooms Bilbo had gathered and tucked away the day before, as well as their usual cram. It was all sitting beautifully in her belly when she licked the last bit of grease from her thumb, and glanced over to where Bofur sat, just beside her on a thick patch of clover. The Company had formed into loose groupings for the meal, and in their little half-ring also sat Bombur, Bifur, Fili, and Kili.

“So, Bofur, you’ve seen my home,” she began, during a natural lull in their dinner conversation. She kept her voice low enough not to travel across their entire camp, but not so quiet as to indicate she was being secretive, and Bofur looked to her with interest.

“Aye, and a lovely little burrow it is, too.” Leaning back on his hands, arms stretched and braced behind him, Bofur’s smile was fond and more than a little cheeky. “Cosy as a rabbit warren. Could’ve been dug a bit deeper, though.”

“It’s a smial,” she said automatically, treading a line between annoyed and playful that Bofur could so often draw with hardly any effort at all. “Not a burrow, nor a warren, and not some cave, either. But my point was, you’ve seen mine, and I’m curious about your home, as well.”

Bofur’s cheer drooped a bit, his smile turning mildly rueful, and Bilbo noticed the others in their little group glancing at each other.

“It’s no bother if you’d rather not,” she assured them, though she didn’t have to fake the disappointment in her tone. “Or if it’s some sort of dwarven secret.”

“No, lass, it’s not that.” Bofur looked to his brother and cousin, then over at the young princes, and whatever he saw there prompted him to shrug before turning his attention back to Bilbo. “Not precisely that, anyway. There’s not much said about dwarven kingdoms to outsiders, that’s true enough, but you’re part of the Company, eh? And no harm in a few stories of home with you, except, well…”

“Mister Balin would probably be better to ask,” Kili said, when Bofur trailed off.

Beside him, Fili nodded. “Aye, or Gloin maybe?”

“Since none of us lot have ever even seen Erebor,” Bofur continued, motioning at the five dwarrows. “And stories aren’t the same as memories.”

“No, you misunderstand.” Bilbo twisted her hands slightly in her lap, picking absently at one thumbnail with the other. “I meant your home in the Blue Mountains— I’ve never been farther west than Michel Delving, and you can hardly even see the peaks from there. Tell me about the mountains, or about life there. Do you… do any of you have families?”

It wasn’t the smoothest round-about query she’d ever posed in her life, but at least it was (probably) less likely to go off like a whizzpopper in her face when laid before the group seated around her, rather than the whole Company.

“Now that is something you shouldn’t ask Gloin about,” Fili said quietly, almost under his breath.

Kili nodded meaningfully, leaning away from his brother’s shoulder and closer to Bilbo. “Unless you want him talking your ear off about his wife and his lad. Honestly, he’ll go on for days, and there’s no stopping him once he’s off. I wouldn’t risk it.”

“I’d listen to the lads on this one; that’s actually good advice.” Bofur clapped Bilbo lightly on the back (and not just lightly for a dwarf; he was learning, bless him), before pointing towards his own brother. “Now Bombur, he’s married as well, to the sweetest dam in all Ered Luin. Aren’t you, Bom?”

In the dim, orange light of the fire, it was still entirely obvious when Bombur’s cheeks darkened into a flush, just above the great puffy roots of his braided beard. His expression, however, was open and almost dreamy, rather than pinched with embarrassment.

“Dear Runa.” Lacing his fingers over his belly, Bombur let out the longest, breathiest sigh, and murmured something that Bilbo could not understand but it had all the other dwarrows groaning and grinning in turn.

“She’s a gem,” Bombur said, in plain Westron now for Bilbo’s benefit. “Solid and sturdy built, with agate eyes, gleaming all brown and gold, and hair thick and dark as black treacle.”

Bifur, still chewing on the stem-end of a dandelion while the bright yellow flower bobbed merrily from his lips, grunted roughly and made some complex gesture with his hands.

“Oh, aye,” Bofur said, then leaned in close enough that Bilbo could smell the earthy spice-scent that clung to his hat and the bulky layers of his clothes, even through the smoke of the fire. “Runa’s a beauty, enough to make a dwarf forget his own name. Skin rich brown as a copper coin, furred overtop soft as velvet, and the beard on her… I swear, a fella could die happy, smothered in those gorgeous locks. If my hide’s still in one piece at the end of all this adventuring, I might just give it a go.”

Bilbo half-expected a squawk from Bombur, whether mock or truly offended, when Bofur waggled his eyebrows in such a suggestive way, but not a single note of censure was raised. In fact, Bombur simply laughed at his brother’s antics, and accepted a brief, affectionate clasp of hands when Bofur stretched out towards him. Bilbo scooted just slightly away from Bofur, not especially keen on risking an elbow to the face if the hand grip turned rowdy.

“What about the rest of you?” she asked, bolstered by the easy acceptance of her curiosity; this plan might just work. It might still be best to tread carefully, but at least she had some ground under her feet at last. “Married, or sweethearts, or anything like that?”

“Why, Bilbo?” Kili jostled near her other side again, dragging her shoulders under the heavy drape of his arm. She had no great love for being pawed at like a toy by overly strong, overly eager dwarrows, but the half-embrace went no farther than a friendly squeeze, and Kili snuggled tight and warm as a furnace against her wasn’t an uncomfortable familiarity. “Fili and I haven’t found a sweetheart yet, if you’re on the hunt… and we both think you’re very pretty.”

“Kee!” Bilbo could feel the smack Fili delivered to this brother’s arm all the way through the dense padding of Kili’s body, and once again marvelled at the sturdiness of dwarves. If someone had thumped her that hard, it would have rattled her bones out of her skin, but Kili hardly flinched, only pulling a rude face at his older brother.

His older, frowning brother, who was looking far less amused than Kili at the moment, and Bilbo had a horrid thought that perhaps there was a thread of seriousness in the teasing. This sort of tension and sour feeling had not been her intent at all, and Bilbo’s mind sought a wise way to defuse it.

“You’re a dear lad, Kili,” she said, reaching up and giving the back of his hand a pat where it dangled over her shoulder. “And no doubt the lasses all think you deadly with that smile and that silver tongue, you rascal, and handsome Fili, too. If I were twenty years younger, I might have kept up with you, but alas, you’ve found me too late in my season.”

“Too late in your season?” It was Fili leaning forward now, craning around his brother to fix Bilbo with a stare, disbelief writ large across his furrowed brows and gentling frown. “It’s not as though you’re some silvered grandam, Bilbo— still gold and copper in your curls, and springtime in the swing of your hips.”

“Oh Fili, hush.” The tips of her ears felt warm where they peeked out of the curls he complimented so lyrically. A poet prince, and not an entirely chaste one, either— springtime in her hips, indeed. These young brothers had surely been born charmers. “I’m at least old enough to weather such honeyed banter and keep my wits.”

Bending down, keeping that same sweet, laddish smile firmly in place, Kili tilted his head towards hers like a close confidant and murmured: “That’s a no, then?”

“That’s a no,” she agreed, gently but firmly, and couldn’t help but be a touch flattered by the softening of disappointment that flashed through his keen, dark eyes. A thread of seriousness, just as she’d thought, and it was good she’d had the chance to nip it in the bud early. Like a splinter, it was best to have such things out now, rather than let them linger to soreness and risk festering.

“Ah, well.” There was another squeeze around her shoulders, before Kili was shifting back, unwinding himself from around her and slapping his brother on the knee. “You’re still our fine Mistress Boggins, even if you’ll not be our sweetheart.”

There was a freshness to the night breeze that almost made her regret his retreat— dampness lingered in the air from the rain, and Bilbo had every intention of snatching a certain oversized cloak from where it hung drying by the fire before she shuffled off to her bedroll. She’d cosy up under her blanket and the thick, windproof wool, and very purposefully not think about Dwalin’s bullheaded refusal when she’d tried to return the cloak to him, or the knot of warmth that had tightened in her chest.

Bifur had wandered off during Kili’s tomfoolery, trundling towards the trees that marked and obscured their privy, and Fili hadn’t argued his brother’s claim that neither of them had a sweetheart, which left only Bofur undiscussed in their huddle.

“And you, my friend?” she said, choosing her words carefully as she gave Bofur a light prod in the ribs to catch his attention. She was slowly getting into the swing of this casual physicality the dwarves seemed to favour. It was similar to a sort of intimacy that she would only privately admit having missed, ever since she and her cousins has grown past their tweens and left roughhousing and cuddles behind in favour of dour respectability. “Any sweetheart waiting back home?”

Bofur, surprisingly enough, peered at her with the most confused furrow between his brows. Bilbo was struck by the sudden urge to check her face and clothes for stray bits of food, but that was ridiculous.

“Well, aye, of course.” Bofur scratched consideringly at the patch of hair tufting from his chin. “I hardly cut half the fine figure of my brother, true enough, but I’m not some orc-faced clod, you know.”

“Oh!” If she’d thought Fili and Kili’s unanticipated punt of interest had been a hotbed for tension, it had been nothing at all compared to this. Through her clumsy fumbling with matters of dwarven manners, she seemed to have managed to hurt Bofur’s feelings, somehow or other. “Certainly not! That’s not— I didn’t mean—”

Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm the churning in her belly where her supper was going sour. “Bofur, you can’t think I meant something so terrible. You cut a very fine figure, and you’re a kind and lovely chap, if the tastes of a silly hobbit spinster hold any weight at all in that regard.”

The shadows cleared from Bofur’s expression as Bilbo stammered her way through her apology, like clouds parting for the sun, and he snatched up her hand when she finished. The dry press of his lips against her knuckles was whiskery, and the flicker of firelight put a gleam back in his rich green eyes.

“Spinster, bah.” The kiss was entirely chaste, a playful peck of forgiveness. “You hobbits have ugly words for fine things. Just means you’re choosy, as you should be. Dam’s prerogative.”

Bilbo didn’t correct him; it was partially true, after all. She had refused a suitor or two in her younger years, but those gentlehobbits had been more interested in her sprawling smial and the wealth that kept it so well turned-out. She’d always been rather too odd to be considered a catch for any other reason, even if she had inherited an attractive mix of her father’s plump figure and soft, welcoming face, along with her mother’s thick toffee-brown curls and elegantly long Tookish feet.

“Tell me about this lucky sweetheart of yours,” she said instead, finding her smile, only to have a shade of confusion cloud over Bofur’s expression again.

Impossible, confounded dwarves.

“Tell you? We already did.” Bofur jerked a thumb in his brother’s direction; Bombur was studying Bilbo as well, obviously unsure. “Runa, you remember? I tell you, lass, if you’d ever seen her, you certainly wouldn’t forget so quick.”

Bilbo blinked.

“Runa?” She blinked again more quickly, lashes fluttering, then stared between all four dwarrows seated around her, searching for the joke. Surely she was being teased again. “But I thought, Bombur… You said, his wife—”

The words spilling out of her mouth made no sense at all, but by some far-flung stroke of luck, Bombur actually seemed to gather some meaning from the mess.

“Ah,” he said, pitched more like a question than a realization. “This might… huh. Hobbits marry, don’t they? How many?”

Bilbo appreciated the direct query; her mind was too befuddled at the moment to unravel anything subtler. “Most,” she said. “Nearly all, actually. I’m rather an odd duck, truth be told, still alone at my age.”

That answer was enough to send a grumble around their huddle, though nothing distinct.

“No,” Fili said, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “He means, how many each? How many spouses?”

“Or sweethearts,” Kili added.

“Well, some hobbits have lots of sweethearts before they take a suit.” Bilbo refrained from mentioning by name several of her more comely Boffin cousins, and even a few tow-headed Tooks around her age who had never, ever wanted for dance partners at Lithedays fairs. “But we don’t often remarry. Even young widows and widowers rarely accept a courtship again, though there’s no true shame in it, if they eventually do.”

Here, she very carefully did not think of her mother and those last five years after Bungo’s passing, when Belladonna had faded away so gently in her grief, like silk left out to bleach and weaken in the sun.

Silence answered her, but Bilbo didn’t miss the twitch of Bofur’s hands, nor the answering twiddles of other thick dwarven fingers.

Her annoyance peaked with these damned secretive dwarrows, and more so with her own foolish, childish want to wheedle her way into their cohort. She had been kept just outside her entire life— apart from her peers, too much a Baggins for the Tooks and too Tookish for the Bagginses— and now she was too Hobbitish in a band of bloody dwarves, and pushed aside even when she tried to understand. The most annoying part of all was that it still stung, after all these years tucked away inside the seclusion of Bag End trying to grow a callus on her heart against such nonsense, and that ridiculous pang of hurt in her chest was what finally sent her fluffing up like a wet hen.

“Never mind it; keep your secrets,” she snapped, stamping her foot hard enough to chuck up a few crumbles of soil from under her heel. “But I’ll spend all my time with Gandalf chattering away in Old Hobbitish if you don’t stop that dratted finger whispering when I’m sitting right here. I can see you, and it’s awfully rude.”

Kili made a distressed sort of grunt, and scuffed softly at her shoulder with his fingers. “We’re just trying to understand, Bilbo.”

“While trying not to offend, as well,” Fili added. “Even if we’re making a hash of it. Are you… are you saying hobbits take one spouse each?”

“Well, yes,” Bilbo said with a slow nod, as the dwarves all gawped at her.

“One only?” Bofur had a hand pressed against his cheek, and his mouth ever so slightly parted even when he wasn’t speaking. “Just one apiece? All of you?”

“Yes,” Bilbo said again, with only the barest sliver of impatience; she thought she was being fairly clear, but she wouldn’t fault these dwarrows their confusion. She certainly felt out of her depth, as well.

“Bless me,” Bofur said, words nearly lost in a great gusty sigh. “That sounds lonesome, if I’m being honest, lass. No offence meant.”

On her other side, Fili and Kili were both staring at her with wide eyes, and Bombur was stroking the thick chain of his beard, looking deeply contemplative.

“I’ve no idea what I’m meant to be taking offence about,” she admitted. “Or not taking offence about, as it happens.”

“Oh, lass.” Bofur sighed again, almost sadly, and now Bilbo found both her shoulders held in supportive grips, Bofur on her left and Kili on her right. It was bizarre, but also oddly effective, since she felt as though her head was full of dandelion fluff caught in a breeze. “We’ve tripped over a wee snag in custom here, it seems. In hobbit marriage, it’s one and one, aye? Just the pair?”

“Oh goodness,” Bilbo said, before she could stop herself. She’d been very purposefully ignoring the glaringly obvious nature of the misunderstanding, so sure she must be jumping to conclusions, but now it seemed the cat was leaping free of the bag. “Sorry, yes. Just the pair, that’s right. Usually a chap and a lady, but it’s not unheard of for two ladies to settle down together, or two chaps either. Not even the stodgiest gammer cares overmuch about the details— it only matters that you’re married and settled, respectable.”

“But just two, always just two,” Kili muttered, rough with disbelief, and Fili hushed him with a hissing sound and an elbow to the ribs. Bilbo’s heart gave a nervous judder.

She swallowed, thick and dry, and drummed up a sudden bolt of courage. “Dwarrows… you marry more than two?”

Her voice had been little louder than a mouse’s squeak, but at least she’d said it, rather than chattering all around the issue for a hundred more years and flapping her hands like some infuriating dwarrows she could mention.

“Dams do,” Bofur said, and there it was, out in the open at last. “Most times a dam’ll favour taking a pair of husbands, though she could take more if she fancied. Kin, likely as not— brothers, usually, like Bom and me. I’m Runa’s second, though I’m older, and to be honest, the order don’t really mean much anymore. Just tradition.”

“You?” Bilbo knew it wasn’t especially polite to point, but she could help waving one finger in the air between these two sweet dwarrows, brothers, and husbands. “And you? Your wife, Bombur, she’s… Bofur, she’s your wife too? How does that even work— No. No, don’t tell me, please, no. Forget I said anything.”

“Oh, it works grand, thanks for asking, lass.” Bofur’s dimples deepened with his toothy grin. “Though when we take the mountain, first thing we’re getting is a bigger bed. What’s the use in being rich and heroic if you still wake up with a crick in your back?”

Bilbo’s face felt hotter than the coals she’d roasted their supper over, and the shadowy woods around their little campsite swam murky at the edges of her vision. Even being a bit irregular by Shire standards, she’d had her share of youthful folly— stolen kisses behind the Party Tree, a few sweet tickles, and even a handful of sticky, clumsy tups in quiet haybarns— but this was something else entirely, this brothers and husbands, and we’re getting a bigger bed. She hauled herself to standing with only a minor wobble, and managed to mumble an excuse about a smoke and then sleep, without babbling too insensibly, or tripping over her suddenly (and never before) ungainly, awkward feet.

She wasn’t running away, not precisely, but she did ignore the calls from behind her as she scurried off across their camp. At all cost, she kept clear of Gandalf; she could already imagine his amused little smile under that sweeping beard, thank you very much. He took far too much pleasure in putting her out-of-sorts.

Her bedroll was already laid out, but tucked too close to Bombur and Bofur’s packs, and Ori’s as well, for her comfort at the moment. She needed some time to order her thoughts about this— a bit of privacy, without expectant dwarrows watching every emotion flicker across her face as she chewed it all over like a cow.

