”Wait, you have to consider someone as your spouse, if they manage to add a braid to your hair while you’re sleeping without waking you up?” Bilbo asked skeptically. He found that rather hard to believe.
Somehow, he and Bombur had gotten into the subject of differences in their cultures when it came to courting and marriage while preparing the evening meal for the Company. It had started out as a discussion of hobbit and dwarf recipes, as Beorn’s pantry had been surprisingly well stocked (though, of course, no meat), then drifted to Bombur talking wistfully about the roasts his wife could make, and then from there to families and courtships. Specifically, Bombur had been talking about how his courtship with his wife had started, which had led to that rather interesting tidbit of information.
“Oh yes,” Bombur nodded distractedly while stuffing vegetables into balls of dough to fry. “My Óna braided my beard, but the hair works just as well.”
“I was under the impression that dwarves are usually heavy sleepers, though,” Bilbo said thoughtfully. “It doesn’t seem like it would be such a large feat to manage to braid your hair without waking you.”
“Usually it isn’t,” the cook nodded. “It is mostly used as a way to state your intent. This way, you cannot be dismissed out of hand, your One has to at least consider you. There is nothing saying that it will absolutely result in marriage, of course, as you can always say no, after careful consideration, but it heightens your chances, certainly.”
“Ah,” the hobbit nodded, comprehension lightening his face as he reached around his companion to prepare the fat for the frying pan. “Well, I suppose that makes more sense.”
“Of course, though most of us dwarves are indeed, as you said, heavy sleepers, there are those of us who certainly aren’t. You need look no further than Thorin for an example of that.”
“Thorin?” Bilbo perked up in interest.
“Aye,” Bombur said, an amused look on his face. “Many a dwarf, male and female, have tried to braid his hair, but he always wakes up as soon as they touch it. He takes a certain pride in that, as I understand. No heavy sleeper, our King.”
Bilbo hummed thoughtfully in reply, an idea taking shape in his mind.
He waited until they were on the road again, two days from Beorn’s house and two days from reaching Mirkwood, if Beorn’s instructions were to be believed. They had made up camp in the evening as always, amidst the grass and in the protection of some trees. After dinner, there had been music and laughter, as most were unwilling to go to sleep straight away, and Bilbo had kept half an eye on Thorin the entire evening, watching their leader watch the Company making merry.
The dwarf king had sat down leaning against one of the few larger rocks in the area and stayed there, apparently unwilling to retire to his bedroll while his Company were still awake and amusing themselves. By the warm look in his eyes as he’d watched them, Bilbo could tell that even Thorin, this night, had been unwilling to break up the fun to order everyone to bed.
The hobbit had, during the course of the evening, seen Thorin start to gradually nod off, until finally he’d leaned his head back against the rock, closed his eyes and not opened them again.
It had been the perfect opportunity.
The Burglar (and he felt like one, this night, planning to steal the attention of a dwarf king) waited until all but the dwarf on First Watch – which was Ori, this time – had gone to bed, then caught the dwarf’s attention. Once he had it, he put a finger over his mouth to ask him to be silent, and the scribe nodded, an attentive and intrigued look on his face. It would not do, after all, if the dwarf was startled enough by Bilbo’s actions to accidentally wake Thorin.
That accomplished, Bilbo got to his feet, heart in his throat. He had to wait a moment, breathing deeply to steady his trembling hands, but then he crept forwards to where Thorin was sitting. Once at the dwarf’s side, he listened closely to the king’s breathing, and determining him to definitely be asleep, he carefully dropped to his knees on the grass.
Shuffling a bit closer, the hobbit reached out towards Thorin’s hair, but had to stop for a moment to steady himself again. This was not the time for his hands to tremble!
Glancing at Ori and taking in his wide eyes, Bilbo smiled wryly. The scribe had realized what he was about to do, then.
One of the ponies huffed in the distance. Bilbo mentally patted himself on the back for not jumping at the sound, ensured once again with a glance at Thorin’s closed eyes and slack face that the dwarf of his affections was still sleeping, and then he set out to braid.
Carefully, so carefully, the hobbit sectioned out hair for the braid, freezing for an instant when Thorin grunted sleepily. After a tense moment, however, it was clear that the dwarf had not woken up yet.