Luckily enough, she had her pipe and a packet of leaf hidden away in her coat pocket, and Bilbo took only a moment to surreptitiously nab Dwalin’s cloak and swing the ample cloth over her shoulders before slipping off to a secluded corner of their campsite. Not dangerously far away from the glowing golden wreath of firelight, but just enough to shake off the stifling sensation of so many gruff, rough, foreign dwarven bodies pressing in from all sides.

Two husbands. Goodness gracious.

She packed her pipe with quick fingers, but only when she had the bit in her mouth did she realised that she hadn’t thought to fetch a coal or a smouldering stick from the fire, and her tinderbox was safe in her pack. Drat it all.

The pipe stayed stubbornly clenched between her teeth, black and cold though it was, as she sat on a lumpy spot of grass, staring up at the inky sky. The stars were glittering brilliantly, almost as though they were determined to make up for four days of overcast grey, and the moon was strung up as round and fat as a lantern.

Chapter Text

Her solitude wasn’t quite long enough to comb entirely through her feelings on the matter, but she had at least banished the dark threat of a faint from creeping up upon her by the time approaching footsteps crackled heavily against the grass and twigs.  Dwarves were such noisy creatures.

Bilbo was surprised, when she glanced back at her visitor, to find Bombur’s bulk easily recognizable in the shadows.  Backlit as he was by the warm firelight, she couldn’t quite make out his face, but his voice was kindly enough when he spoke.

“Bilbo?”  The faint breeze brought with it the pungent waft of dwarven pipeweed, and a plume of bluish smoke rising around Bombur’s silhouette.  “You want a light?  And company too, if you’re of a mind?”

“All right,” she said, after only a heartbeat of strained hesitation, and shuffled over as Bombur lowered himself to the ground beside her.  She also wrapped the cloak tighter around herself, saving the long hem from finding its way under Bombur’s bum, and took a measure of comfort from the warmth and now-familiar scent of it, musk and pine still lingering even after days of dousing rain.

Bombur didn’t say anything else at first, just settling with a few quiet grunts and shuffles, offering her an ember from his pipe without a word.  She accepted, and the first good puff of Old Toby filling her mouth, hot and mildly nutty-sweet, went a good long way to calming her nerves.

After a few more puffs, and a longer fortifying drag at the end, Bilbo trusted her voice.

“I’m sorry.”  She spoke softly through a slow exhale, smoke curling around every word.  “I was… caught off guard.  But even so, I could have handled that better.  I never meant to offend.”

“You didn’t offend.”  Bombur’s hand was light as a butterfly when it touched her arm, just above the crook of her elbow.  The uncertain touch resolved into a gentle squeeze when she didn’t shrug him off.  “We were baffled too, is all.  And I reckon you’ve noticed my brother don’t always keep the wisest tongue in his head.  He’s feeling properly shamefaced for rattling you like that, as well he should.”

“I should know by now not to take him so seriously,” Bilbo said, and Bombur snorted, squeezing her arm again.

“Some things are serious, and Bo would do well to remember that, once in a while.”  There was a pause, and another puff of leaf.  “If you want to ask anything, Miss Bilbo, or if you want to forget all about it...”

The leaf smoke felt suddenly hotter on her tongue, thick as a mouthful of toffee.  She spoke anyway, curiosity winning out against nervous delicacy.  “I suppose I just… I would like to know more.  You are my companions, some of you are my friends, I hope, and I want to understand.”

“Friends?” The pause here had Bilbo's belly going cold as ice, unsure and tensing for disappointment, but then Bombur was taking a long, shaky inhale before continuing. “Well, I mean, ‘course we’re friends, little miss.”

There was a suspiciously watery sounding sniff from Bombur, and Bilbo blinked against the pipe smoke, which was stinging the faintest dampness into her eyes.  There were worst friends one could have than a band of scruffy dwarves; even after only a few weeks, Bilbo found she prefered it to no friends at all.

“You want to know more,” Bombur repeated, clearing his throat.  “Well now, more about dams, and marriage.  Hm.”

Silence fell, somewhat taut, and Bilbo squirmed deeper into the folds of her cloak.  “Bofur said your ladies have more than one husband.”

“Oh aye, they do.  Most of ‘em, anyway.”  Bombur seemed to grow better at ease with providing answers if offered a small amount of prompting, and Bilbo blew a smoke ring to distract herself from fidgeting more.

“Why,” she started, then had to begin again when the word cracked.  “That is, Bofur said the husbands are usually kin.  Why is that?”

Isn’t that odd, she didn’t say.  She didn’t have a sibling as a basis for comparison, but she’d never known hobbit brothers to ever consider sharing the affections of a sweetheart.  It sounded like grounds for a brawl, truth be told.

“Well, blokes do their courting in pairs, usually.”  Bilbo glanced over, and her eyes had adjusted to the dark well enough to make out Bombur, peering up towards the sky just as she had been.  He had his own carven pipe held in one hand, resting on the curve of his belly.  “Easier that way; they know each other, and the dam gets to know them together.  All get a better notion how they’ll work together, whether the Maker fashioned them for each other, or whether some pieces just don’t fit right.

“It’s not always brothers, mind,” Bombur continued.  “Usually, sure, but a pair of blokes can be cousins, or just good mates.  Some blokes come as a couple themselves, if you catch my meaning, though it’s more common that they don’t.  In the end, though, what a married bunch gets up to is nobody’s business.  But a dam knows when she’s courted by one, she’s got to consider the other as well, or move on and set sights on some other fellas instead.  It’s the worst sort of insult for a dam to ask a fella to choose— for her to favour his suit, but spurn his kin’s.”

A memory clicked in place in Bilbo’s skull, finally making sense.  “That’s why Bofur took offense when I asked if he had a sweetheart.”

Bombur hummed his agreement around a mouthful of smoke, then exhaled a heavy plume.  “Most fellas don’t think their kin are complete gangue, lass, especially not the kin they choose to go wooing with.  A half-decent fella would have to have pebbles for brains to pair himself with a wretch, brother or no.  So, if a dam don’t fancy one of a pair for some reason or other, everyone’s best served if she refuses the suit altogether— no harm done, no bad blood boiled.”

It made a bizarre sort of sense, she supposed, though the thought of being courted by a pair of dwarven lads at the same time, and a pair of brothers at that, was still slightly more than her constitution could consider in depth.

But Bombur, it seemed, was far from finished anyway, which gave her more time to mull.

“Sometimes,” he said. “If she fancies wooing one, she might take a wife as well— now that’s the Maker’s own blessing, two dams in a bunch.  Rare, since they’re fewer compared to blokes, and more precious for it: more dams might mean more babes, and babes are the most cherished of any treasure, gold or gem.”  

Even in the dark, Bilbo could clearly see the glint of Bombur’s smile, bright and wide in the midst of his beard.  “There’s not many as lucky as me and Bo: one wife between us, two decades, and seven wee ones already.  Two or three babes to a family is fortune enough— four or more is a blessing.  They’re all handsome babes, too; take after their mam, most of ‘em, pretty as polished jewels.”

Seven babes did sound like a staggering number, but Bilbo knew that was largely a symptom of her spinsterhood.  Families often grew large in the Shire, with three, four, or five children a normalcy— her own mother had been the ninth child of twelve, though Bilbo’s Grandmother and Grandfather Took were still spoken of for the ample size of their family.

Before she could congratulate Bombur on his brood, however, the dwarf was carrying on.  This was the most she had ever heard him say at one time, barring their in depth discussions of different herbs and spices.  

“There’s exceptions to custom, obviously,” he said.  “I mean, there’ll always be a few who aren’t the marrying kind, though most will give it a go for a decade or so, just long enough to pop out a babe, then they’re back to their craft.  And there’s some dams who’ve no time at all for blokes, one way or another.  Takes all sorts, after all.  But by and large, it’s a dam and two blokes, and a babe or two if the Maker’s feeling favourable.”

Bombur trailed off, and Bilbo didn’t prompt him further; they were quiet for a few moments after that, smoking without speaking.  She let that all sink into her mind, churning tides settling into calmer waters, and after a short while he began humming to himself, the cheery tune that she and Bofur had been bandying about to pass time on the road.

It was strange, surely, but folks had called her strange all her life.  She had come on this adventure in the first place to clear some of those dull old cobwebs from her mind; dwarves married in happy little trios (or bigger bunches) wasn’t an unpleasant sort of surprise, the more she considered it.

She might still have one father to her name, if Belladonna had taken a pair of husbands.  Certainly, another cheery Papa trundling around Bag End would likel have made the smial cosier, more full of life.  Just as she imagined Bombur and Bofur’s home to be, knowing the dwarrows as she did, full of laughter and love.

Her heart hurt, thinking that way.  Bilbo tucked the childish fantasy away in some deep corner, sweet and bitter in equal measure.

There was a whistle from back towards camp, a birdcall sounding rather incongruously like the steady, creaking tweet of a great tit, despite the lateness of the hour.  Bombur whistled back without hesitation, a trilling call like a nightingale.  It was actually quite an impressive mimic, but Bilbo was beginning to appreciate that these dwarrows were much more than first impressions might suggest.

More thudding footsteps followed shortly, and Bilbo found herself hemmed on either side.  Bofur flopped down to sit on her right, though it was obvious that he left a respectable, wary distance between them.  His hat was stripped off in short order, clutched in one of his hands while the other smoothed over his flattened hair, and the dip of his head seemed contrite enough.

“Ah, am I forgiven, Miss Bilbo?”  Somewhat contrite, perhaps, but still plenty cheeky as well; the laughter in his tone was proof of that.

“You most certainly are not,” she said tartly, and scooted closer to Bombur, looping her hand through the bend of his elbow.  “Since you’ve not offered any apology.”

“True enough.”  Popping his hat back on his head, Bofur swept out one arm in a grand, overwrought gesture, bowing in his seat.  “Please do accept my deepest pardon, Miss Bilbo.  I never intended to make you blush redder than the ripest tomato I scoffed from your glorious pantry.”

“You’re a beast,” she said, with as much sincerity as she could manage, but it wasn’t terribly effective if Bofur’s answering hoot of amusement was any gauge.  When he reached out, scuffing one big hand gently through her curls, Bilbo allowed it with minimal grumbling.

“So you and Bom had a chat, I reckon.”  Bofur tweaked one frizzy ringlet that fell beside her cheek, making her swat at him.  “Feel as though you’ve got your feet under you now?”

“The ground may be a bit shaky,” she answered honestly.  “But I still have my feet, yes.”

“Good lass,” Bofur said.  “An old romantic, my brother— soppy as a sponge.  He’s not been nattering on about Mahal forging folk as pieces of the same whole, has he?”

“It’s been more educational than your bawdy talk,” Bilbo said with a sniff, and Bombur chuckled, giving her hand a pat where it rested on his forearm.  “Now, I know about you two, and Fili and Kili, but is it rude to ask about the others?  I would rather avoid stepping on toes as much as possible, going forward, and this is all still very new to me.”

“Most of the rest are unattached, far as I know,” Bofur said, patting his coat and riffling through his pockets.  “Bugger.  Share a puff, brother?  Me pipe’s in the bags.”

“Aye, I’m done, anyhow.”  With one last drag, the pipe was passed across.  “And Gloin’s married, of course.”

“And Oin as well?” Bilbo asked, testing the water.  The query earned her another laugh from Bofur, this one half-choking on his first puff of the pipe.

“Excellent question,” he wheezed, still giggling to himself, and thankfully Bombur, perhaps deciding his brother too apt to choke to death, took over the answering.

“Bit more complex, that.”  Bombur stroked his beard, in a thinking habit Bilbo had begun to recognize.  “Oin was married, years back.  One husband died in the Calamity, and the other one caught a bad grippe on the trek to Ered Luin.  Smoke in his lungs stoked the sickness, and he didn’t last to see Dunland when the snows came, so I heard it told.  Terrible stuff, and no matter for mirth, brother.”

To her great credit, Bilbo took a long few moments to consider that tragic story (as Bofur muttered apologies again, settling in to puff more evenly at his borrowed pipe), before she calmly and quietly gave voice to her next question.

“Both husbands?”  She hadn’t known whether or not the rumours were true, about the unexpected features and forms of dwarrowdams.  Now, after all this fuss, she was feeling just bold enough to ask, as plainly as possible.  “Is Oin a dam, then?  Or a fellow with husbands?”

Bombur nodded.  “A dam, aye.  Now that is more than a speck private, mind— dams on the road don’t, as a rule, make themselves known to outsiders.  Safer that way, you see.”

“They’re not as likely to break some longshanks’ jaw,” Bofur added.  “For treating ‘em less fairly than he might treat a fella.  Men have got queer notions about their own dams, and our lady folk don’t often take kindly.”

That was true enough, from what Bilbo had heard of the men of Bree, and only slightly less true of hobbits.  On more than one occasion, she had considered how different her situation might have been if she’d been a bachelor rather than a spinster— certainly, there would always have been whispers and the Sackville-Bagginses harping on her inheritance, but at least the pitying looks from the folk at market might have been dulled.  Bachelors, rare as they might be, weren’t thought of as quite so woebegone and unloved as childless old spinsters.  There would have been fewer doubts on folks’ tongues as to whether she was capable of keeping up such a spacious smial as Bag End without a husband to tend to the heavy lifting, if she’d been a fellow.

“Thank you, then,” she said, her own pipe forgotten and cooling in her hand.  “For trusting me with such a secret.”

“Ah, you’d see him bathing sooner or later on this journey.”  Bofur made a twirling motion with one hand.  “And I see your clever cogs spinning, there, lass; it is him, far as Westron’s concerned.  Easier, safer.”

That did help explain her companion’s tendency, more often earlier in their journey, to call Bilbo him and he.  Sometimes in the same breath as they called her lass, mistress, or ma’am.

“I understand.”  She couldn’t quite help herself from peering over one shoulder, back towards their camp and the dwarrows loafing around the fire.  As this new knowledge began to settle into place, Bilbo could feel inquisitiveness rise up in her breast, buoying her like hot air.  “Should I pretend not to know?  Is that more polite?”

“Nah, no need to pretend.  Just don’t treat him different.”  Bofur glanced back as well, grinning around the bit of the pipe.  “He’s still the same deaf old coot, bless him.  Now, you going to ask about the rest?  Because dams are rare enough, but Oin’s not the only one amongst us on this trip.  Why not guess, eh?”

“Bo,” Bombur said, mildly warning, only to be waved off by his older brother.

“There’s no harm in it, you big griper.  She’s a good sort.”  Turning to Bilbo, Bofur jerked his head towards camp.  “It’s not any insult if you guess wrong, lass, I swear.  I remember the day I found out handsome as a dam isn’t a proper compliment to men— nearly had my arse whooped for that one, and never did go back to that tavern.  But for us dwarrows?  Highest flattery.”

Bilbo was wise enough to look to Bombur for confirmation.  Sighing deeply, Bombur did indeed give a nod.  “It’s true, all of it, ‘cept there was no nearly about the thumping him and his mouth got in that tavern.  But, you know, if Bo’s getting under your skin, Bilbo, you can tell him to leave off.  That won’t hurt any feelings either, he’s so used to hearing it.”

It seemed like a silly way to embarrass herself more than anyone else, if her mistakes would indeed be considered a sort of compliment.  But Bilbo was enjoying the sense of comradery she had earned thus far, and the impulse was strong to wedge herself more firmly into their group— through banter and wit, kindness, and now this private knowledge.

“If you promise it won’t be rude,” she murmured, her attention straying back toward the dwarrows she could see sitting around in the gilded firelight.

“On my honour.”  Bofur pressed a hand over his breast, but when Bilbo cut him a suspicious glance from the corner of her eye, he amended.  “All right, I’ll swear on anything you like.  On my hat, if that suits.”

Satisfied that at least Bombur would keep her from committing a grievous insult, Bilbo studied the rest of the Company.  Fili and Kili had wandered off, likely to check on the ponies grazing nearby, as was their charge.  She only considered them very briefly— both were certainly handsome enough, but too brash and cocksure to be among her first guesses.  

Ori and Dori were seated together: Dori was squinting in the firelight, darning a sock, while Ori had a piece of charcoal in hand, scratching something across the pages of a notebook.  More likely a drawing rather than any sort of text, judging by the long strokes.  Nori was nowhere to be seen around his brothers, though there was a shadowy lump on the far side of camp that might have peaked in tri-points, if Bilbo strained to make it out.

“Ori?” she guessed quietly, considering his slight frame and delicate features compared to the others, then immediately reconsidering her choice in light of Oin’s blocky, bullish build.  She was still thinking like a hobbit, drat it, narrow and small in a big, wide world.

“Nope,” Bofur said, with a playful pop sounding along with the last syllable.  “The lad’s a lad.  Close, though.”

“Dori, then,” she guessed again, quicker this time, and was rewarded with a smattering of applause, muffled by the knit of Bofur’s gloves.

“Aha, there you go!”  It was entirely silly, but Bilbo actually felt a stir of pride.  “A dam, all right, and what a looker, too.  Not married, though as I heard it, he’s got at least a dozen blokes trying to press a suit back in Ered Luin, and a couple of dams.  Hardly surprising, a beauty like that, and with his own shop, too.”

Dori was certainly elegant enough, with his sleek silver braids twisting in intricate designs, and his fine manners, but Bilbo hadn’t really considered whether he might be considered especially attractive by dwarven standards.  Bofur didn’t sound as though he was pulling her leg, and Bombur didn’t step in to correct anything, so she thought perhaps she ought trust the description.

“Most dams rarely go travelling,” Bofur continued.  “But you couldn’t have kept Dori home if you’d chained him there, once Ori signed on.  Told me once, on the road to Hobbiton, that he’d have torn down half the Blue Mountains with his bare hands to follow his wee little brother, and I didn’t doubt it.”

“That’s sweet—” Bilbo began to say, only to be interrupted by a childishly eager Bofur.

“Right, right, aye, sweet, all right.  There’s one more dam.  Any guesses?”

“Any hints?” Bilbo countered archly, raising her brows at him, betting that his dwarven eyesight was better than hers in the shadows.

“Just that he’s gorgeous,” Bofur answered, with perhaps a thread of wistfulness creeping in beneath his playful demeanor, but Bilbo didn’t press that discovery.  She was far too overwhelmed by knowledge already, though she did secret the observation away.  “Maybe a bit less polished than a fancy dam like Dori— rough around the edges, sure.  But gorgeous.”

“That’s not as helpful as you imagine, Bofur.”  Bilbo huffed softly, straining once again to scrutinize the dwarrows back at camp.  Gorgeous, but rough.

Ah, but not just rough.  Rough to another dwarf, rough to Bofur, and that put a different spin on things altogether.

Bifur was certain rough, possibly gorgeous by some dwarfish standards with his grand piebald beard.  But if Bifur was indeed the final dam in their Company, this would be the first time Bilbo had heard Bofur speak about his cousin without a quiet sort of gruffness dimming his joviality, at least a tiny bit.  It was a barely noticeable tic, but it hadn’t escaped Bilbo’s attention.  It’s absence here was not likely.

A particularly rough dwarf— there was one that sprang to mind immediately, of course, and Bilbo would certainly, privately admit to finding him rather comely, in a rugged, strapping, entirely intimidating sort of way.  Gorgeous, perhaps… she would have said impressive, or well-built, certainly.  But that might have simply been a quirk of language.

She swallowed, her mouth suddenly and unaccountably dry.  “Is it Dwalin?”

Dwalin?”  The pitch of Bofur’s squawk seemed to belie her hunch, as did Bombur’s surprised hum.  Bilbo was about to hazard another guess, scrambling for an answer to banish this one from memory, when Bofur collapsed down onto his back.

“Well now,” he said, sounding almost dazed.  “I’m just… I never really considered, but if Dwalin were a dam… bless my beard.  He’s not, incidentally.  He’s grand enough as a bloke to turn some heads, though, if that’s the type that stokes your forge.  Hmm, thanks for planting the image, lass.  My, oh my.”

Bombur muttered something, at least half of which was rasping grunts woven through the Westron, but she managed to catch something about always thinking with your hammer, and could, unfortunately, infer the rest.

“Not Dwalin,” Bombur said resolutely, then cleared his throat, sharp and loud.  “Now, we should be headed back.  I’ve still a few dishes to wash up.”

“Spoilsport.”  Bofur’s arms spread wide across the grass, the pipe set aside.  “One more guess, then all little good dwarrows and hobbits will be off to tend to their chores, all right?”

One more guess, and she needed to make it a clever one, obviously.  Bilbo wasn’t entirely without a competitive spirit, after all, even if she didn’t suffer the urge to turn every single thing into a game or a betting matter, like these confounded dwarrows.

“One more,” she said, weighing her remaining options with a thoughtful tap of her fingers against her lips.  She was also trying, rather unsuccessfully, not to focus on the strange, bothersome distraction of thinking of Dwalin, grand enough as a bloke.  It was foolishness, and mortifying to think on too keenly, especially while she was bundled up in his very own cloak.  Her skin prickled, feeling both overly hot and awash in gooseflesh at the same time.

“Is it…” Rough.  Rough, and unpolished, or not as polished as Dori, at least—

Aha!

“It’s Nori!”  She pressed her hand against her cheek, pleased at her deduction when Bofur gave another round of applause.

“Well done, lass!  Getting a proper eye for dwarrows already, you canny wee thing.”

“Aye, well done,” Bombur agreed, then stretched himself forward with a strained grunt, not quite ready to have a go at hauling himself to his feet.  “Now, let’s get back to it, eh?  If I’m going to have a damp seat from all this grass, I’d at least like to be closer to the fire.”

Chapter Text

Bombur and Bofur both promised to make themselves available, should she have questions, but as it turned out, there wasn’t much more opportunity to discuss dwarrow culture the next day. Bilbo wasn’t comfortable broaching the topic while they road, where any one of their Company could hear her asking, but during their long day’s ride, they finally crossed over into the Trollshaws.

They made camp that night just beside the burnt-out husk of a old farm house, after Gandalf stormed off in a dander. Bilbo had been mulling more questions during their ride, in between working out words to match with Bofur’s jaunty tunes or recounting some of her father’s tales to Ori. By evening, a handful of queries rested just on the back of her tongue, but she was sent off to deliver supper to Fili and Kili before their camp had settled enough to get a private moment with either Bombur or Bofur.

Then, of course, there was the matter with the trolls, the rabbit-riding wizard, and the pack of vicious wargs chasing them across hither and yon.

It wasn’t until they were safely ensconced in the valley of Imladris, with its vaulting waterfalls and tranquil ambience, that Bilbo felt capable of even taking a single, steadying breath. It was astounding, the difference a day could make— this same time yesterday, they were trotting through the Trollshaws on their unfortunate ponies, and now, Bilbo was trying to scrub enough muck and unspeakable mire from her jacket to be half-way presentable, before taking a meal at the table of Lord Elrond himself.

Compared to all this, the private habits of her companions didn’t seem so extraordinary anymore.

Thankfully, the Company had all been invited to wash up a bit before dinner was served, though more encouraged than invited, truth be told, with pinched elven expressions of distaste. Bilbo could sympathize with the elves— she had just spent a month in close quarters with thirteen dwarrows, travelling rough, and had no illusions as to their pungency. None of them were fresh as daisies, wafting thick with the stink of sweat, horse, and even some singed hair amongst them, and Bilbo especially was more than speck desperate to relieve herself of the incomparable aroma (and the ghastly texture as well) of troll snot.

There would be proper baths available later that evening, their elven hosts had explained stiffly, but from Bilbo’s point of view, the basins of hot water and soft clothes they were provided to scrub their hands and faces were already the most blessed thing she had ever seen.

Most blessed if she discounted, perhaps, the sight of Gandalf poking his head out from a secret passage to salvation, when the lot of them were moments away from a messy end in the belly of a warg. But this hot water still came a close second.

She had already wiped the mud and sweat from her face and down her throat, and even managed to work the worst of the grime from under her short nails, by the time she turned her attention to the gruesome state of her jacket and weskit. The water in her own small basin, which she thankfully had not been expected to share in the manner her dwarven fellows were sharing amongst themselves, was already murky and sickly beige, but it was better than nothing at all.

Dipping her washcloth again, Bilbo wrung out most of the water back into the bowl, but kept one corner damper than the rest. With more than a fraction of the same desperate hope she’d felt while trussed up in a canvas sack and due to be eaten shortly, Bilbo set to rubbing the dried gunk from what had been rather nice corduroy.

She may have allowed herself to become more distracted by her task than she had intended, for by the time Bilbo glanced back up, more than half of the Company had already gone, leaving washcloths strewn about like rags, and even one of the silver basins overturned in its own puddle on the floor. Only Dori remained, smoothing out his mussed braids with practiced motions (without undoing them, which Bilbo imagined was quite a process), along with young Ori fidgeting by his brother’s side (his sister’s, Bilbo corrected herself immediately, though resolved to be circumspect about such details while in elven halls). And, surprisingly enough, Balin was leaning by a nearby pillar, wearing a look of untroubled patience as he picked absently at his own fingernails.

Bilbo’s attention seemed to shake Balin out of his serene musings, and the dwarf lifted his head towards her with a pleasant smile. “Ready to go, lassie?”

Bilbo’s belly tightened self-consciously, and she carefully but quickly laid her washcloth over the edge of her basin, brushing her clean hands over the front of her damp weskit.

“Oh goodness, Mister Balin, I had no idea you were waiting for me. Begging your pardon—”

“Now, none of that.” Balin’s smile didn’t falter a whit; in fact, it seemed to twitch up a bit at the corners, subtly enough that Bilbo might not have noticed at all, if he wore the same bushy moustache as his brother. He pulled his black leather gloves back on his hands, fitting the fingers snugly with practiced motions, while at the other end of the room, Dori and Ori had just slipped away on tromping boots. “The wait was no trouble at all. I’d not leave you to wander alone in elven halls— not a dwarf amongst us would.”

There was a definite tone of mistrust there, but not even slightly directed at her, and Bilbo bit back any disputation that might have sprung to the tip of her tongue. The animity between elves and dwarrows had been brewing strong for ages and ages; even if such unprompted tension seemed silly to a hobbit in the face of elven hospitality, Bilbo was wise enough to keep such doubts to herself.

Besides, she didn’t know these elves, but she did know her Company, and they were (by and large) a fine group. Charmed by Rivendell though she might be, Bilbo was trying to be as loyal as good manners allowed.

“Well, thank you kindly for the escort,” she said, and accepted Balin’s elbow when the dwarf held out an arm to her. The quilted sleeve of his coat was soft under her palm, though the arm beneath felt as firm and stony hard as any other dwarrow she had happened to touch on their journey thus far— even Bombur, as impressively rotund as he was, had a core of solid muscle to his frame that Bilbo had never known in a hobbit.

“It is my pleasure, Miss Bilbo.” Leading them out of the antechamber that had served as their impromptu powder room, Balin didn’t spare even a flicker of attention for the elven attendants waiting by the door. Bilbo made certain to flash the elves a winning smile, but was disappointed to receive naught but cool, inscrutable stares in return.

Then again, the room behind her was a catastrophe of filthy water and heedless mess. She vividly recalled the state of her own bathroom after these dwarves had been set loose upon the plumbing, to say nothing of the indignities heaped upon the rest of Bag End (never mind that it was mostly cleaned and working rather better than new by the time she woke the next morning; it had been quite a dreadful shock at the time).

All things considered, she could hardly blame the elves for their irritation.

“He’ll not appreciate me making mention of it,” Balin said after a moment’s pause, as they started to meander down a startlingly tall, sweeping corridor. “But if my brother weren’t required elsewhere, keeping watch on Thorin’s back, I know it would have been his pleasure to escort you. His devotion to duty has become my delight in your company, of course, but I thought it only fair that you know.”

“Your brother—” Bilbo stopped herself from squeaking, though just barely, as she glanced over at Balin’s kind expression. She swallowed hard, then found her voice again. “Dwalin? Why would, I mean, Mister Dwalin is a courteous chap, of course—” It was difficult to ignore Balin’s surprised bark of heartily amused laughter, but Bilbo soldiered on. “But surely he’s not, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, not the sort to linger about to escort wayward hobbits.”

They had come to a curving set of steps, trailing upward, and there was a chorus of sweet, soft music as well as the voices of their companions ringing down from above. Balin stopped them at the foot of the stairs, laying one gloved hand over her own, where she clutched his arm (clutched perhaps a bit more firmly than was polite, as their discussion had loosed a swarm of butterflies behind her ribs and made her feel distinctly unsteady, but Balin hadn’t complained).

“Not any wayward hobbits, no.” The leather of Balin’s glove was buttery soft against her skin, and his bark-brown eyes were warm. “I had hoped you’d noticed my brother has begun to develop a certain fondness for you, lassie, though I’ll grant you he’s still gruff as an old bear with a sore paw.”

Oh. Bilbo blinked, utterly convinced she was caught in some ludicrous misunderstanding, but too stunned to say so.

“And,” Balin continued, as though she weren’t gawping at him like a trout. “If I’m not mistaken, you may be growing a bit taken with him, as well. Though, of course, if my eyes have deceived me, I shall promise you there’ll be no hurt feelings, and no more said about it by anyone. You have my word on that.”

If it were possible, Bilbo would have given serious consideration to sinking into the floor, or tossing herself into a stray breeze to be carried off the balcony rail. She was not at all accustomed to the forthrightness of dwarves, that much was abundantly clear: this sort of conversation amongst hobbits would have been couched in at least four layers of euphemism and delicate pretence, and served with a liberal buffer of cream tea.

“Um,” she said, the very picture of eloquence, then took a great, deep breath. Balin simply waited, serene as a still pond, and his perfect calm urged her toward honesty. “I hadn’t, that is… well. Yes. Yes, he’s rather… he’s rather impressive, I suppose, he’s... Oh, my.”

With her free hand, Bilbo pressed a cool palm against her flaming cheek, not quite able to look Balin in the face at the moment.

“I’m not usually such a stammering mess,” she muttered, feeling every inch a ridiculous tween again. It was mortifying, though slightly less so when Balin’s hand gently patted hers.

“It’s astounding the tricks a fresh fancy can play on the wits, my dear.” He did not sound amused by her foolishness, nor teasing; his words were a rich burr, pitched serious and soothing instead. “The shell of his ear goes quite pink when you smile at him, incidentally, though he’d curse me upside down for saying so. Have a look next time, and have a think about what I’ve said. And if you’ve no interest, there’s no harm done— my brother is a honourable and gentle sort when it comes to matters such as these. He’ll do nothing to make you uncomfortable.”

Smiling, Balin ducked his head in an oddly formal, though shallow sort of bow. “But enough of this old dwarf sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, hm? I think it’s high time we were off to dinner.”

Her stomach took the opportunity to agree, gurgling loudly with ill-chosen timing; she couldn’t quite decide if her appetite had betrayed or saved her. Still, she allowed Balin to tug her gently up the stairs towards their companions, and then let him usher her towards an empty seat, beside which he claimed one of his own. She tried, without much success at all, to keep her eyes from straying towards a familiar, gleaming bald pate seated at the other table.

There were three tables set in total: two lower and longer, already packed with dwarves, and one higher round table with places for three. Glancing around, Bilbo assumed the pride of place was reserved for Lord Elrond, Gandalf, and Thorin (none of whom had yet arrived to the meal). Shortly thereafter, she was proved correct.

The meal laid out before them was lovely and fresh after so many weeks of gamey meat and cram, but Bilbo did agree to some extent when her companions began grumbling about the fare. Something somewhat more substantive than salad and dainty greens would have been pleasant— even just a few simple pies or some cheeses wouldn’t have gone amiss.

She still filled her plate and emptied it in turn, however, which is more than she could say for most of the dwarrows. Ori looked positively as green as the lettuce Dori kept waving in his face, and even Balin was curling his lip as he stabbed his fork rather aggressively at an artfully arranged rosette of spinach and sliced carrot.

“It should improve with a splash of that oil mix,” Bilbo offered, touching Balin’s elbow to gain his attention, then pointing to one of the silver phials that dotted the table. “And a touch of salt.”

Her suggestion earned a grateful, but shallow nod as Balin leaned close to speak low. He was at least subtler with his displeasure than most of the others. “Thank you, my dear, but I doubt this roughage could be much improved without the addition of some proper food. A bit of beef or pork, perhaps a rasher or two of bacon.”

It was purely in the spirit of tact that he had bent so near her ear to speak, but Bilbo was greatly preoccupied by the puff of his breath ruffling her loose curls, gusting warm over her cheek, and the flex of his thick forearm under her palm.

But a dam knows when she’s courted by one, she’s got to consider the other as well.

Bombur’s voice rang clear in her mind, and Bilbo choked on a sip of wine. She’d forgotten, in all her flustered bewilderment and Balin’s unanticipated discussion, she’d forgotten.

“Everything all right, lass?” Balin asked, while Fili, seated on her other side, wrapped a hand over her shoulder.

“Bilbo?” Fili said, but she was only able to wave their concern off with a weak twiddle of her hand, still coughing slightly.

“I’m fine,” she managed after a moment, taking another, deeper drag of wine as fortification. “Sorry, sorry. Dry throat.”

Lord Elrond’s talk of swords was a suitable distraction, even up until the point when Balin disparaged her own blade— it was a perfectly serviceable size for an ordinary hobbit, thank you very much, and sharp as a razor. It still felt unaccountably strange dangling from her hip, and she was much better equipped to wield a pen, or a butter knife, or even a pair of gardening shears, but she would make do.

When she’s courted by one— distracted or not, the memory would not be banished entirely from her mind— she’s got to consider the other as well.

She’s got to consider the other.

Brothers and husbands and sweethearts.

But then what had Balin meant, when he implied that Dwalin’s interest in her was no concern of his? Enough of this old dwarf sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, he’d said, with a wry sort of twist to his kindly smile.

This entire mess had more twists than the Brandywine, and Bilbo feared she might run just the same risk of drowning in the treacherous, unknown depths.

She never imagined she could consider it a stroke of luck to hear a heavy clatter and find a dwarf tromping over a dining table with his enormous, muddy boots, but in this case, it was a finer sound than the chattering of her own thoughts. Her life had certainly taken some queer turns in these past few weeks.