Get on with it, Bilbo! he told himself, and started to braid. Cautiously, cautiously, one strand at a time, going slowly, the hobbit worked on the braid. About halfway through, and Thorin had still not woken up. Swaying slightly, Bilbo turned his gaze downwards to help catch his balance and happened to glance at a cluster of flowers by his knees (even in the darkness, he could tell that they were forget-me-nots) and, seized by inspiration, picked some while holding the almost half-finished braid still with his other hand. Tongue firmly between his teeth, he unraveled the braid slightly in order to be able to start putting in the flowers higher up in the braid. Thorin stirred slightly, and Bilbo froze again, wide-eyed, a small cluster of forget-me-nots held carefully by the stalks between his lips, clutching the start of a braid in white-knuckled hands. Had he overreached, trying to get flowers in there, too? It would hardly be the first time his Tookishness had ran away with him, after all, just look at his behavior with the trolls...!
However, Thorin simply turned his head slightly and gave a soft snore, settling back into sleep. Relieved, Bilbo started braiding the flowers in, always listening tensely to the rhythm of Thorin’s breathing to ensure that he stayed asleep.
Giddy with disbelieving joy and a sense of accomplishment, the hobbit tied the braid off with a leather cord he’d snagged from Bofur for the occasion (he hadn’t stolen it, not really, just borrowed without permission, and in any case, considering the circumstances, he didn’t think the toymaker would mind) and carefully laid it to rest against the King’s shoulder. When the dwarf still didn’t move, Bilbo got stiffly to his feet – he was really getting too old to be kneeling for so long – and tiptoed away to where Ori was watching him, mouth agape.
“Amazing,” the scribe breathed in admiration as soon as the hobbit got close enough. “No one has ever managed to do that without waking him up before!” He dove for his pack as Bilbo practically fell down to sit beside him, relief jittering through his veins. He had done it. It was done.
And then he panicked slightly. What have I done?!
He clenched his jaw, trying not to think about the possibility of Thorin scorning his love, and gratefully took the distraction Ori provided in the form of his eager questions. Yes, Ori, he’d admired Thorin since Balin had told the Company of the Battle of Azanulbizar, loved him since the Trollshaws, no, Ori, don’t write this down just yet, he didn’t want his humiliation to be recorded in case his love was unrequited.
Roughly half an hour later, Bilbo crept into his bedroll and attempted to sleep. His nerves simply would not pipe down, and it didn’t help that he had not managed to convince Ori not to write down what he had done yet. The event was now recorded for posterity, how a hobbit burglar dared to reach for a king. Bilbo curled in on himself further at that thought.
Sleep was long in coming.
Thorin awoke with a huff, straightening abruptly and blinking at the light. There were only the barest hints of dawn on the horizon, but his eyes took a moment to focus anyway.
Damn. He hadn't truly meant to fall asleep, only rest his eyes for a moment. It was so good to see everyone have a good evening, for once, that he hadn't wanted to miss a moment of watching it. He needn't participate, simply watching was enjoyment enough, but apparently he had been too tired.
Grumbling slightly, he got to his feet, wincing as he tried to work out the kinks in his neck from sleeping that way, stretching his neck carefully. As he did, he noticed a flash of bright blue in his hair from the corner of his eye and, curious, grabbed his hair to determine what had gotten into it. That was when he noticed what he had acquired during the night.
Standing still as stone, he stared disbelievingly at the new braid in his hair. There were flowers, too - bright blue tiny flowers, with a yellow core, and when had someone...?
Letting go of the braid, he shook his head and scoffed at himself. He knew when, that was not the issue. This had obviously happened during the night, as he was sleeping. The real question was who. And, eyes alighting on Dwalin, he knew just who to ask. There really wasn't an option anyway, as everyone else was still sleeping.
Picking his way over to the Guard, who was sitting by the small fire in the middle of the camp, he was careful not to step on anyone (though they should really wake soon, anyway, they needed to be on their way by the time dawn was fully arrived). Dwalin turned in his direction at the movement, hands going to his axes, but he relaxed when he saw who it was. Thorin knew the exact moment his friend caught sight of his new braid. The disbelieving look on his face, followed by glee, said it all. Thorin glared in response.
"Now, what's this? Someone got to ya at last?"