Then Bofur began to sing, and Bilbo hunched deep in her chair at the first belted words of her own foolish lyrics, soon bolstered in chorus from the rest of these ruffian dwarrows, keeping time with hands slapping and dishes rattling. They’d all been humming this particular tune for over a week now, twisting the melody here and there but always prompting Bilbo to bandy together more words— apparently they valued her flare for rhyme and clever lyrics. She had considered it a compliment, having seen first hand how musical these dwarves could be, but now...

Bofur was prancing about the middle of dinner as though Lord Elrond were hosting a Midsummer’s dance in a Tuckborough barn rather than a civilized meal in the Last Homely House, and Bilbo did not miss the cheeky wink the dwarf shot in her direction as he made his sport. Oh, she was going to clip off his plaits while he slept, the dratted troublesome clot.

Food was flying everywhere, but not just towards mouths and hands— it splattered across statues, and elves were ducking out of the way of soaring clods of smashed vegetables. A small part of Bilbo’s heart actually warmed at the thought that these dwarves, even before they knew more than her name and her face, had at least treated her home with relatively more respect than this wanton, purposeful destruction.

She had been too long in the company of dwarrows already, obviously. Her notions of heartwarming behaviour were beginning to skew rather far afield.

“—it’s after three’ he said!” Bofur finished stomping on his plinth with a dramatic flourish, then took a great breath as if to start the fourth verse. Bilbo, having had quite enough of these antics, took hold of a crusty bread roll that had landed in her lap and aimed it with careful purpose.

Catching Bofur directly between the eyes, and with a properly forceful throw as well, Bilbo felt the tiniest speck of guilt when he pinwheeled backward in surprise. But thankfully Kili and Bifur caught him before he could take a tumble, with everyone (Bofur included) still hooting with laughter as he fell. Dwarrows had skulls of stone, regardless— he’d have been more likely to crack the marble balcony than do any damage to his head.

“Oi, well done, Bilbo!” Fili crowed, clapping her back just slightly too hard for comfort, and the rest of the dwarrows echoed the cheer, going so far as to applaud. Even Bofur, once he gained his feet again, turned to her with a deep bow, sweeping his hat off his head and waggling his eyebrows.

“A fine shot from a fine hobbit,” he bellowed, prompting a rowdy, embarrassing refrain of cheers in Bilbo’s name. Then he snatched up the bread roll and took a massive bite, laughing around the mouthful as he flopped back into his seat.

“That was an impressive throw,” Balin said with an amused lift to his brows. Bilbo very nearly gave into the urge to hide her face in his sleeve, if only to avoid withering under judgemental elven stares, but just barely managed to catch herself before doing so.

“Horseshoes,” she said instead, and took up her glass of wine again. There was a lump of what might have been bean curd and a few torn leaves of kale floating in it, and the rest of the dwarrows hadn’t stopped chattering restlessly and making a mess with their food. It seemed as though dinner, such as it was, might be through. “And apple tossing— just simple Shirefolk games. I wasn’t joking about the conkers, incidentally.”

Balin hummed in response, sounding oddly pleased about her show of skill, and Bilbo braved another sip of her spoiled wine rather than risk blurting something altogether foolish in the face of his tacit approval.

She didn’t dare look over toward Dwalin, but the butterflies flapping around her heart showed no sign of subsiding just yet.


A week. Lord Elrond had claimed the moon runes could only be read on a midsummer’s eve, by the light of a crescent moon, and such a night would indeed occur in just a week’s time. It was auspicious that they had arrived on Lord Elrond’s doorstep even close to that particular date— it wasn’t every year that the moon of midsummer rose as a crescent, after all. Their arrival could have been weeks away from the proper time, months, or much, much longer.

A week was nothing at all, in the grander scheme of things, but Thorin had still taken to sulking around with the grumpy scowl and short temper of a faunt who’d been told he couldn’t have pudding before he ate his greens.

A week for the elves to make a move against them, Thorin muttered crossly; a week of walking on a knife’s edge.

Bilbo wasn’t entirely certain Rivendell would still be standing after a week of dwarven lodgers.

The first day, the dwarrows decided not to inquire after bathing rooms, and instead strip down and splash about in a sprawling elven fountain. Bilbo was invited to partake, with cajoling and mild ribbing shouted loudly across the valley, but the dwarrows didn’t press when she politely refused.

They did, however, insist that she remain within earshot (within sight had been vetoed immediately, prompting much dwarven grumbling, but Bilbo had stood firm). They might suspect the elves of evil intentions to spirit her away— of all the ridiculous notions— but Bilbo was not about to sit and watch thirteen nude dwarves cavorting in the decor.

All of them, starkers and squealing, roughhousing like excitable tweens— not just the younger and wilder amongst them, but all, dwarrowdams included. Even Thorin deigned to join his fellows, though Bilbo didn’t hear that deep, sonorous voice raise in more than a very occasional whoop, and she couldn’t imagine him flopping around like an enthusiastic fish.

Having settled onto a bench just around a corner from the fountain, surrounded by lush greenery and brightly dappled sunlight, Bilbo began to leaf through one of the books she had discovered (with Gandalf’s guidance, and the wizard’s assurance that Lord Elrond would not mind her poking around one of his libraries). Her Sinardin was disgracefully rusty— her mother certainly would have been disappointed, having spent so many evenings with a young and eager Bilbo, bent over thick books and with ink smudges on their fingers, teaching loth from deloth, and sammar from sammath.

She had found a number of books in Westron, and a few in languages she did not recognize at all, but she was determined to stretch her linguistic muscles. As luck would have it, she managed to strike gold in her tentative searching through bookshelves. The copy of a herbalism text currently spread over her lap had actually been written bilingually, with descriptions of the beautifully illustrated plants, their properties and uses, penned in flourishing Sindarin above, and neat lines of Westron below. Very helpful to jog her memory, and also fascinating.

One or two elves wandered quietly by as she sat reading, but none came too close or made any attempts to engage her in conversation. Before their layover in Rivendell was through, Bilbo resolved to explore on her own for a while, despite the paranoia of her companions, even if that meant slipping away secretly. She imagined the elves might be somewhat more inclined to be cordial if she wasn’t joined at the hip to a pack of tetchy dwarrows.

The book was certainly interesting, but the splashing at the fountain was gallingly distracting. This was one instance, however, where Bilbo’s propriety was strong enough to give her curiosity a fierce wallop, hard enough to keep it in line. She couldn’t peep at her companions, no matter how strong her urge to do so— even if it would only be a glance for strictly scholarly purposes.

In their weeks of travelling, she hadn’t seen a single dwarrow stripped down past their long underwear, and there was an insistent tickle in the back of her mind, wondering. Were they as truly as thickly muscled as they looked, under all those padded layers? It didn’t seem possible, unless they were truly carved from stone. And their hair

And what of the dwarrowdams? Were they at all similar to hobbit ladies? They certainly had beards to rival their chaps, but what if there were other, more significant differences?

Bilbo considered her own body: her wide hips and ample breasts, and the spongy softness of her figure, all curves and lumps. She did not look anything like Oin, Nori, or Dori, with their furry chins and squarish, firm shapes. If dwarves were hewn from rock, then hobbits were more akin to bread: rising with the yeast of their years into puffy, healthy dough, then turning hard and crusty in their dotage.

It was possible, she supposed, that a dwarf might find some attractive qualities in her Shire strangeness, just as she found her eye lingering on broad shoulders and thick, tree-trunk arms that no hobbit (not even her Uncle Bullroarer) had ever possessed.

It didn’t matter; her embarrassing curiosity could go hang. She wasn’t going to peep.

Even if she’d been invited to look, which she technically had, she would not.

It was to her great relief when the splashing and silliness began to peter off, and soon enough the clomp of dwarven boots replaced the sloshing sound of the fountain being thoroughly disgraced.

“Still there, Bilbo?” Fili shouted, with Bofur adding: “We’re decent, lass! Or as decent as this lot gets, at least.”

“I’m here,” she called back, and closed her book with a gentle thud. She’d been on the same page for far too long, trying to stifle her imagination, and its wild notions about what might be waiting just around the corner. Her mind had latched doggedly onto the question of whether or not Dwalin might have more tattoos hidden away, but also, perhaps even more mortifying, whether the stout curve of Balin’s stomach was stone-hard or pillow-soft, or somewhere in between.

Confusticate and bebother these dratted dwarrows for planting such ribald, indecent notions in her head!

As though her annoyance had summoned him, one of those very same dratted dwarrows chose that moment to appear. Kili popped his head around the corner, dark hair stuck to his forehead and dripping wet onto his damp, clinging shirt.

“Aren’t you bored of that yet?” he said, jerking his chin towards her reading, then didn’t wait for her answer before continuing on. “Few of us are off to look for the kitchens, see where they hide the decent food. You up for a bit of burglaring practice?”

Bilbo narrowed her eyes, entirely unimpressed, even if her stomach was gnawing. “The last time I let you talk me into burgling anything, I nearly ended up in a stew pot, and you lot alongside.” She plucked at the edge of her jacket, scrunching her nose at the stiff feel of it. “And since I’m still foul with troll and muck, I’m off to find a proper bath. Indoors, preferably, and with hot water if at all possible.”

“Fussy Miss Boggins,” Kili said with a cluck of his tongue, then turned to holler back at the Company. “Me and Bilbo are going off to find a private bath for her!”

“We most certainly are not!” Bilbo sputtered, gaining her feet in a scramble and planting her hands firmly on her hips. “I am going to find a private bath, and you, Kili, are not—”

Her words ended in a wheeze, as though all the air had suddenly been punched out of her lungs. It should have been impossible, but somehow, Dwalin looked even larger without the added bulk of leather and fur. He was standing there, just behind Kili, with a thunderous scowl and his massive chest completely bare, save for a heavy pelt of dark, wetly curling hair that trailed down his belly, narrowing and disappearing into the waist of his grey woollen braies.

Dazedly, Bilbo noted that there were indeed more tattoos. And more muscles. And a great deal more dwarf.

“You’ll mind your manners, whelp.” Dwalin’s voice was a boulder dragged over gravel, heavy and growling. “And leave the lassie be, unless she asks for you.”

“She wants a bath,” Kili said, with the barest hint of wheedling creeping in. “A proper bath, and none of us are meant to go off on our own—”

Bilbo blinked too quickly, dragging her eyes away from acres of damp skin and hard cut muscle, and managed to cobble together what was left of her wits into a sharp, snappish sentence.

“You’re all being ridiculous.” Keeping her fists on her hips, Bilbo stamped one foot, and the slap of her sole against the stone floor was satisfyingly loud. “I’m not some faunt who needs a minder, for goodness sake.”

“No one. Goes off. Alone.” Dwalin emphasized each word with immovable surety, while crossing his arms over his chest in a move that made the back of Bilbo’s neck prickle.

She could have argued, of course, or even stormed off and let them try and follow. If Bilbo truly got it in her head to make herself scarce, it was more than likely she could have hidden away from the dwarrows with a bit of quick footwork and possibly even begging the indulgence of a few sympathetic elves.

But hiding would be childish, which would in turn do little to support her claim that she was indeed a grown hobbit and able to look after herself. And arguing would simply serve to keep her here longer, with Dwalin’s half-naked bulk flustering her every thought.

A tactical compromise was called for, in this instance.

“Will one of you be so kind,” she said, slow and perfectly calm. “As to ask Dori if he might accompany me, please? If he has the time, of course.”

“Dori?” Dwalin said, skeptical, while Kili shook his head with all the gusto of a wet dog. He even flung droplets of water in the same way.

“I really don’t mind, Bilbo.” Kili’s winning smile split his face, until Dwalin’s hand landed upon his nape, chasing that smile away with a hard shake.

“Smarten up, I said.” With what looked like very little effort, Dwalin tossed the other dwarf back around the corner, sending the poor lad stumbling out of sight. “Go tell Dori he’s needed— do as you’re told or you’ll have my boot in your arse. Get.”

“That’s not precisely what I said,” Bilbo murmured, only to have Dwalin pin her with a pointed sideways glance.

“What, would you rather Kili nipping at your heels,” he said, dry as toast. But the question wasn’t without a tinge of seriousness, tightening visible lines at the corner of Dwalin’s eye, just under his bushy brow.

Dwalin cut an intimidating figure of thickness, height, and wicked scars (for an instant, Bilbo was sure she caught a glint of metal flashing amidst all that chest hair, and was almost confused enough to stare before she caught herself), but at the moment, she did not feel even slightly threatened. She did feel as though Dwalin were waiting on her, in a moment drawn taut and tensed; waiting to hear her, like the words of one podgy hobbit lady would mean something vital to him. It was a powerful and terrifying realisation, and a swell of Tookish daring caught her tongue before she could think better of it.

“Well, he did ask if he could be my sweetheart,” she said, and watched as Dwalin’s face slackened as the words sunk into understanding, his mouth parting slightly in the midst of his beard. It was an instant of cruelty, and Bilbo’s stomach immediately twisted sour with regret at dealing such a needless sting, just for the sake of thoughtless brassiness.

The guilt was unpleasant enough to send her lurching forward, even as her heart seemed to surge into her throat.

His forearm was warm under the clutch of her hand, even still tacky from the cool water of the fountain; his bare skin was suede drawn tight over iron, but flexing, alive beneath her palm. Bilbo licked her lips, her eyes darting away before looking up again, so very far up, to meet Dwalin’s now starkly shuttered, indecipherable expression.

“And,” she said, quiet and almost urgent, her words spilling out quicker when he didn’t make any move to shrug her off. “While I may have turned him down, the asking is an important part of Shire courtship, you know. Or maybe you didn’t know. Easy thing to overlook, not being familiar with our customs, Shire customs, if one were in a position to worry about overlooking such a thing, of course—”

“—and keep him out of trouble!” Dori’s voice was too close to ignore, and drawing closer, choking back the rest of whatever nonsense was going to continue babbling out of Bilbo’s mouth. “No, I was talking to Ori, Nori. I trust one of you knows how to behave, at least!”

Bilbo dropped her hand before Dori rounded the corner, shuffling back to put space between herself and Dwalin. What had begun as meaningless chatter had become a conversation of some substance, and even some intimacy, perhaps, if she was reading things correctly.

Dwalin didn’t stop her stepping away, nor did he say another word as Dori appeared beside them, still soggy and rumpled in his clothes. But the strange, puzzled furrow between Dwalin’s scarred brows was somehow enough to light a tiny flicker of hope in Bilbo’s breast, not much bigger than a candle flame. He was staring at her, confused and considering, and the attention was oddly buoying.

“You asked for me, Bilbo?” Dori was straightening his shirt, still shrugging into his coat with precise, economical movements, but he didn’t seem irked about the summons. Still, Bilbo offered an apologetic dip of her head.

“Only if it’s not a bother,” she started to say, only to have Dori swat her words away with a flap of his hand.

“Of course it’s no bother— none at all. It’s a bath you’re after, is it? No, no bother.” Dori’s attention swung to Dwalin, and he motioned back towards the others. “I have an inkling that Nori may start sniffing around the nicer silverware while I’m indisposed, Mister Dwalin.”

Dwalin’s answer was a grunt and a short nod, but it seemed to satisfy Dori well enough— while Dwalin vanished around the corner without a backward glance, Dori favoured Bilbo with a pleasant, peaceable smile.

“Lead the way, then, dear.” 

Chapter Text

It only took a few moments of searching to find a helpful elf— the dark haired one who first greeted Gandalf when they arrived in Rivendell, and who introduced himself formally as Lindir when Bilbo approached him about the facilities. Elven bathing rooms, as it turned out, were as elegant and serene as the rest of their architecture. The room Lindir had assigned for Bilbo’s use was dominated by a deep tub wrought of silver and marble, and large enough to fit a dozen hobbits. There were gauzy curtains draped all over, an abundance of fluffy bathing sheets, and privacy screens with pale wooden frames, seemingly grown of twisting branches rather than carved.

Dori had observed the decor with an unimpressed eye, flicking a wispy bit of curtain, but still took the opportunity to comb out his hair and reset his braids while Bilbo scrubbed up.

She sat in the steamy bath with some degree of awkwardness, having to bend her legs under herself to keep her chin above water, but the rich, floral scented soap was a glory worth the minor risk of drowning. Behind a privacy screen, Dori was humming softly— it wasn’t any tune Bilbo knew, but it was mellow and slow, and perhaps a bit melancholy.

“Dori,” she said, pouring a measure of creamy liquid soap into her palms before working it into her unbound, sopping wet hair. “Does that song have a name?”

“Just an old lullaby,” Dori answered, after a noticeable pause. “One of Ori’s favourites, when he was just a bairn. If it ever had words, our mother never shared them with me.”

Bilbo dug her fingers into her curls, revelling in the feel of lather sliding slick. “It’s a very pretty tune.”

“Mm, I suppose it is.”

With the curtains diffusing the sunlight into a soft, golden glow, Bilbo wasn’t able to make out even the faintest silhouette of Dori through the fabric of the screen. Without visual clues to aid her in navigating dwarven courtesy, Bilbo was somewhat hesitant to bring up any serious topics, but this sort of privacy was an opportunity she was loath to squander.

“Dori,” she said again, as she squeezed most of the soap from her hair and into the bathwater. There was a jug nearby for rinsing the rest, but she left it for the moment. “May I ask you something? Perhaps a something a bit personal?”

Dori hummed consideringly, then said, frank but not unkind: “You may ask; I may not answer. But go ahead.”

Soap bubbles trailed in white, oily patterns over the surface of the water, and Bilbo moved them absently with the tips of her fingers, mulling over her phrasing.

“If a person,” she began, then tried again. “If someone wanted to approach a dwarrowdam— wanted to approach with… romantic intentions, I mean. What, generally, would one do… to do that?”

There was silence for a what felt like an age, until finally, after so long Bilbo was preparing to blurt an apology for whatever slight she’d managed to stumble over, the stillness was broken by a delicate cough.

“Well,” Dori said, his calm obviously strained, and coughed again. “Miss Bilbo, I must say, while I truly am flattered, I’m afraid our quest leaves me no time to properly consider a suit, and that would hardly be fair to you—”

“No, no—” Sitting up straighter in the tub, trying to keep her feet under her, Bilbo shook her head at the screen, despite knowing that no one could see her. “That’s not what I meant. Ah, I’m sorry, Dori, I just— I’m forever making a mess of this. I’m sorry. I’m simply not used to… talking about such things. Not so plainly as you dwarrows do, at least.”

“Such things,” Dori repeated. “Such things as… romantic intentions? And with a dam? Wait, Bilbo, I know that Nori could charm mithril from shale when he sets his mind to something, but—”

“No, again, not what I meant.” Folding her arms on the lip of the tub and resting her chin upon them, Bilbo heaved a deep breath. “Would you mind terribly coming around? I feel as though I’m speaking to a wall.”

When Dori’s head popped out from behind the screen, Bilbo was absolutely amazed by the cascade of shining silver hair that fell over one of his shoulders. His beard was already neatly affixed into its plaits and clasps, but his head was only partially pinned into place, awaiting its complex braids.

“Why not tell me plainly what you mean, dear,” Dori said, dragging a small, cushioned bench out from behind the partition, and planting himself upon it. For tall folk it was likely a footstool, but for dwarrows and hobbits, it was the perfect height for a comfortable seat. “Before your water goes cold, at least.”

Dori picked up an angular, fine toothed comb in one hand, and began parting his hair into small sections with what looked like natural, habitual motions. The comb was pretty enough to draw the eye: it was made of bone or horn, with teeth a smooth, mottled ivory colour, and the spine was inlaid with fine silver designs, which to Bilbo’s eye mirrored the patterns of Dori’s hair beads. There was a leather thong affixed to a hole drilled in the comb’s spine, for tying it to belts or bags, and Bilbo imagined it clicked snugly into a sheath to protect the teeth as well.

It was very similar to the style of travel comb Dwalin had loaned her, and which was still stowed carefully in her pack, though Dwalin’s comb lacked the silver decoration. Instead, the spine of his was much thicker, intricately carved with squarish knotwork, and polished shiny smooth. And, like the cloak, he had refused its return when she’d offered.

“Whatever has you in such knots,” Dori said, after Bilbo stayed quiet for too long. He seemed engrossing in his braiding, thick fingers moving with incredible deftness over the liquid silver strands, but Bilbo did not miss the tiny smirk twitching his lips. “You can tell me freely. I do doubt you’ll shock me, whatever it is.”

There was an unexpected layer of innuendo within that assurance, and Bilbo was reminded of what Bofur had said: Dori was considered a very attractive dam, with an impressive number of suitors. It was also a stark reminder that Bilbo had absolutely no idea how dwarrow courting was meant to go, in terms of customs and affections. Hobbits were generally free to partake in kisses and cuddles as tweens, or more than that if they fancied, but (among gentlehobbits, especially) the follies of youth were expected to settle once one came of age. The correct and respectable courting of sweethearts was a rather chaste affair, all things considered— until a certain point, of course.

Flustered, Bilbo dropped her eyes from Dori’s skillful fingers and drummed her own against the tub. “If a dwarf were interested in a dam,” she said, then shored up her nerve with a steadying inhale. “If a dwarf were interested in me, how might he behave? I’ve no idea how dwarrows pitch woo, and it’s come to my attention that I may be... overlooking something. In my ignorance.”

“Ha, well done! Gloin owes me five silver pieces.” Glancing up, Bilbo found Dori beaming at her, bright eyed and jolly. “And I’ll not let that tight old sod wriggle his way out of it, either. I knew you’d notice before we reached the mountains. Honestly, how could you not, with such a bold fellow pressing his suit?”

What?” Bilbo’s foot slipped, and she clung to the side of the tub to keep from dunking under. “Bold? How? What’s he been doing? I didn’t— I only know anything at all because Balin told me!”

Sinking back defeated, Bilbo couldn’t help a soft whine from escaping her throat, reedy and pitiful. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar from the sound she’d made when first faced with a huge, grim dwarf standing on her doorstep, bristling with weapons and looking like the fiercest thing she had ever seen. “Oh my word, what have I missed?”

“You must be joking.” When Bilbo merely whined again, brief and wordless, Dori tossed his head to one side like a pony being bothered by a fly. It was a gesture both breathtakingly graceful, with loose locks of silver hair shimmering, and also profoundly annoyed. “Oh, for the love of— you must be blind as a mole! Dizzy little hobbit, it’s lucky you can find your feet, I swear.”

Being tutted at had never been a favourite pastime of Bilbo’s: not as an adventurous faunt, and especially not now as a grown hobbit. Still, she would bear it if the results lead her to the answers she sought. Dori could be persnickety, but he couldn’t hold a candle to the sharp wit and thin patience for fools of one Missus Laura “Grandmother” Baggins.

“Never mind, no use dwelling upon it now,” Dori said, with a prim click of his tongue. “Rinse your hair, Bilbo, and we’ll get you sorted.”

 


 

“Stop fussing with them.” Bilbo hissed when a thick dwarven finger flicked her wrist, hard enough to jostle her entire arm. Chastised, possibly slightly bruised, Bilbo dropped her hand away from where it had strayed to her hair.

“You’ll fray all my hard work,” Dori said, and reached out to tweak the braid Bilbo had been touching. They weren’t nearly as intricate as the plaits Dori had woven around his own head, but they were more involved than any style Bilbo had ever worn before.

Her hair was just barely shoulder length— not short as a chap’s, but shorter than many hobbit ladies kept their curls— and Bilbo usually twisted it into a simple knotted bun at her nape to tame it, tied in place with a leather cord. Curls were always escaping, of course, in sprigs around her forehead and ears, but for the most part the bun was a serviceable leash for her heedless, toffee brown mop.

What Dori had crafted on her head was serviceable as well, though in Bilbo’s estimation there was little simple about it. Dori disagreed, calling the finished product a modest coiffure.

The style was more controlled than her bun would have been, though not uncomfortably tight in any spot: a single braid lay flat above her brow, following her hairline from one temple to the other, but it was an expertly woven thing, creating a pattern of five interlocking strands all the way across. Then, where the braid reached the right side of her head, it continued on, trailing behind her ear until it hung loosely behind. The end of it, dangling just barely below the back of her earlobe, was finished in a tight wrap of dark green string that Dori had produced from his mending kit. Apparently, borrowing one of Dori’s own beads for the braid would have sent the wrong sort of message for Bilbo’s purposes.

“It’s not even entirely proper for me to be doing this, truth be told,” Dori had said, tugging gently at her curls as he worked. Bilbo had tensed immediately, trying to turn to look up at him from her position kneeling between his knees, but Dori had held her head fast with one strong hand, keeping her facing outward. “Stop fussing; it’s nothing serious, I promise. It simply would have been slightly more appropriate for family or a married acquaintance to help with your braids. But Gloin is an unmitigated bore, and you deserve better than the crooked mess you’d get from Bombur or Bofur. Now sit still.”

The rest of her curls were wound back into a bun, but placed higher than she would have done herself, twisted into a flat pancake shape on the back of her skull. And of course, it was no mere roll of hair; there were more braids here, worked into a complex spiral, and held in place by some dwarrow magic Bilbo did not comprehend. Well, dwarrow magic and a handful of clever little hairpins, but Bilbo had never seen her curls submit to pins so easily before.

“Proper enough for travelling,” Dori had said after he’d finished, smoothing the sides of Bilbo’s head with soft strokes and surveying his work. “If we weren’t on the road, I would do something much more lavish, I think, but we all make do in the circumstances. I mean, look at me— not a single ribbon, hardly a handful of beads. It’s lucky I’m not considering suitors on this trip, as I wander about with all the ornaments of a wee wispy-chinned lass.”

Bilbo had made certain to assure Dori that he was especially comely and dapper, ribbons or no, and earned herself a gentle bop on the nose and a small, flattered smile for her trouble.

At the moment, standing together in a softly lit Rivendell corridor, there was no such smile to be found— just a sharp glance and chastising lift of one silver brow, and Bilbo’s belly churning with the worry that she looked utterly ridiculous.

“Are you sure—” Bilbo began to say, not the first such question to pass her lips since she and Dori had made their way out of the bathing room to head off to find their companions.

“Entirely,” Dori said, firm and unbending as iron. “Still entirely sure.”

“But what if I’m not sure?” Dori’s eyes rolled skyward, and his chest expanded with the breath that would doubtlessly herald another increasingly impatient assurance that she looked lovely. Before a single word could be uttered, however, Bilbo was adamantly shaking her head (and feeling the stubby braid knock against the back of her ear).

“No, wait,” she said. “Not sure about all of this, I mean. I don’t want to… to lead anyone on, I suppose, or make any promises when I’m simply not certain about courting at all.”

And just like that, all the annoyance drained from Dori’s expression, like a cork had been pulled out of him.

“Oh, you dear lass.” Dori’s hands were huge, thick fingered and callused, but they were as perfectly gentle cupping the sides of her face as they had been when they worked through her hair. Bilbo wasn’t entirely certain what to do, held there by the cheeks, with Dori looking down at her with soft, bright eyes that crinkled slightly at the corners.

“I’ll tell you just what I told Nori and Ori,” he said. “A courting braid isn’t any sort of promise, or guarantee, or anything of the sort. You can wear a braid at your brow for a hundred years, and never once accept a suitor, if that’s what you like. Any dwarf who claims you owe them even a single moment’s consideration because of the way you wear your hair… well, that dwarf’s not worth whatever slag the Maker swept up to craft their sorry hide. Do you understand?”

Bilbo might have nodded, if not for Dori’s hands. Instead, she swallowed tightly, and said: “You sound… very much like my mother.”

Dori laughed at that, warm and rumbling, then bent his neck to tap their brows together, barely a touch. The contact was light as butterfly, especially compared to the violently cracking headbutts Bilbo had observed among the other dwarrows— she’d even seen Dori and Ori, knocking their skulls together with resounding force.

“Your mother sounds like a dam of good sense.” Dori took a step back, drawing his hands away. “And now, Miss Bilbo, I’m off to follow the smell of sausages towards supper. You can either join me, or go off and take those plaits out yourself. But you know as well as I do, there’s no telling how much food will be left when you decide you’re fit to be seen.”

That was true, and not at all fair, and Bilbo had no trouble at all telling Dori so. She continued telling him, even as he started around the corner where they had stalled on their journey, and she followed tightly on his heels.

Making a fool of herself was one thing, but Bilbo was a Baggins of relatively good standing, and any Baggins worth her salt wouldn’t voluntarily miss a meal for anything less than complete and utter catastrophe. The state of her hair— pretty, but deeply odd and making her twitchy— was not quite dire enough to qualify.

 


 

He did ask if he could be my sweetheart.

It was a stupid thing to let burrow under his skin— the lad barely had his first whiskers, and his fancies changed with the wind— but Dwalin was still itching with the memory of those words.

They were settled on some spindly balcony, probably barely clinging to the valley walls with whatever shoddy excuse for framing and foundations these elves employed, and despite best efforts, the hunt for decent food hadn’t turned up anything better than more greenery, bread, and some uncooked fruit. The decision had been made, unanimously, to break into their own emergency stores for the night, then begin the search again the next morning. Dwalin was still mulling the risks versus reward of encouraging some gangly tree shagger to point them in the direction of the proper kitchens; there was meat to be had, surely. He’d seen signs of hunting: furs here and there, tool handles made of bone and antler, and he knew these elves didn’t magic up the leather for their boots and belts.

They had liberated a few bottles of wine from the meagre excuse for a kitchen they had found; it wasn’t as satisfying as a tankard of good, powerful mead, or the rich, malty beer from Bilbo’s pantry, but it at least helped the dry elven bread go down smoother.

He did ask if he could be my sweetheart.

Dwalin took another swig of wine, chasing the bitter bile at the back of his tongue with saccharine liquor instead. There was a crack of wood snapping from over across their little fire, then a few more bits of kindling were tossed on the growing flames; it had been an ugly chair, anyway, and not nearly sturdy enough.

Neither was the nearby table especially durable— imagine the shame of it, giving in under the weight of one single dwarf. And not even one dwarf stomping about, but just sitting. Granted, Bombur was stoutly built, but there wasn’t a table in Ered Luin that wouldn’t bear up under two dozen iron-toed boots jigging and stamping.

It was a sight funny enough to startle a laugh out of him, his first humour of the evening. And as the lot of them howled with mirth, Bombur simply huffed, unhurt and annoyed in a pile of weak elven splinters, then scoffed the sausage his brother has tossed over.

“Needed more wood anyway,” Bombur mumbled around his mouthful, and a few of the others were off again, hooting and slapping knees. Dwalin leaned back more comfortably against the balcony rail, chuckling into the neck of his wine bottle, ignoring Kili’s cheery face across the glow of firelight.

He loved the lad, loved both of them; they were his kin, somewhat distantly by blood, but closer in the beating of his heart. Thorin was as much his brother as Balin, and the Lady Dis was the finest dam he’d ever known, barring his own blessed mam. Dwalin had even been the third set of hands to hold Kili as a pink and squalling bairn, after the midwife and Dis herself. With her husbands both gone to Mahal’s Hall— one falling in Azanulbizar and the other to a bandit’s axe while guarding a caravan— and Thorin off taking smithy work for a fortnight, it had been Dwalin who had paced outside Dis’ rooms muttering the warrior’s prayers and keeping watch on young, toddling Fili when Kili had decided to make his early, unexpected entrance into this world.

An easy birth, the midwife had told him, when the door had finally opened and she passed over the wrapped, squirming bundle. Dwalin knew he had stared askance at the round-faced, snow-haired dam; an easy birth, when there had been hours of fiercer roaring coming from the other side of the door than Dwalin had heard echoing in a hundred battles. If he’d not been warned to expect it, Dwalin would have burst in expecting to find some brutal assassination or torture, but Dis had made him swear to keep outside unless she called for him.

All that shouting, he remembered thinking after the midwife had disappeared back into the room to tend to Dis, all that fuss for such a wee thing. A small babe, barely spanning one of his hands from tip to toes, but eager and strong.

Oh aye, and eager enough that now, not yet fourscore years later, Dwalin was finding himself hard-pressed not to thrash that eager grin off the lad’s face.

Jealousy sat ill with him, and he resented the unfamiliar, sour twist of it in his gut. How many times had he scoffed at some seething sot hunched over a tavern’s table, or had to crack the skulls of a few scuffling fools? And each time he’d tell them, whether his advice was welcome or not, that it was a piss poor dwarf who moaned about losing a lover he wasn’t devoted enough to keep in his bed. The jaundiced eye of jealousy was a refuge of the lazy or feckless— a way for those unwilling or unable to prove their worth to the dwarf that caught their fancy to raise their hackles, uselessly, and stew in their misery rather than move on from it.

It wasn’t as though Dwalin had never been turned down, for a simple tup or something more serious. He’d had his share of disappointments, but jealousy had never seemed like a sensible response. A waste of effort, at the very least, and not as satisfying to soothing a wounded ego as drink or a few rounds of sparring.

It was pathetic. He was pathetic. Mooning over some fragile beardless lassie, and why? Because of a comely face, a twinkling laugh, and a disposition sweeter and more pleasant than any elven wine? Or was it because such a gentle, well-settled dam had listened raptly to the details of their impossible quest, and was both wise enough to doubt their purpose in the face of such odds, but bold enough to follow regardless?

Dwalin would follow Thorin across countless leagues, without hesitation or any need for hope— Thorin’s call was reason enough for him, whether they marched to success or slaughter. Such was the strength of their bond and his loyalty to his king, earned with blood and kept true until the very last drop of his was shed. But he certainly didn’t expect that blind fealty from other people.

Even Balin had his doubts, and rightly so. Dwalin didn’t begrudge his brother his misgivings. It was a good thing, actually: someone on this damned quest needed to be sensible, after all.

Bilbo had been wary of their task from the start, and Dwalin did not begrudge her either. She was no warrior, that was plain enough, and their journey was not set to be a leisurely stroll. Truth be told, he would have been much less impressed if she’d been a headstrong fool, champing at the bit to leave her bucolic little burrow in search of fairytale adventure because she didn’t have the sense to know what a blessing the peace of her home was.