"It certainly seems that way," the dwarf king admitted reluctantly, coming to stop by his brother-in-arms. "Do you know who?"
Dwalin shook his head. "It did not happen on my watch. Still, the flowers imply fairly obviously who it must be." He looked pointedly in the direction of their resident hobbit.
Thorin followed his gaze, looking at their burglar. Bilbo was curled up in his bedroll, facing away. He looked to be sleeping calmly, but the tousled state of his bedding implied a restless night. Had he had trouble falling asleep?
Tapping the hilt of his sword thoughtfully, he reflected over the fact that he did not want to start hoping without definite proof. "Who had the first watch?"
"Tha' would be Ori," Dwalin grunted, crossing his arms. Thorin glanced at him in acknowledgement, then turned to go question the scribe.
Ori was next to Dori, near the outskirts of the camp, which meant that Thorin once again had to be careful not to step on anyone. He did accidentally nudge Glóin, sleeping next to his brother, but the dwarf didn't seem to notice. Thorin made a mental note to remember to increase the number of people on watch duty every shift - if his Company slept this deeply, they truly had to rely on the watch only to alert them of danger.
Stopping next to Ori, Thorin pulled his mind back to the task at hand, crouching down to shake the scribe awake.
"Mmm, what," Ori murmured sleepily, curling up like a cat before blinking his eyes open. It took him a moment to focus, but once he saw the dwarf king, he started awake and sat up hastily, rubbing his eyes. "What is it?"
"Dwalin tells me you had first watch," Thorin answered quietly, watching Dori stir, but not wake up. "I was wondering whether you, by chance, saw who braided my hair tonight?"
"Oh!" Ori beamed. "Yes, it was Bilbo!"
"Master Baggins?" Thorin whipped his head back around to stare at the scribe. His heart gave a lurch. "Are you sure?" he asked urgently.
"Yes, quite sure!" Ori nodded eagerly. "I even recorded it, if you want to read it?"
Thorin waved his hand in an absent dismissal, turning to look at the sleeping hobbit. "Perhaps later," he murmured. He was about to push himself up to join Bilbo, when a thought occurred to him which left him rather cold. What if Bilbo doesn't know what hair braiding means to dwarves?
He turned back to Ori, asking cautiously, "Did he seem to know what he was doing?"
The scribe nodded earnestly. "He knew what he was doing, no doubt about it."
"How do you know?"
"I talked to him, after. It's all in here," Ori patted the book he had just pulled out of his pack. "He definitely knew that it was a declaration of intent, of love. I asked him about how long he'd loved you, and he said-" the young dwarf suddenly reddened and avoided his king's gaze, "well, maybe it is best if you talk to him yourself about that. But," and here he resolutely met Thorin intent gaze again, "he definitely knew what it meant. That much was clear."
Thorin nodded and thanked Ori dazedly, pushing himself up to stagger towards Bilbo in an astonished haze. After all, Bilbo had braided his hair, knowing what it meant!
Plopping himself down, rather ungracefully, next to Bilbo, he took a moment to just stare at the hobbit's sleeping face, trying to make his mind understand what had just been revealed to him. His dreams had recently, more and more, shifted from reclaiming Erebor, with all its bountiful gold and heritage, to simply having the halfling beside him forever. He had dreamt of going to sleep beside him and waking up the next morning, Bilbo still by his side. He had dreamt of Bilbo playing with their children by the hearth, of having Bilbo's reliable advice, always offering a different perspective, when making decisions, of eating Bilbo's meals and making him little gifts in return, pieces of jewelry that would be rich in value, but still modest enough to suit his halfling, of hours and days and months and years of having Bilbo beside him... To suddenly have all those dreams within his reach made him dizzy with joy.
Thorin wanted to remember this day forever. To that end, he would keep the braid. The flowers would wilt, but he thought he could make a good enough likeness to them by using tiny sapphires and citrines. It would be tricky work, as he was more used to working with metals and forging weapons, but he thought he could do it. He did not want to leave something like this to someone else.
Bilbo suddenly sighed in his sleep beside him, dragging his attention abruptly back to the hobbit. Wanting to share his dreams at last, the dwarf king laid a hand on the hobbit's arm without thinking, stroking lightly to wake him. He watched his beloved's face intently as his eyes sleepily fluttered open at the touch.