But she’d doubted, she’d fainted, and she’d refused them. Dwalin hadn’t thought much more of it, except the barest twinge of regret that he’d lost a fine view— he had always suffered an inconvenient appreciation for delicate features, much to his own annoyance and his brother’s endless amusement. A dwarf of his bearing would have been better served lusting after his fellow warriors, with their broken noses, callused hands, and thick hides, and he had certainly enjoyed his share of rough, battle-seasoned tumbles. There was no quicker way to stir his blood, however, than with a soft, open face and a tender smile.

No matter what any number of ale-addled poets might claim, opposite humours were not the makings of great romance. In Dwalin’s experience, the Maker did not often fashion disjointed parts to wedge together neat and nice. Complimentary pieces made for tighter, truer bonds. He hadn’t yet met a pretty spice merchant, scribe, or musician who wasn’t (immediately or eventually) sent running by the fierceness of his face, rough manners, or occasional black moods.

He grated upon gentle temperaments as his knuckle dusters might tear and ruin fine silk, whether he intended to or not. And the one time, decades back, when he thought he might have found such a rare heart with the proper mix of stout and soft, that potential fortune had been dashed by fate. Such was his ill-luck.

The hobbit had been a pretty lass, but Dwalin had put her further from his mind with every step his pony took eastward, leaving the hill with the green door behind.

Of course, Bilbo had eventually come trailing up upon their heels, with her rounded cheeks flushed pink and a gleam of excitement in her wide eyes, and Dwalin had tried to armour himself behind the wall of Thorin’s skepticism. The halfling wouldn’t last past Bree before she went scampering home again; they’d wasted an evening, but gained free lodgings and the finest meal Dwalin had enjoyed in years. Not a terrible balance, all things considered.

Bree had eventually grown smaller behind them, the terrain roughened from smooth Shire hills, and shock of shocks, they hadn’t lost their hobbit. They did lose the sun, however, and soon after Dwalin lost his wits and his cloak in one fell swoop.

He honestly hadn’t intended to start pitching woo at their fussy little burglar. That had never been the plan.

He was dwarf enough to admit that the plan, whatever it had been, slipped well and truly out of his hands when he wasn’t paying attention.

If only she hadn’t been so determined, yet clearly flustered by every little hardship. If only she’d been slightly cockier in her ability to survive this grand adventure. If she’d been less earnest in her struggling and her grit, then perhaps he might have dismissed this absurd fancy before it curled so deep and so snug behind his ribs.

If she’d just been a wee bit less charming, damn it all, he might not have been so thoroughly charmed.

Wine made for maudlin, spiralling thoughts, but Dwalin guzzled another swallow; the slosh of heat in his belly was an improvement, compared to the queer clench of nerves he’d been suffering.

So young Kili had tried to make an overture to their burglar, and a brazen one if Bilbo was to be taken at her word— he did ask if he could be my sweetheart. The more important thing to remember was that Bilbo had refused, and also, perhaps, that there was something to be said for the direct approach.

The asking was important for hobbits, she’d said. Just… asking? Seemed suspiciously simple for folk who spent twenty words on what could be stated in two, and lived in bloody mazes. Dwalin had a good head for directions, but he’d still taken three wrong turns in her cosy little house before he’d found the privy, then gotten turned around twice more on the trip back to his bunk for the night. He hadn’t been as bad as Thorin, of course, but who was? Some dwarrows just never got the sense for overground travel.

There had to be more to it than that— dwarrows were blunt as clubs compared to what he’d seen of hobbits, and there were still traditions followed among his people, unless all you were after was a quick, uncomplicated tup. Dams especially took a dab hand to approach with the respect they deserved, if a dwarf wanted to make a serious go of anything and not make an arse of himself. There had to be something more than just asking.

He could still feel the ghost of her hand on his arm, cool and soft against his freshly scrubbed skin—

“Well now, bugger me… would you look at that,” Nori said from her seat nearby their drying clothes, and there was enough genuine surprise in her usually unflappable voice to have Dwalin glancing up. He looked first towards Nori, then immediately twisted ‘round in the direction of whatever wonder had put that gawking expression on the thief’s face.

Then Dwalin proceeded to choke on his wine, rather spectacularly.

Their missing dams had returned, and in grand fashion. Dori was turned out in her usual fair and graceful style; even pared down to travelling braids, she was a classic beauty, and more than fine enough to turn heads from Ered Luin to the Iron Hills. But it was Bilbo who drew Dwalin’s eye, and the eyes of every other dwarf lounging upon their balcony, even if most were only looking for the oddity of it all.

Dori was undeniably expert when it came to braiding— if you’d asked Dwalin before this moment, he never would have guessed such plaits were possible in Bilbo’s short curls. But there they were, neat and even, without a single corkscrewed lock springing free (as they did, often and entirely distractingly, from the crude bobtail Bilbo kept knotted herself).

The finer details might have been lost in the firelight, but dwarrows had vision enough for the dark places of the world, and Dwalin had always been keen of eye. A five strand braid across the brow, crowned like a queen— that was a damned clear sign a dam was considering petitions, and Dwalin wheezed around a lungful of liquor.

Both Fili and Kili, far across the fire from Dwalin’s seat were much closer to the vision of Bilbo in braids and shirtsleeves, her jacket and weskit folded over her arm. They gawped, much as Dwalin could feel himself doing, slackjawed and dazed, until Fili seemed to shake off the stupor, giving his younger brother a swat on the arm.

Dwalin might have given in and throttled them when the pair began to scramble to their feet, all limbs and gawkish enthusiasm, if Dori hadn’t graced Bilbo with a pat on the cheek, before snatching the bundle of fabric from the wee hobbit’s hands and nudging her firmly enough to send her lurching. Lurching in Dwalin’s direction, as it turned out, until those large furry feet came to stand just in front of his folded legs.

“Mister Dwalin.” Her voice held a quaver, the sound of which stabbed him sharply in the chest. Of course she was afraid: she was such a little thing, and he was a brute. Wouldn’t be the first time even his subtlest overtures had put a chill in someone’s blood, though that response always stung. There was only one thing for it.

Apology tasted of ashes on his tongue, but before he could give voice to that ruin, Bilbo was clearing her throat and speaking again, clearer and steady as stone.

“May I sit?” She motioned to a patch of floor, not too far to his left, and the rushing noise in Dwalin’s ears was louder than any waterfall spilling over the valley walls.

“Aye,” he said, then reached up without a second thought, dragging his coat down from where it draped over the balcony rail to air out. The thick fur collar made a decent enough cushion, he’d learned over years of sleeping upon it, and he bundled it hastily into a loose pile on the floor. “Sit.”

It was pitched too much like an order, and Dwalin immediately cursed himself, but Bilbo seemed too distracted to rile about his tone. Her gaze had strayed from his face, not lowering down toward the floor or flashing indignantly at him, but drifting slightly to one side of his cheek. Something had caught her eye, clearly, and whatever it was had coaxed such a delighted wee smile to play around her lips.

“Thank you,” she said, her gaze darting away from where it had lingered, and she moved to settle herself down onto his coat. Dwalin rubbed at his good ear with mild unease, wondering what she’d been smiling about, but the results were more than welcome.

Bilbo smoothed her hands over her bent knees, pushing imaginary wrinkles from her short trousers, and plucked at the folds of her shirt. Fussy little gestures, but oddly charming when coupled with the faint pinkness dusted over her naked cheeks.

Ah, but he would do well to keep his mind far from thoughts of nakedness, if he had any sense at all. Dwalin, like most of the others, was stripped down to his braies while his clothes hung to dry from a scrubbing. It had been years since Dwalin had felt even a flicker of care about the state of his clothes, except that they were reasonably whole, warm, and tough enough. He’d spent long enough on the road, in camps with fellow warriors and hired blades, to banish any clinging notions of privacy he might have had as a lad. Well, privacy about bodies, at least; he had, and would again if the situation warranted it, break fingers that wandered into his possessions.

He was weirdly aware, at the moment, of his own state of undress. It made him sit up straighter, his spine stiff against the balcony rail and shoulders squared. If the posture also made his chest puff out, that was unintentional.

“There’s still supper to be had, I hope,” she said to the Company at large, but it was Dwalin she sat beside, and it was Dwalin who took advantage of his longer reach to snatch up a long fork from near their fire, jerking his head towards Bofur.

“Sausages,” he said, and easily caught the pair of links the other dwarf tossed to him. He skewered them on the tines and held them near the flames, letting the cured meat begin to heat through.

“Apples and bread, too, Bilbo.” Dwalin glanced up at Bofur’s offer, but didn’t bother calling up a glare when he saw Bofur’s fingers twitch in quick signs for peace and friendship. It wasn’t unheard of for a married bunch to add to their number after the fact, but that wasn’t the intent here.

The hobbit accepted the food with a pleased murmur of thanks, settling back into her furred seat and nibbling on a golden bun of bread. Dwalin could feel the weight of attention on him, with awareness honed keen as his own axes, and glanced back to find her watching. Her eyes were dark and liquid, reflecting back the warm firelight. He flexed the outstretched arm that held the fork, making muscle bulge under thin wool, and was duly rewarded by the sight of her lips parting, ever so slightly, without a trace of fear clouding her face.

Perhaps this wasn’t as foolish a venture as he’d feared.

Chapter Text

The elves had offered them rooms for the night, likely with rickety twigs for beds if the strength of their tables was anything by which to judge, but Thorin had refused on behalf of the lot of them. They wouldn’t be separated to sleep, even in pairs or more. There was strength in numbers, in keeping a unified front. It was a wise precaution, and Dwalin had been entirely supportive.

Bilbo had been less keen on the notion, pursing her full lips in agitation and shooting glances toward the corridor, just beyond the sheltered balcony that had become their clustered campsite. Dwalin had already been scheduled for last watch, meant to relieve Bifur and Gloin in the hours before daybreak. Taking note of their burglar’s displeasure at the sleeping arrangements, he knew he’d not get a moment of decent rest if he didn’t do something. The thought of Bilbo stealing off in the middle of the night to bunk beneath some wispy weed-eater’s quilts, alone and easy pickings, was a good deal more than he was willing to bear.

Never trust an elf.

So it followed that Dwalin stripped a few soft cushions from a sofa he found in a nearby room, and bundled them into a corner of the balcony, fashioning a simple pallet just large enough for a hobbit. Any curious gawking he received was met with the deadliest, darkest glare he could muster, and it was only shortly thereafter that his work didn’t appear quite such a topic of fascination any longer.

Not fascinating to most of the Company, at least. His brother kept right on casting looks his way, but Balin had never been quailed by a scowl in his life. Least of all by one of Dwalin’s scowls.

Nabbing his own cloak from where Bilbo kept it, neatly rolled and lashed across the top of her pack, Dwalin laid it near one end of the cushions. It could be used as a pillow, or unfolded as a blanket; whatever Bilbo prefered.

He had no intention of asking for his coat back that night— the early summer air was warm enough to endure in his shirtsleeves. The fact that he was steadily stripping himself bare for this wee lass was something Dwalin didn’t dare linger on too long, though he had little doubt his brother thought the entire mess was hilarious.

When it came to matters of the heart, and matters of the loins, the sons of Fundin had rarely ever seen eye-to-eye.

There weren’t as many years between them as Balin’s snowy head might have marked. Fundin was the father of their name by rights, as he was their mother’s first husband, but their father Hlafin had begun to lose the black of his beard to grey when he’d been barely one hundred years old. Balin took after Hlafin in that, and in the keenness of his wits as well, layered atop the already canny mind both brothers had inherited from their clever mother.

There were some brothers who never sought a suit together for reasons of age, rather than any faults. Bairns could come rarely in a family, and there might be decades between a pair of lads— in such cases, the elder might already be married or courting before his brother had even come of age. Regardless, there was no shame in a pair separated by the vastness of so many years choosing a path different than convention, seeking their own fortunes and families.

Balin had only been a lad of nine when Dwalin had come squalling into the world. Yet, the sons of Fundin had not pressed a suit together in more years than either cared to remember.

Even the closest mirrored twins might differ in temper from one another, but the degree of that difference was important. Fili and Kili would likely have little trouble in that regard: Fili had always been quieter, more reserved, and more thoughtful, and Kili more easily distracted, reckless, and softer of heart. Yet, their humours were complementary, balancing the other. Both loyal, brave young dwarrows, and the best of friends, as well. No doubt they would make a fine pair, a boon in any bunch, when the time came to settle.

Bombur and Bofur were similar from what Dwalin had observed, though he knew much less of that pair than he did the lads. Bofur had a bolder tongue, but the brothers were obviously close, and not disparate in their warm smiles and good-natured temperaments. There were tales of their family throughout Ered Luin, about the Blacklock beauty Runa, her lucky husbands, and the blessed horde of babes the Maker saw fit to craft for them— never an ill-word or whisper of discord, as far as Dwalin had ever heard.

Dwalin and Balin were chalk and cheese, and had been for as long as Dwalin could recall. They got on well enough— Dwalin loved his brother dearly, would die for him without a moment’s hesitation, and he knew Balin felt the same— but they had never claimed to understand each other.

Balin was clever, but also strong and fierce as a cornered bear. Dwalin was brawny, but also perceptive and shrewd. And each had such a love of their own chosen craft, they could not quite fathom their dear brother choosing otherwise when they were both so favoured.

All lack of understanding aside, it was rare to find other dwarrows, dams or not, interested in tying themselves to both a sharp-witted scholar and a hardened warrior. A dwarf of patience, of words, and fine manners, and a dwarf of arms, coarse oaths, steel, and blood. The sons of Fundin were a mismatched set in most eyes, and such a pairing was not often considered the proper materials for a stable foundation.

Which was the most compelling reason why, when Balin had so tactfully released his younger brother from any such expectations years ago, Dwalin hadn’t argued. He had held his tongue so hard he’d tasted copper for weeks, his jaw aching as though he had a coin clenched between his back teeth. None of that mattered; it was better to let his elder brother shoulder the weight of the decision, to let Balin imagine he was doing Dwalin a service. A good turn.

It had stung, no matter how justified, and the occasional chittering about a brother cast aside had never quite vanished entirely. Still, Dwalin had borne it all.

Better than holding Balin back from whatever fine, polished prospects might come knocking, at least.

Whatever the intention, however, here they were now. Neither married, neither having courted with any seriousness in so long that they had been mistaken as dedicated crafters more than once.

And now, for the very first time, Dwalin had begun to consider his brother’s decision as it had likely been (foolishly) intended from the start: as a benefit to Dwalin. He could scarcely have entertained the notion of paying court to a hobbit if he’d had anyone’s honour but his own to worry over, after all.

And speaking of their burglar, there was neither hide nor hair of her pretty braided head to be found when he turned away from the fruits of his labours. There was, however, another dam he’d not expected to find standing so close.

“Feeling bold, eh?”

Dwalin was already reaching for his hip before he remembered his belt was coiled up beside his other gear, and his knife along with it. Nori smirked, casually slouching next to Dwalin’s elbow. Smug as a cat with cream, as though she wasn’t the daftest and luckiest dam east of Ered Luin, sneaking up on a seasoned warrior and keeping her innards.

Thrice-damned buggering fox-faced padfoot.

“Little thing like that,” Nori continued, flicking her fingers lazily, making a show of cleaning her nails. “Apt to get scared off, you try givin’ her a go in the middle of camp. Not that I’d be complaining about the show, mind.”

Nori’s mouth curled wider, showing a hint of teeth. “You expect she’s hiding another beard, besides those feet, or is it all smooth down below, like that pretty face?”

There were others seated nearby, close enough to hear every word of that bawdy goading, and Dwalin’s hackles began to rise as the low chatter faded to strained silence.

He had just enough sense and enough experience dealing with loud-mouthed curs looking to get walloped for one reason or another. Just barely enough to keep himself in check, but he managed, with the Company all around them and the promise of bad blood hanging heavy in the air. Bad blood was a worse omen, and they could ill-afford either.

They needed every able body and blade on this journey; they could very well lose three if Dwalin gave in to the urge and smashed that sly tongue to silence. Dori might not take too kindly to her sister losing a few teeth, even if the older dam had already abandoned her darning to stare balefully at that very sister’s profile.

It was a minor balm to his temper that Nori might end up skinned anyway, whether or not Dwalin laid a finger on her.

“Room enough for one.” Dwalin crossed his arms, jerking his chin toward the pile of cushions. “Only one, and you know it, well as I. Smarten up and speak your piece, or piss off.”

“Room for two if they’re cosy,” Nori said. “And neither of them built like a bull. Rules you out, I admit.”

When Dwalin growled, low and warning, Nori held up one hand. “All right, easy. Never expected to see one like you this far gone on, is all. Bit unnerving.”

“Could break your hands, if that’d suit you better,” Dwalin offered, only halfway joking, and Nori had keen enough wisdom to edge back. “Take a few knuckles. Either way, doesn’t matter much.”

Standard punishment for thieving in war camps and mercenary bands was even rougher than within city walls, as Dwalin expected Nori was well aware. Just as Dwalin was aware of at least a few pockets in the dam’s pack, already bulging heavier now than when they had first arrived in this cursed valley.