"We will have to wait until Dís has arrived at Erebor with the final caravan before we can marry," Thorin said apologetically the moment Bilbo seemed awake.
"I'm sorry, what?!" Bilbo's eyes suddenly flew wide open. "Marry? Dís?"
"Marry, yes, of course," the dwarf king frowned in confusion. He would have thought that was obvious, but perhaps Bilbo was still half-asleep? Maybe he shouldn't have started the conversation that way, but there was nothing for it, now. "And Dís is my sister, one of the only ones with the authority to marry me off. Well, I suppose Gandalf or Dáin could do it, but Dís would kill me if I caused her to miss my wedding, so it is just as well that she-"
"Wait, wait, hold on!" Bilbo held a hand up, and Thorin snapped his mouth shut, suddenly anxious. Had he misunderstood what Bilbo was offering?
"You are saying that you are willing to marry me? You do not want to even think it over, first?" the hobbit asked. The dwarf king searched his eyes, and found hope and a cautious joy there, instead of objection. Seeing that, he relaxed slightly.
"No, I need not think it over," he confirmed with a slight smile. Then he had a realization, winced, and berated himself for a forgetful, oblivious fool. Of course, he had forgotten... "I apologize, I forgot that you did not know." He cleared his throat and changed to a more comfortable position, avoiding Bilbo's eyes for a moment.
Thorin startled slightly when Bilbo took his hand, covering it completely (or as completely as he could, with his small hands) in both of his. Raising his eyes back to the hobbit's face, he realized that Bilbo was smiling at him gently. "What do I not know, Thorin?"
The dwarf sighed thoughtfully, wondering how to begin. After a moment of contemplation, he decided it would be best to be blunt. Dwarves were not known for their subtlety anyway. "I realized that I loved you when I almost lost you at the Misty Mountains. When you were dangling from that cliff, and my heart almost stopped... I knew."
Bilbo's eyebrows nearly got lost in his hairline as he heard that. "You mean when you said that I did not belong with the Company?" he asked incredulously.
Thorin winced at the reminder. "I... erm, panicked? A bit?" He smiled sheepishly.
Bilbo gave a great snort in response. "A bit? A little more than a bit, I'd say!" He grinned back at Thorin happily, and they spent a moment in silence, just smiling foolishly at each other.
Bilbo could not have been happier. There was just no way.
When he had given Thorin that braid, he had never truly expected this outcome. The best he had hoped for, really, was that Thorin would, after some time to think, accept a courtship. Never, not in his wildest dreams (well, alright, maybe there), had he thought that Thorin would be ready to propose marriage right away. It was... This was...
He wanted to shout with joy, to sing and dance, but he also didn't want to ruin this moment he had with Thorin, while (almost) everyone else was still sleeping - though he had seen, over Thorin's shoulder, Ori sneakily shuffling closer to them, taking notes, and Dwalin was glancing their way every other second, grinning, and didn't that look odd, but oh, it didn't matter, it just didn't, because Thorin had just said, in a roundabout way, that he loved him! Him!
Though, that did prompt the question... "Why did you never say anything?"
Thorin looked startled at the new line of conversation, but recovered after a moment. "After my behavior to you before?" He looked ashamed, and Bilbo found himself regretting his own curiosity. Of course he had to ruin the moment. He stroked Thorin's hand for a moment, in apology, and the dwarf king gently squeezed one of his own in response, granting him a brief, grateful smile before he continued, "I was going to wait until the quest was over, to have some time to show you another side of myself. A better side, hopefully. Also," he added after a moment's thought, "to have something to offer you."
Bilbo shook his head, smiling gently. "You need only offer yourself, Thorin. I ask for nothing more."
"So, there will be a marriage, then?" Thorin asked hopefully. Bilbo threw his head back in a laugh.
"Of course, Thorin, I wouldn't have braided your hair if I did not want to marry you!"
Thorin laughed with him, then captured his face for a kiss, and Bilbo tangled his hands into Thorin's hair and kissed back, laughter gentling in order to focus on the touch of Thorin's lips on his, the heat of Thorin's body against his torso, the coarse feeling of Thorin's hair under his fingers. Their noses bumped against each other's, but neither of them cared, and, melting into the kiss, Bilbo's one coherent thought was of how his morning could not have started any more perfectly.