“And here I was, thinking you didn’t know how to talk to a lass.” Keeping out of arm's reach, the slippery dam seemed to melt into the dappled shadows just beyond the glow of their fire. “Don’t mind nosy old me, soldier. You just go back to sharing combs and playing house.”

It was tempting to take a swipe toward the wet sheen of eyes and teeth, reflecting flame from a mantle of darkness. But Dwalin knew it was more likely he would catch air rather than flesh, and end up stumbling for his effort.

“Ach.” Dori shook her head, plucking at the greyish knit in her hands.

“My sister forgets,” she said quietly, after a moment more of vexed twitching, and glanced across the fire to catch Dwalin’s eye. Even her Khuzdul was prim and sweet, nearly a purr. “The respect that most fellows have for a dam. She’s been too long away from home.”

Too long in the wilds, was how Dwalin had heard it. Likely too long amongst Men, and worse.

Anger drained from him in a great rush, as if a cork had been let out. Dori made no apologies for her sister, but Dwalin had no intention of pressing for one— he’d spent his own time amongst tall folk.

“And it is respect you have,” Dori continued, sharper and much less soothing in her abrupt switch back to Westron. “I’m certain of it.”

Dwalin needed no reminder that this dam was likely the only member of their Company who could best him hand-to-hand, though they’d never put it to contest. Dori’s broad, powerful paws flexed, her sturdy darning needle catching the light with a wicked glint, and Dwalin inclined his head ever so slightly.

“Aye,” he said, and endured Dori’s granite-hard peering for a long moment more before the dam turned back to her mending.

 


 

Bilbo leaned out farther over the railing, squinting into the darkness. Rivendell in daylight had been breathtaking, and the dim glow of starlight did nothing to reduce its splendor. Even in the pitch of the new moon, white stone and pale wood still shone finer than Bilbo’s best silver teapot ever had, and pools of warm lamplight flickered here and there, like grand golden fireflies against the dark valley wall.

Dwarrows could see far better in half-light and darkness than hobbits, Bilbo had discovered. She wondered what her companions saw when they spared a glance over such a wondrous place, and her heart panged at the thought. Their sight might be keener, but old grudges could blind even the sharpest eye. It was a pity.

It was also a pity that Bilbo would be missing Lithedays— the bustle of Free Fair out on the Downs, the dancing, bonfires, Effie Cotton’s strawberry tarts, and last year’s sweet peach wine. She had thought that perhaps the elves, being folk of green and growing things as well, might have some revelry to mark the Mid-year and the advent of the verdant weeks of summer. Yet here they were, scant days before Lithe, and not a speck of party preparations to be seen anywhere about. Just serene, silent elves floating by in their silken robes, most almost indistinguishable from their vaulting stone sculptures in both stature and manner.

Thus far on this journey, a great many things were different than Bilbo had imagined them to be. Not bad, necessarily— at least not all bad, but certainly different.

Taking a deep, fresh breath, Bilbo reached up out of the heavy folds of Dwalin’s coat that draped over her shoulders, and gently traced the edge of braided hair framing her forehead. None of the pins pulled or prodded, nor even did her scalp feel tight; Dori was truly a marvel. When Bilbo had been a girl, she remembered squalling and moaning each and every time her mother had made an attempt to tame young Baggins curls into any sensible style. Belladonna had finally grown tired of untangling snarls and knots, as well as working out any number of twigs and leaves, and whatever else Bilbo’s hair managed to snare during wild romps through the countryside.

With her daughter's enthusiastic consent, Belladonna had lopped the whole mess off to a short, laddish length, during the especially humid summer just before Bilbo had turned fourteen years old. Poor Bungo had nearly fainted dead away when he’d first seen it.

Bilbo no longer kept her curls cropped quite as short as all that, fortunately enough. Now, for the very first time in her life, she felt entirely grateful for the springy corkscrews that usually fell crookedly around her ears and tickled her neck at the most inconvenient times. The dumbfounded look on Dwalin’s face had been worth it— it had certainly been worth the anxious skittering she had felt under her skin as she’d stepped into the middle of the Company, boldly sporting her new braids.

He had gone so very wide-eyed when she’d asked to sit beside him, and a flush of rosy colour had indeed been creeping up his neck, turning the shell of his strange, rounded ear as scarlet as a ripe strawberry. Just as Balin had said it would.

That sight had been enough to banish the worst of her nerves and muffle her doubts, for a least a short while. Long enough to enjoy her supper— the crispy ends and juicy middles of well-browned sausage, and slices of sweet red apple, pared neatly away from the core by a knife that was nearly as broad and certainly longer than her hand.

She hadn’t quite been prepared when the first wedge of fruit had been offered in her direction. Rather, she’d been far too engrossed in licking the last speck of sausage grease from her thumb, as subtly as she could manage what poor manners were necessitated by a lack of napkins and pocket handkerchiefs. Then, suddenly, there had been a wickedly sharp blade being brandished before her eyes, and it had admittedly taken a moment of strangled panic before she noticed the half-moon of apple resting on the flat side of the blade.

If Dwalin had noticed her initial flicker of fear, he made no mention of it, and held his knife perfectly steady until Bilbo plucked up the piece of apple. He grunted when she thanked him, and held out another slice the very moment she finished the first.

There were so few ladies, so few dams among dwarrows, Dori had told her. So very few that they could certainly afford to be choosy when it came to courting, or not courting, as the case might be. So few that dwarven chaps were known to make grand efforts to impress, if the fancy struck them deeply enough.

When Bilbo had fretted that grand efforts sounded altogether worrying, Dori had laughed, and given Bilbo a pat on the cheek that was not even remotely reassuring.

She had known these dwarves for less than a month— how deeply could a fancy have wormed its way into Dwalin’s good sense in that time? Certainly, Bilbo was currently nursing a flare of her own ill-advised inclinations toward a set of especially broad shoulders, and perhaps that flare was burning brighter than expected, but she had been a lonely old spinster by all accounts. The sort of unfortunate lady that young hobbit lasses tittered about, and then worried about becoming each time they were passed over for a dance. Surely getting a wee bit caught up in the romance of travel and wild adventure was all part and parcel of that nonsense— reason enough to explain her level-headedness skewing so far off kilter.

That would be the sort of whispers that flew ‘round the Green Dragon, no doubt, if word ever got out that she was even considering taking up with a dwarf. A dwarf, and a warrior besides; not some pleasantly plump merchant who gave her a wink and a good deal on spices. Loneliness would be the word batted about most often— Mad Miss Baggins, gone good and barmy amid the echoes of an empty smial. Spent too long with her nose in foreign books, and so desperate by the end that she lost her lonesome heart to wild tales.

But Bilbo hadn’t been especially lonely, truth be told. She hadn’t felt much envy at all, as she watched the other lasses her age crowned in blossoms and ribbons, kissing their sweethearts under canopies. Nor indeed had she suffered any pangs of regret as the years passed by, and younger lasses married off the same way, with their bright eyes and brighter smiles.

It wasn’t as though she had a distaste for the concept of marriage. Neither, however, did she ache with the lack of it. Her parents had been deliriously happy with each other, but other couples were not always so lucky. There were no guarantees either way.

Besides, their journey hadn’t been at all romantic thus far, nor had Bilbo rightly expected it to be when she’d gone pinwheeling out of her cozy smial. After the disastrous manners she had witnessed around her own table, Bilbo hadn’t even entertained the hope that months spent in close quarters with these dwarves would be an especially refined affair. They were not precisely the heart-fluttering, dashing heroes one might read about in bawdy books purchased from discreet travelling merchants, if one were the sort who read such things.

They were hardly the sort of folk a level-headed spinster ought to be losing her wits about, drat it all. And this adventure was hardly turning out to be the stuff of glamourous tales, either, saucy or otherwise.

Why, then, was there a flutter behind her ribs like a flock of startled sparrows whenever Dwalin favoured her with a long look? And a similar flutter, softer but steadily warming, if she considered the curl of Balin’s clever smile and the burr of his rich voice?

Why in the world, just freshly washed clean of troll stink and the sour sweat of such a terrorized run for her very life, sore and weary and altogether unsure if leaving home had been a wise decision after all, had Bilbo asked to have this frighteningly meaningful braid laid across her brow? There was no sensible explanation at all.

Utterly ridiculous, is what it was. She must have hit her head, somewhere between Bree and nearly ending up in a warg’s belly.

She wasn’t quite addled enough to deafen her to the shuffle of booted feet creeping up behind her, however.

Bilbo jerked her head around, not entirely free from the jangling nerves borne of nearly meeting a bloody end at least twice over in less than a full day. Balin halted his approach when she spotted him in the shadows cast by dimmed lamplight, his gloved hands spreading wide in a peaceful gesture.

“Begging your pardon,” he said, and Bilbo’s stomach did a flip, even as the momentary rush of fright bled away. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

When Balin made no immediate move to step closer, Bilbo had the distinct impression the dwarf was waiting for permission.

When she’s courted by one

Bombur’s voice was a constant refrain in the back of her mind, but Bilbo ignored it as much as she was able. She was hardly some lovesick tween; she refused to allow herself to get so foolishly flustered.

“Oh, you didn’t,” she said, more playful than truthful, and shuffled over along the balcony rail to make a bit more room beside herself. There was a vast space already, but it was the invitation that mattered. “You dwarrows aren’t especially stealthy, clomping about on those noisy boots.”

“Alas, Mistress Baggins, we’ve not all been blessed with the impressive soles of hobbits.” Thankfully, Balin took the hint, and soon enough he was settled in to stand beside Bilbo, with his arms folded atop the railing.

They were some short distance away from the others, around a corner and barely out of sight of the fire— out of the heat of it as well, and in just her shirtsleeves with her hair still slightly damp, Bilbo appreciated the borrowed mantle of quilted wool and fur. After Thorin had announced they would not be enjoying the full hospitality of the rooms Lord Elrond had offered, she had sought some quiet to get her thoughts in order. Or, more specifically, a moment’s peace to tamp down her irritation with such pig-headed foolishness. She had no intention of catching a summer chill, however.

“A rather nice night for it,” Balin said, peering out at the vista. Without the yellow cast of firelight, the sweep of his hair was pale and pearly, like the petals of white lilies.

Bilbo wondered what she must look like to him, braided and nearly buried under the weight of his brother’s great furred coat laid over her shoulders. Were dwarven eyes keen enough in darkness to see all her worries and frustrations, all her doubts, writ loud across her face?

“It is,” Bilbo agreed, dragging her own eyes away from Balin’s profile. The sky was black as ink, cloudless and endless. “Doesn’t look like rain, either.”

Balin chuckled at the reminder of their first meeting; it was a warm, pleasant laugh that settled in Bilbo’s stomach with all the sweetness of toffee pudding.

“That it doesn’t.” There was a pause, a rather cosy silence shared between them, before Balin cleared his throat. “You… well. It must be said, you do cut a very fair figure in braids, Miss Bilbo. And I trust Dori explained the significance of that particular style.”

“I know it’s a courting braid.” Bilbo found herself utterly unable to be anything less than painfully forthright in her current frame of mind. Attempting a subtler approach was apt to send her into helpless, overwhelmed babbling. “I know it means I may— might have an interest in considering a suit.”

Balin hummed, and Bilbo desperately wished she could make out finer details in the darkness than merely his pale hair and the bold hook of his nose, backlit as they both were by the few low-burning lamps along this stretch of balcony. That wish grew all the more fervent when he didn’t say another word on the matter.

“If you’ve an interest,” he said instead. “I’ve promised to escort young Ori to find a library tomorrow, and you are welcome to join us.”

“That sounds lovely.” And it honestly did, drat it all. It was difficult to bring herself to nudge the conversation back onto its previous path with such a tempting topic on the table. “I’ve browsed a bit myself already, before supper. Lord Elrond has a fascinating collection.”

“It’s settled then.” Balin’s eyes caught the faintest gleam of stars and lamplight when he turned his head toward her, sparking in the dimness. “There are at least some hospitalities we can wisely and safely enjoy, while we hurry up and wait for the moon.”

“Oh, not you as well,” Bilbo groused, before she could think better of it. Confounded dwarves and their confounded suspicions. Swallowing back the sharpest of her arguments, Bilbo took a deep breath.

Things had been somewhat rougher than she had imagined, on the road with these dwarves, but she hadn’t run out her door quite as starry-eyed and naive as a few of her companions had muttered to one another. She hadn’t anticipated being hunted across fields by a slavering orc pack, to be fair, but the lack of silver teaspoons and feather mattresses hadn’t been a terrible shock. No matter how the others teased, she hadn’t actually expected this to be little more than a gentle walking holiday.

But now there were feather mattresses to be had, and a dour old grump of a dwarven king was all that was keeping her from spending the night curled up upon one.

“I suppose we’re lucky enough to enjoy a roof for a few days,” she allowed herself to say, rather than a hundred other complaints about the stubborn silliness of dwarves. She was rather keen on the idea of proving she wasn’t simply some useless fusspot, after all, no matter the opinion of certain dour old grumps.

Considering her audience, she added: “Though a wee bit heartier fare on the table wouldn’t go amiss.”

That earned her another chuckle, this one more spirited and amused than the first, and how she dearly wished she could better see the expression that accompanied it.

“On that, lass, I believe we can all agree.”

 


 

His coat was gone, as was the hobbit. Dwalin cursed himself for a fool, turning his back on her for so long while he was busy nesting like a damned swallow. Bold as brass, she was, sneaking off even before most of them were sleeping; after this, and after the sight of her in proud braids with her bare jutted chin, Dwalin swore he wouldn’t underestimate Bilbo Baggins again.

Immediately, his eyes sought out his brother— they might not court together, but each had always been a staunch presence at the other’s back— only to find Balin conspicuously missing as well. That was… odd. But, perhaps, a very good sign. With any luck at all, Balin had followed her, likely with the intention to coax her back to camp with that silver tongue of his.

Giving the pallet a final glance, Dwalin considered his options, before settling on Thorin.

“Eh,” he said, tromping up to where Thorin sat slightly apart from the rest, staring fixedly into the fire. His king, his brother in all but blood, blinked once, clearing away the cobwebs, then looked up at Dwalin with an expectant lift of his brows. “You see which way Balin’s gotten off to?”

As quickly as they’d risen, Thorin’s eyebrows furrowed low. “None of us should wander here. Did I not make myself clear enough?”

Mother hen, Dwalin did not say, no matter how true it was. It would be difficult to keep the rest in line if commands could be easily ignored by any of them.

“The hobbit’s with him,” was what he did say, and suffered Thorin’s scoff with silent, unimpressed patience. Dwalin could only argue the wisdom of their burglar’s continued presence with selfish reasons— Bilbo had already proven herself hardy enough to make it this far, and pleasant company besides, but there were more treacherous paths before them yet. Whether or not she could bear the strain was one thing; whether she could make herself as useful as the wizard claimed was another thing entirely.

Still, most dwarves amongst them brought no more value to the journey than another blade or cudgel in battle, another set of eyes, a body standing firm, and a stout heart answering the call of their king. That was more than enough to earn a place in their Company, and Bilbo was all those things. Lacking the same martial skills as young Ori, and she was their fourteenth as well. Lucky fourteen, one removed from an ill-favoured number, if a dwarf were to hold with such superstitious nonsense.

Whether or not Dwalin thought such talk was tripe didn’t matter overmuch. Oin had blathered on about portents and auguries for ages unending, to anyone willing to listen. Why risk ill-luck, or even worse, the poor morale that the mere thought of ill-luck and bad omens could bring?

So far, none of them had died, and Dwalin could enjoy the view of a comely face and the occasional sound of a sweet laugh. That was good enough luck, as far as he was concerned.

If Thorin thought so differently, he ought not to have pushed the contract into Bilbo’s hands in the first place.

“The halfling is as unnaturally fond of elves as Gandalf is of her.” Thorin pointed farther away from the fire, eastward along the balcony. “Balin was headed that way, last I saw, but that was some time ago. I’d thought he was off to make water.”

Signing a quick gesture of thanks, Dwalin gave Thorin a clap on the shoulder as he moved on, determined. If he happened upon nothing more than his damnable brother taking a piss, he was going to tear this wispy elven shack apart.

Chapter Text

Dwalin would not have been expecting to run into Bilbo so nearby if it hadn’t been for the sweet scent of pipe smoke so thick in the air, giving her position away. It was only a short distance from their camp, hardly more than a dozen steps farther along the stretch of balcony, when Dwalin turned a gently curving corner and was brought to a halt by the scene before him.

The dim lamplight cast striations through Bilbo’s hair, glinting a deep, bronzed hue; the neat curl of braids wound up at the back of her skull looked like woven copper wire over polished tiger’s eye. The sight of her wrapped in his coat was all kinds of pleasant, and though perhaps it ought to have been more worrying that it hit him so hard, like a fist to the gut.

She was so tiny beneath the bulk of fur, nearly swallowed up by the lengthy folds of soft, worn leather and wool that trailed down to her feet. Bundled up, warm and safe in his own protection.

And in his own brother’s company, as well.

“—but the moment we tried to leave,” Balin was saying, motioning with the bit of his pipe. “He found himself beset from all sides. A wee bairn wrapped around each leg, and another clinging to his sword arm, begging for another tale.”

Bilbo’s laugh was prettier than any of that fancy elven caterwauling could ever hope to match, and Dwalin hesitated, not quite willing to interrupt as quickly as he’d intended. Intentions hardly mattered, however, when his brother decided to do the interrupting on his behalf.

“Ah, but speak of the wolf, and he’ll be at the door.” Leaning to peer at him past Bilbo’s back, Balin offered a nod. “Evening, brother.”

With no chance at stealth remaining, Dwalin did not bother disguising the heavy tread of his boots. Instead, he strode out of the shadows without ceremony, and found a place to stand along the balcony rail, keeping a respectful but familiar distance from Bilbo’s side.

“Evening,” he replied, leaning one hip against the railing and crossing his arms. He said nothing about wandering off or sticking close to camp, loath as he was to chase that sweet, open smile from Bilbo’s face.

“Good evening,” she said, turning that fond expression his way and plucking her pipe out of her mouth. “Balin was just telling me a grand tale of a certain pair of travelling warriors saving a trio of faunts from a bear, up near the Rushock Bog.”

A small hand stretched up to touch his elbow, gentle and fleeting. “Folk from Waymeet have been telling that story for years and years, you know— I had no idea that was you. The both of you.”

There were some war stories that were good to trade over ale, and some that cut too deep or too bitterly and were never recounted again. The day he was nearly mauled by a furious brown bear not long woken from its winter’s sleep, and then certainly mauled by a pack of eager hobbit babes after being fed to bursting by their grateful kin was a tale that fit into neither category.

“It was a very large bear,” Balin said, his amusement clear as crystal, and Dwalin might have clouted him if not for the hobbit between them. Why in the world he would choose that ridiculous story to tell was entirely beyond Dwalin’s ken.

“A very old bear,” Dwalin countered gruffly. “Old and gone soft-headed, like some others I could name.”

Balin, damn him, merely chuckled, while Bilbo took a few wholly distracting puffs of her pipe. The smoke was pale in the starlight, curling up from her lips in wisps and whorls; it smelled faintly of ripe fruit and burnt sugar under the mild tang of Shire pipeweed. Dwalin allowed himself to wonder if it might taste as sweet as it smelled, and how long the heat of the smoke would linger on her tongue.

“Rowan, Marigold, and Robin Bunce,” Bilbo said, those long forgotten names shaking loose memories of curly mops of hair, and huge beetle brown eyes in pudgy round faces. “Are all hobbits grown now, with families and faunts of their own. And that is largely thanks to you, I’d say.”

“Bah.” Dwalin dragged his attention away from the curve of her cheek, staring out at the darkness instead. A single bear against two seasoned dwarven warriors had been far from the worst trouble they’d seen, especially in those early days before those dwarrows of Durin’s Folk displaced in Ered Luin had settled to prosperity. “Suppose my brother forgot to mention the sight he made, trying to coax those skittish bairns out of their tree, eh? Clambering up the branches like a great grey squirrel, and putting a yawning rip in the seat of his trousers.”

Listening to her amusement while his brother spun old stories had been a fine thing, but earning a laugh of his own was even finer.

“Now that is a detail I don’t recall being shared.” Her words were warm and brighter than the eerie elven glow suffusing the night. As she turned to Balin, the bundled lump of her body shuffled slightly along the rail, nearly bringing her back flush against Dwalin’s front. “Is there more to the tale, then?”

Balin cleared his throat, hemming noncommittally. “Ah, only small and sundry things. Trivialities, passed over to better keep the pace of the story, you understand.”

“Oh yes, of course,” Bilba said, and from this angle, Dwalin could easily see her reach out, giving Balin’s forearm a pat. Such a tactile wee hobbit, was Miss Bilbo Baggins, though she had not been at first. Weeks among their number, with all the friendly roughhousing typical in a band of dwarrows, seemed to have brought her out of her shell to some extent.

“Now, was there something you needed,” she continued, and tilted her head ‘round just enough to look up at Dwalin’s face. How much of his expression her hobbit eyes could glean in the dark, Dwalin was not certain; her face was clear enough to him, dimpling smile, neat braid, and all. “Or have you decided to enjoy some night air? It would be a lovelier vista, I imagine, with more moonlight, but if that were the case I suppose we might not be lingering.”

It would be lovelier when put behind them, but Dwalin knew enough to keep that to himself. Thorin had the right of it when he had called Bilbo unnaturally fond of elves; it was a distasteful fascination, but one that Dwalin supposed he could bear. Especially as their burglar seemed to be growing rather fond of dwarrows as well. And perhaps, if his reading of her moods was true and his luck good enough, particularly fond of one dwarf in particular.

She might not know the full extent of the desperate fool he’d been making of himself— refusing the return of borrowed combs and cloaks in a meagre, pared down attempt at wooing that was fit only for their travels— but Dwalin was a more worldly dwarf than many in their Company could claim. The fuss of courting wasn’t so very different amongst Shire folk as it was with dwarrows, though the particulars varied, the dams were more plentiful, and they stuck to lonesome little pairings rather than sensible trios and more. Still, the gist was the same as far as he understood it: gifts and tokens, kind words and kind deeds, attention and care.

Bilbo was a canny enough lass to catch his meaning even without the grandeur she deserved, and daring enough to consider him, at least. He may have harboured doubts before, but after seeing her braided and seated proudly beside him at supper, he was sure of it.

He was also sure she had just asked him a question.

“Checking where you’d stolen yourself off to, burglar,” he said, because Balin wasn’t the only son of Fundin blessed with a clever tongue. It stood to reason the hobbit would value wit to some extent or another, being one herself. He knew he cut a brutish figure, and it was often to his benefit to be underestimated for brains (similar to how Balin would sometimes play down his own martial prowess in favour of acting the harmless scholar). Dwalin had no intention of putting on a dense front for this hobbit.

“It’s getting on,” he added. “Best grab what rest we can, when we can.”

“Too right, brother.” Balin took one last puff of his pipe while laying his thumb over the top to snuff out its smouldering, before tucking it back in the pocket of his coat.

“Is it? Bother it all.” Bilba voice was a strained mutter, with the bit of her own pipe back between her teeth. She cupped her palm over the bowl, but jerked away with a low hiss before her pipe extinguished. “Too hot for that, I think. Just a moment—”

Reaching around, Dwalin caught the fat end of the wooden pipe, engulfing it entirely in the meat of his fist. It was rife with the heat of half-smoked leaf, but not nearly enough to do damage through thick callus and scar.

Suck, he very nearly said, but stifled the poorly considered command at the last instant. He would watch his words, here in the dark with Bilbo so close, smelling of smoke, leather, and of him, cloaked in her pilfered coat.

“Let me,” he said instead, answering Bilbo’s startled sound of query, and hoped that was enough explanation. After a brief pause— not nearly long enough for the pipe to even singe him— Bilbo’s hand rose to lay against his wrist, holding gently. The faint, wet click of her mouth was barely audible, but the noise scorched through him more fiercely than her wee pipe could ever hope to match.

“There,” she said shortly thereafter, words trailing a final plume of sweet smoke. Her small fingers stayed just where they were, with her thumb resting against his pulse. “Thank you. Now stop it before you burn yourself, for goodness sake.”

“Dwarf hide’s too thick for that.” Unfurling his fist, Dwalin held up his palm for whatever inspection Bilbo could manage in the dark. “Not a mark.”

“Yes, well.” Her touch shifted against him, and the pads of her fingers were feather soft over the broad, rough plain of his hand, sliding gingerly across the patch of warmth the pipe had left behind. As he had said, there was not a single blister or sore spot to be found. “You… yes. All right.”

Dwalin very nearly regretted the thick, thorny armour of callus the years had left across his palm when Bilbo finally released him. He might have earned some tending, if there had been anything to fuss over. A while longer with Bilbo’s wee hands on him— such a kind, lingering touch setting his nerves alight from the tips of his fingers down to the ends of his toes— would have been a fine end to a long day.

Sniffing, retreating back into to the space between him and Balin, Bilbo seemed to sink deeper into his coat. Her cooling pipe disappeared as well, secreted away. “Shall we head off?”

“That would be wise,” Balin agreed, and in the process, reminded Dwalin of his brother’s continued presence. He was no longer accustomed to making a go at someone, whether for a tup or something else, with Balin nearby. Having his brother anywhere near would often bring up awkward questions or assumptions, in Dwarven settlements at least. Best avoided, for the comfort of all involved.

But now Balin was here, and Bilbo did not know any of the questions she could have rightly asked. She did not know, this gentlehobbit freshly plucked from the Shire, and she would not ask— Dwalin needed never search her eyes for that flicker of pity that had soured more than one sweet liaison.

It was a queer sort of pained relief, aching like the bloody mess left behind after a sore tooth was pulled.

It was a strangely awkward shuffle to start back toward camp, with Dwalin stepping back and Balin forward, and Bilbo milling in the middle. There was an unsure moment of that, until Balin cleared his throat, quiet but meaningful enough to catch his brother’s attention.

Offer arm, Balin signed in the shorthand iglishmêk they had used with each other since they were lads.

Dwalin shrugged, and subtly signed confusion as Bilbo slipped passed him, then watched as Balin signed again more emphatically: offer your arm.

The meaning of that nonsense clicked at precisely the same instant that Dwalin felt an unexpected touch against his bare forearm, just below the roll of his shirtsleeve. Bilbo curled her hand loosely over his skin, hesitant and light, ready to release him at the first hint of refusal.

Hesitant, cautious, but still she latched on to an arm bigger than her thigh. What a bold wee thing she was.

“Is this—” she began to say very softly, when Dwalin did not react nor take a single step in any direction. Her hand began to slip away, cool and smooth as water, but he pressed his own over top of it before she could retreat completely.

“Aye,” he said, coaxing her small hand back into the crook of his elbow. He still remembered the fine manners drilled into his skull as a young lad of a noble house, even if he rarely saw the need to use them. It had been ages since anyone had taken his arm like this— at least thirty years, perhaps longer.

Balin fell behind a step or two, following like a shadow as Dwalin and Bilbo started back towards camp. There was a sly smile playing around his mouth, flickering there and gone again like a sputtering candle below his bare top lip. Dwalin resigned himself to suffering his brother’s amusement for however long was necessary; he already knew for tried and tested fact that it could not be intimidated out of the bastard.

There were more pressing matters to deal with at the moment, regardless. Taking a breath, Dwalin peered down at the hobbit on his arm.

“I, er—” Made a soft bed for you. To keep you from running off. “Put a pallet together, if you like.”

He then nearly tripped over his own feet when that very same hobbit skidded to a halt, making him lurch to his own awkward stop to keep from dragging her along.

“I beg your pardon,” she said, pitched sharp with clear indignance. Behind them, Balin let out a bark of a laugh, poorly covered by a cough.

“For you, alone,” Dwalin clarified, much more annoyed than panicked at the second misunderstanding of this sort. Just how many members of their company were going to assume he was a mannerless lecher before the night was through? “I’ve my own bunk, so unruffle those feathers.”

“You—” Bilbo seemed to flounder, even as her hand tightened its hold in the bend of his arm. “Your own— You made, for me… oh. Well. Well, then.”

“Aye.” Annoyance slipped away like grains of sand in the face of that awkward stammering, difficult to grasp, and doubly so since Dwalin had no urge to hold on to it. “And if you’re keen to get to it before morning, we ought to move.”

 


 

Dwalin… Dwalin had made her a wonderful little bed, and Bilbo felt a tight fist in her throat as she spread out and turned down the heavy coat she would be using as a blanket. He had made her a bed of thick cushions, and firmly refused the return of either his coat or his cloak for the evening, no matter her protests. For goodness sake, how many more layers did he intend to foist off on her? How many layers, indeed, until Dwalin was down past even his shirtsleeves—

Bilbo bit her lip hard, focusing on the sting to help banish the saucy path that dangerous notion had threatened to traverse.

He had built her a bed, which was another dangerous notion altogether, though only partially in the same way. Of course, her initial thought had been scandalous when he had mentioned the pallet; she certainly wasn’t any sort of blushing maid, but it was somewhat early for such an overture, considering she had just realized that very day that Dwalin’s interests were similar to her own. And, more importantly, it was also a rather public venue, tucked away at the edge of their huddled camp.

More than that, however, apart from the false assumptions and unintentional innuendos, there was a certain significance to the gesture of providing home and hearth amongst hobbits. They were a homey, simple people by nature, not especially inclined towards ostentatious shows of wealth or power (though Bilbo did enjoy her share of finery, with her silk-back waistcoats and fine brass buttons). Hobbit did, however, place importance on matters of comfort and hospitality, of peace, joy, and plenty.

Not every beau would break earth and dig their own smial— Bungo Baggins had been something of a hopeless romantic, full to the brim with grand gestures and ardent affection for his Tookish bride— but there were smaller traditions. Making meals for each other, stitching pillowcases and crocheting doilies, pottering in the garden together…

There was a Proudfoot lad Bilbo recalled hearing about, whose sweetheart had presented him with the prettiest quilt ever sewn in the South Farthing, and wedding date had been decided that very day.

She knew Dwalin hadn’t intended this as an outrageously meaningful gesture, though she could not quite stop the sweet little flutter behind her ribs. It was foolishness, and she held her tongue, but she couldn’t keep her heart from pattering all the same.

She had never had a suitor either enamoured enough or bold enough to give her embroidered dishcloths, let alone an entire set of bed linens. Granted, there were no proper linens at all involved in her makeshift pallet, but the thought was there. It was a cobbled-together version, but surprisingly plush and inviting, and far more impressive considering the roughness of their travel and the sparse supplies for such a thing.

The rest of their company, save those assigned to first watch, were flopping down into their bedrolls, muttering, sighing, and settling in all the strange, cozy ways that were becoming commonplace. The first few nights on the road, Bilbo hadn’t been entirely certain she could ever sleep with so many bodies nearby, snoring and shifting, and occasionally breaking wind loudly enough to wake her. Already, however, the bothersome noises had become oddly soothing— they were sounds that meant life, her companions nearby, and the relative safety of their numbers huddled close together. Protection against the dark, the wild, and the dangers that lurked within it.

Slipping down to curl up upon her cushions, Bilbo pulled her blankets up to her neck and allowed her eyes to stray farther along the balcony, where a large lump lay in the shadows. Dwalin was stretched out on his own bedroll, flat on his back, with one hand resting atop the massive hill of his chest. Their fire was banked down to coals, but there was just enough light remaining for Bilbo to follow the line of his nose and the bare, smooth curve of his bald pate.

She burrowed closer into her bed; she wasn’t doing anything so silly as staring at him, but she was not yet looking away, either. Under her nose, the cushions smelled of flowers— lavender and some faint, fresh herbal mix that gave the impression of summertime and sunlight. It reminded her of the sachets her mother had taught her to bundle together, tucking wee fragrant bags amongst the clean laundry.

Bilbo didn’t allow herself to consider why she pulled her blankets higher, despite the balminess of the air, and it was the scent of leather and earthy musk that followed her sweetly into her dreams.

 


 

Dwalin let his eyes drift closed, ready to catch a few hours rest, only to have them snap open again when something touched the arm he had flung over his head.

Peace, blunt, familiar fingers dragged the word over his skin, and the tension bled from Dwalin’s muscles in a great rush. He didn’t bother even tilting his head enough to peer back at where Balin had settled into his own bedroll, content to listen by touch instead.

Dwalin made a lazy sign of inquiry with his fingers, hardly twitching them at all, and his brother answered against his palm, shifting back and forth between iglishmêk and cirth written rune by rune. It was inelegant but effective— a silent whisper, often used amongst their people in places of such depth and darkness that even dwarven eyes were of little use.

She is watching you, Balin said, prompting a bloom of heat to unfurl in Dwalin’s gut. You are doing very well, brother.

Dwalin stopped himself before asking what damned business it was of Balin’s; the encouragement was meant as a kindness, whether or not it stung.

No more words were forthcoming; Balin’s hand lingered against his for a moment more, warm and roughened in spots that mirrored Dwalin’s own, but if his brother was waiting for Dwalin to respond, they would both be clasped together for the night. He had nothing to say on the matter, even if Balin was being far more agreeable about this fancy than Dwalin had ever expected.

Finally, Balin gave his wrist a squeeze, and Dwalin found himself abruptly untethered. His hand curled, empty, and he took a long, deep breath. It was the same hand he had used to extinguish Bilbo’s pipe, smothering embers, and the same hand he had laid over her own when she had held his arm. The hand that hefted Keeper’s handle, thick fingers etched with ink proclaiming purpose and pride across his flesh: Baruk Khazâd.

The smooth jaw of a hobbit would cradle easily within that hand, if he were permitted to touch the strange softness of a beardless cheek. The joy on her face when she had seen her bunk for the night had very nearly prompted him to make an attempt, but there would be a better time. A more secluded moment.

Bilbo had seemed pleased enough with her pallet, with her eyes gone wide and her pink mouth curving into a surprised, beaming smile. Pleased enough to stay put, he wagered, which suited his purposes and eased his concern. Slowing his breathing, relaxing his shoulders back against his bedroll, Dwalin allowed his mind to drift into as untroubled a rest as he could expect to find, bunking there in an elven hall.